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Lessons from Managing Nobody

Lessons from Managing Nobody

I spend my days discussing leadership qualities with executives of every stripe. And, at times, with non-executives – with people whose job it is to manage absolutely no one.

Sure, the content of the conversation changes based on what a person’s role is within the organization. But much of the big-picture context – the focus on creating alignment and maximizing performance – isn’t really all that different.

Why? Let’s find out.

Practicing Leadership

Here’s an important tip for everyone out there who either

  • Doesn’t manage anyone
  • Manages people who don’t manage anyone

The greatest training ground for leadership is a job with 0 reports.

Fact is, the true essence of good leadership is getting people engaged – creating in others the desire to perform. It’s not just about doing what’s required.

Imagine that you’re heading up a meeting of people who report to you. You explain a course of action, and everyone nods their heads. You walk away thinking the team’s on board.

Later, you find out that no one in that meeting put forth much effort because they thought the approach was ill-conceived.

What happened? You made a classic management mistake: you mistook compliance for alignment.

Now imagine that you have 0 people reporting to you. When you’re not the boss, compliance doesn’t happen. Your only option is alignment.

The Nonexistent Parity of Authority and Responsibility

Remember that (untrue) management theory you learned in business textbooks, known as the parity of authority and responsibility? It claims that you can’t hold someone responsible for something if they don’t have authority over it.

This is where all the sales reps laugh out loud. Because if anything goes wrong with an order – delivery, quality, specs, anything – the customer holds the sales person’s feet to the fire. And what if sales are lost because of these problems? The boss holds the sales person responsible for poor numbers.

This example reveals why the sales role is a good training ground for leadership. Sales folks learn early that it’s essential to get others signed on, aligned, engaged – even when no one reports to them.

But they’re certainly not the only ones. There are plenty of other roles in the organization where results come from building ownership – rather than from a “boss” title:

  • The quality director operating alone needs engineering and manufacturing people signed on to his effort
  • The new product person needs design, operations, financial-analysis, and sales people tuned into her design and launch efforts
  • What else should we add to this list? How does your role require you to build ownership among colleagues and others?

The fact is, most every day, each person in your organization is presented with an opportunity to practice building alignment. And that’s a skill that can change more than the future of 1 career. It can change entire companies.

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