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Co-Elevation: How To Achieve Positive Leadership Impact Without Pre-Established Authority

“Your job as a leader is not to lead as an individual, but to foster the environment of co-elevation amongst your team. That’s the key, because your team needs to become co-elevators of each other.”

Have you ever worked with someone who doesn’t have official “authority” per se, but seems to have great positive influence, and moves big and important projects—and the people on these projects—forward in ways that those at far more senior levels can’t seem to do?

In my corporate life, I observed these types of individuals at work, and marveled at how they somehow managed to bring others together and collaborate powerfully towards a shared vision, and sparked movement and co-created progress where everyone involved succeeded, as did the project at hand.

Now more than ever, in our new paradigm where we’re working remotely and collaborating virtually to accomplish key goals, we need new ways to foster high levels of contribution and engagement. And we need to understand how to bring out the best in all individual contributors and team members.

To learn more about helping individuals without pre-established “authority” generate positive impact, and how to improve remote teamwork that is so important today, I was excited to catch up with Keith Ferrazzi on my Finding Brave podcast last week, to discuss his new book Leading Without Authority: How the New Power of Co-Elevation Can Break Down Silos, Transform Teams, and Reinvent Collaboration. In our talk, Ferrazzi explored how “co-elevation” as he calls it is a key foundational behavior that we can all use to lead, connect, and elevate ourselves and others powerfully and effectively, even without pre-established authority. 

A powerful quote he shared was this:

“Your job as a leader is not to lead as an individual, but to foster the environment of co-elevation amongst your team. That’s the key, because your team needs to become co-elevators of each other.”

Keith Ferrazzi is recognized as a global thought leader in the relational and collaborative sciences. As Chairman of Ferrazzi Greenlight and its Research Institute, he works to identify behaviors that block global organizations from reaching their goals and to transform them by coaching new behaviors that increase growth and shareholder value.

New York Times #1 bestselling author of Who’s Got Your Back and Never Eat Alone, as well as a frequent contributor to Harvard Business ReviewForbesFortune, and many other leading publications, Ferrazzi has gained over 20 years of experience, from the C-Suite to founding his own companies, and distilled those years and experiences into practices and solutions he brings to every engagement.

 

Here’s what Ferrazzi shares:

Kathy Caprino: First, Keith, based on your experiences, how can we communicate and collaborate more effectively in remote teams?

Keith Ferrazzi: Our firm has spent millions of dollars researching this question. The short answer is that a lot has to do with leadership. It’s smart to put a “communication contract” in place so that everyone knows, for instance, that emails are expected to be returned within a day and text messages are reserved for urgent communications. Explicitly “re-contracting” the group’s social norms in this way is a good idea for all collaboration, but it’s especially important with remote teams.

Leaders themselves should err on the side of over-communicating on a remote team, Be explicit. Give people tangible action items when you can because they don’t see you on a day-to-day basis. For the same reason, videoconferences are better than conference calls—although there are good ways and bad ways to do videoconferences. Keep them small as possible and spend at least 50% of the time in each videoconference devoted to collaborative problem-solving, so the meeting is much more than a parade of updates and report-outs.

 

Caprino: Why do some remote teams fail, while others succeed?

Ferrazzi: Here’s a big factor to look at. Most people assume that if a group is given a set of defined goals with group member roles left vague, it encourages collaboration to get to the goal. Research has shown the opposite is true. It’s actually better to have people with defined roles assigned to solve a problem with no clear solution. When people are secure in their roles, they can work independently towards the group’s mission and then help contribute to creatively collaborating toward the solution.

Collaborative teams keep getting larger and more complex, so it’s important in those cases to manage the size of sub-groups, sometimes in a tier-like structure, with a core group responsible for strategy and important decisions, a middle operational group, and an outer group of largely part-time specialists brought in at particular stages.

Collaboration is a learned behavior. It doesn’t come naturally, so the more deliberately you structure the norms of communication, the better.

 

Caprino: What about accountability? How can we best keep ourselves, and our teammates, accountable in a virtual environment?

Ferrazzi:  I have a simple answer for leaders who ask how they can make sure their people are productive: You can’t. There aren’t enough hours in the day to check up on them.

Instead, team leaders need to encourage a mutual sense of responsibility and peer-to-peer accountability. You make the entire team responsible for everyone achieving and “crossing the finish line together.” If one team member is slacking off or overwhelmed with a problem, it’s everyone’s responsibility to bring that team member back into the fold. Again, this needs to be explicitly re-contracted, otherwise team members will fall back into the traditional idea that a colleague’s performance is only the concern of their supervisor.

A good model is the agile methodology employed by software developers. By working toward clear intermediate goals during “sprints” between meetings, teams develop a framework of peer-to-peer accountability. There’s also a small-group breakout process I call “bulletproofing,” because it accentuates candor and accountability in groups of three (ideal size for enhanced expressions of candor) which then report back to the larger group.

 

Caprino: What can we do to maintain or build our personal relationships while working in a virtual environment?

Ferrazzi: Leaders can set the tone for personal connections within a new project by giving everyone a virtual tour of their office during the video kick-off video meeting. We also recommend that every meeting begin with what we call a personal-professional check-in. Everyone takes a turn sharing the one big thing on their mind personally and professionally. It’s a good way to develop a team spirit of empathy and vulnerability, and you also give team members an appropriate venue to let everyone know when they are having serious issues and could use some help. 

 

Caprino: Let’s talk about your findings on leading without authority. How can people lead best without having pre-established authority?

Ferrazzi: I’ve written a whole book about the subject because I believe that the ability to lead without authority is becoming the most valuable workplace competency you can have. You need to take stock of who inside the organization, or outside, is necessary for getting your work done. Whether you realize it or not, that’s your team—everyone critical to helping you achieve your mission and goals.

Leading without authority means it’s all on you to get to know these team members and take care of them the way you would any of your assigned direct reports. You need to earn their permission to take the lead, to collaborate with them, to grow with them, and achieve your goals together. Employers need us to take initiative, seize opportunities and build value this way, because almost all of the important transformative work today is getting done in cross-functional teams where authority is so dispersed that leading without authority is an indispensable skill.

 

Caprino: What does it mean to co-elevate?

Ferrazzi: Leading without authority describes a new organizational model and mindset. Co-elevation is the operating system for succeeding at it. The name refers to its guiding ethos of “going higher together.” You build co-elevating relationships with your teammates by collaborating and problem-solving with them in partnerships and self-organizing teams.

Say there’s some problematic process or system within your workplace that’s impeding your ability to get your work done. You invite a colleague, maybe from another department, into a co-elevating relationship to address the problem together.

I’ve seen how the power of co-elevation can break down silos and transform teams. The commitment to “go higher together” creates the psychological safety necessary to have tough debates, give candid feedback and hold each other to mutual accountability. Co-elevation takes a certain amount of empathy, generosity, and courage but the benefits are amazing.

The results created by these trusting co-elevating relationships often far exceed what’s normally accomplished through typical collaborative efforts.

 

Caprino: Finally, do you think the recent transition to remote work will have a lasting impact on the way we work in general?

Ferrazzi: I hope so.  With everyone’s webcams on, the new virtual working environment we now operate in is drawing teams far closer together than a boardroom ever could. We get to see inside each other’s homes, and we’re able to bring more of our authentic selves to the job.

We should use this opportunity to re-contract with each other and create new, more productive social norms at work. Now is the moment for leaders to host a virtual meeting with their locked-down teams and ask them, “What recent behaviors and practices do we want to retain and what do we not want to go back to?”

Before it’s too late, I’d like to see us make the most of this crisis and use it for the purpose of creating a brighter post-lockdown future.

 

For more information, visit Leading Without Authority.

To develop more leadership influence and authority in your own career, work with Kathy Caprino in her Career Breakthrough programs and read her new book The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss.

Originally published at Forbes

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