Java with Joe: You May Not Manage Any People, But You Can Still be a Servant Leader.

First, I want to wish all of you a very Happy New Year. It’s a safe bet that at least on the national front, we’ll be confronted with a fair amount of turbulence in 2019, but I hope we can all find ways to reach out to one another and treat one another with a bit more patience, a bit more kindness.  

In the places where we work, the stress of trying to perform at the highest level sometimes leads to very different behavior. A close friend of mine­—let’s call her Linda—is a 33-year old graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, currently working as a Marketing Manager in a mid-size professional services firm. Articulate and quick witted, Linda has real executive presence, and she has consistently been recognized and rewarded by the firm for her outstanding performance. She’s also a good corporate citizen, willingly going the extra mile to take on activities that are not part of her core responsibilities.

But as the old saying goes, “There are always ants at the picnic.”

In Linda’s case, she’s been finding it difficult to work as collaboratively as she would like with some of the firm’s business development people. Her job is to promote the company and its offerings, and she needs the input of those folks do that job as effectively as possible. All too often, however, as Linda says, “I ask them to turn something in… but because they don’t see it as part of their core business line and it doesn’t directly affect their bottom line, they’re less engaged.”

For her part, Linda is reluctant to push too hard. As she says, “These people don’t report to me. They’re at the same level in the company as I am, and most of them are actually older than I am, with longer tenure at the firm. So my leverage is really pretty limited.”

This is a common problem for people whose success depends on people who don’t actually report to them. This includes people in staff roles who don’t actually manage people, even if their title says Manager, Director, or VP. It also includes people who do have direct reports, but whose roles have a significant cross-functional component. In other words, it’s a common problem for lots of folks.

I’ve faced this problem many times myself. As Chief Human Resources Officer, for example, I had direct influence over the HR folks, but in order to move the ball forward on many major initiatives, I needed the cooperation and buy-in of senior leaders in other functions and areas of the business. Like Linda, I often felt as if my leverage was somewhat limited.

But that doesn’t mean that you have no leverage. If and when you find yourself in this sort of situation, my advice is to remember that even if you’re not a manager, you can still be a leader—a Servant Leader. Instead of focusing so much on how these other people could help you, try to focus more on how you might help them. In Linda’s case, for example, if she focuses on the fact that she needs—and isn’t getting­—the cooperation of these other people, she’s likely to grow more and more resentful of them, and more and more dissatisfied with her job. That’s not a great place to be.

But what if she focused more on the fact that by doing a better job of promoting the company and its offerings, she’s making it easier for them to attract and retain clients. In other words, she’s in a position to really serve those people and help them “raise the bar” and succeed. With that in mind, her challenge becomes not how to manage those people or how to push them into giving her what she needs. Instead, the challenge becomes figuring out how to help them see that she wants to help them­—that she is actually in a position to help them.

How to do that? It starts with a conversation, even a brief one­—a conversation in which Linda does much more listening than talking. Ask what the other person needs from Marketing in order to drive more business to the firm. Ask what potential clients want to know about the firm or a new offering—what kind of information is most likely to pique their interest. Then, at the right moment, maybe offer to come back with a new promotional idea based on the person’s input and ask if they’d be willing to provide feedback.

This approach won’t always work. Let’s face it: some people are too wrapped up in themselves to engage in real collaboration with others, even when that would benefit them in significant ways. They think they’re too busy or their work is too important; sometimes they’re just afraid of having someone else get credit for anything. But in my experience, most people will collaborate in a meaningful way when the opportunity to do so is presented to them in the right way.

So, as we move into this new year, why not look for ways to be a true Servant Leader, even when—and maybe even especially when—you’re working with folks you don’t actually manage. If you can build those kinds of mutually supportive relationships, you’ll not only be more successful, you’ll also find going to work a much more satisfying experience. And remember, it all starts with a simple conversation.

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