Beyond expertise: How to get people to lead without authority

Leadership Blog  |  4 minute read

Sara Moore

Written by Sara Moore

Beyond expertise: How to get people to lead without authority

Until people are leaders by name, they are leaders by action, by influence, by personal power. Everyone has this to one degree or another. And in some organisations, particularly in a matrix structure, that power is what greases the wheels and gets them turning. 


If you’re trying to create a breakthrough, you need everyone to show up. If that personal power is restrained in any way, opportunities can be missed, breakdowns can be overlooked. And if everyone stays within the safety of their area of expertise, a collective commitment to breakthrough may even be derailed.


We often hear companies doubling down on the RACI matrix structures to get very clear roles and responsibilities in place.  This is important particularly in high intensity, risk and regulated industries – imagine a Formula 1 pitstop crew or an operating theatre team without such clarity!  But if held too tightly these structures can restrict collaboration and restrain the diversity of thought and creative solution finding that should be the benefit of working cross-functionally in the first place. After all, customers are asking tough questions of businesses these days, so we need our people to collaborate on particular outcomes that we don’t have a track record of achieving in the past.


How we misinterpret our role


For instance, in a pharmaceutical company, the heavy hitters in terms of funding are often the scientists working in the lab. The marketing team and finance team also might have a seemingly elevated status in the organization, as they generate leads and look after money.


In their own fields, it’s likely they know how to hold their own. And it’s possible to have very successful relationships with each group simply offering their expertise to the other.

However, this can be at the expense of curiosity, innovation or even empathy, across groups. 


When people stay within their primary perspective (the medical perspective, the technological perspective, the compliance perspective, etc), their personal power has perimeters that may not always be helpful. Experts in one field might refrain from saying anything when they spot opportunities that could spark innovation in another.


Confidence as a non expert


Collaborating across boundaries isn’t always easy. Working alongside experts from different functions and professions than ourselves can be challenging, especially if you have very different views on what is happening or what is possible and not possible for the future!  We have to trust in our colleagues expertise of course but we at times need to challenge assumptions and blind spots that even the best of us have.  This requires us to create a particular set of relationships across the boundaries that allow for challenge and testing of current thinking.


Under and overcompensation


The pendulum can also swing the other way, and drive everything to a grinding holt of consensus.   This is where single accountability is critical which is initially paradoxical to collaboration.  When one person is assigned to make the difficult decisions, they must collaborate more to ensure they have gathered all the relevant information and data to make the right decision.



Facts vs Interpretation


There is often a disconnect in our minds between cold hard facts and our interpretations. In a matrix structure, when people are leading without authority, that disconnect may appear in the form of what they think you should know instead of what they actually need to know.


People often gauge their understanding of a subject by how confident they feel about it. But instead of asking themselves “how confident am I in this?” people could ask themselves, “how certain am I about what I do know?”


They may not be confident enough to deliver a presentation to the company about what they see, but they will probably know enough to be able to pose an insightful question. And that question may be all that is needed to prevent a project from hitting a breakdown. 


Calling out breakdowns


While we can get comfortable in our expertise, beyond it we can develop a kind of imposter syndrome. It probably won’t manifest as fully fledged anxiety and a person may not even be conscious of it. It’ll just show up in the odd unsaid suggestion or the question left unposed.


The quickest cure for this ailment is for people to call out breakdowns as soon as they see them. Part of what we can do here as leaders is to set a culture where calling out breakdowns is valued. 


The key to this is commitment. A problem finder is someone who simply tells you why something won’t work, while a breakdown spotter will identify a hitch and commit to finding the answer. So we’re not advocating naysayers here. But if your people are scanning for breakdowns that could prevent results, with a commitment to do something about it, they’ll move the organisation forward.


In many ways, this is about recognising that everyone can take 100% responsibility for the outcome. A partnership does not split responsibility 50/50, and a matrix structure does not divide ownership of a problem into smaller segments. To achieve results beyond the predictable, your people need to bring the whole of their personal power to the table. And when they do, you’re no longer adding everyone’s expertise together. You’re multiplying it.


Looking to create an impossible future? Get in touch to explore how we can help you ignite your ambitions.




Published 29/06/2022

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