“There are usually about five people at a company that make all the important decisions.” The Inscrutable Mad Men of Silicon Valley, Businessweek, September 26-October 2, 2011, page 49.
I use to believe this. Instead, I’ve found too many organizations that didn’t really seem to have functional leadership. This situation, however, is often an opportunity for the project manager to exercise some needed initiative. We can get things done because more senior management is either distracted or otherwise roadblocked by other senior leaders competing against their initiatives.
Most of the big changes I’ve made in project management and organizations didn’t come when I had a fancy title and a corner office. Instead they came when I was buried in the organization and was just trying to change one or two simple but critical things. Part of it was also that I was in a good place at a good time when the organization needed someone to take action, and so I took the initiative.
In some cases the most senior managers had to work through agents to influence the organization (kind of like Norse gods). One of my best “helps” was when one VP would say to other managers “what did Bruce think about this?” That subtle question gave me influence, aimed people my way, because they knew that the senior manager wanted my assurance that something proposed made sense. The VP didn’t have to express a particular position or push an agenda. Instead she would send them my way because she knew what I was trying to do and where I stood on certain issues and they matched her own interests.
One of my most cherished moments was when a CIO, standing next to me as we listened to a presentation, said very casually to me: “I would never have believed that any one person could accomplish so much in such a short period of time.” I was able to earn such a compliment in large part because that CIO, while fighting the immobilizing organizational politics, allowed me to step into the leadership vacuum and do things that needed to be done. He didn’t have to actively support what I was doing, only act as the arbiter of competing initiatives and let things fall my way when it was how he wanted things to go. If I had not been independently taking the initiative he would have had less options to choose from when making decisions.
We all often complain about the inability of more senior management to provide clear leadership and guidance in all the areas where we want such guidance. However, these situations are often opportunities for us to exercise leadership, regardless of our level in the organization. Take the initiative in these situations, and we may find we have more support and can get more done than if we waited for formal guidance.
Have you ever taken the initiative without first getting formal approval from more senior management?