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Leading and Succeeding Where Organizational Boundaries Are Unclear

These are the gray zones—visible an irritating to all—where authority and responsibility are muddled.

I’ve long believed learning to lead in the gray-zone inside organizations is a great approach for creating value, standing out, and getting ahead in your career. Of course, it comes with some risks. Here are some ideas to help you grow your influence and success while helping others around you succeed.

The Gray-Zone Idea

Every organization has gray-zones—these are the spaces that exist somewhere between functional, divisional, or positional boundaries. It’s no one’s land, yet the issues spanning the gray-zone are visible and often vexing to all parties. Gray-zone items include process or communication problems, cross-functional collaboration challenges, and any strategic or change initiatives that demand coordination across different groups.

Your challenge and your opportunity are to cultivate the communication, networking, and political skills essential for success with gray-zone issues.

Issues Hide in Plain Sight

You don’t have to look too far or too hard to find gray zone problems. They’re hiding in plain sight in most organizations. A few examples include:

  • Opportunities to collaborate across functions or business units to increase sales or customer service quality
  • Opportunities to share technology across business units where different development teams are often creating complementary or even redundant offerings
  • Preparing an organization to succeed with a new service or product offering
  • Coordinating strategic initiatives that require cross-functional execution
  • Eliminating or improving long-standing cross-group processes that are no longer essential or effective
  • Communication and coordination issues of all sizes and shapes

Beware the Potential Pitfalls

Whenever you are proposing something new or different, you run the risk of tripping all over yourself. Here are a few of the pitfalls to sidestep:

Don’t pick on a perceived inefficient or obsolete process or way of doing things without recognizing someone in a position of authority is invested in that methodology. A key stakeholder might see your good idea as an indictment or attack.

Your idea to bring different groups together to collaborate might steps all over some manager’s view of their turf and boundaries. Suggesting a change to these boundaries might be met with fierce resistance.

Your noble idea to do something jointly might fly in the face of how people are measured and compensated. They might agree with you, but shrug their shoulders and then revert to what feeds them.

That grass-roots support you hear from your peers will likely disappear once an executive pushes back at what is perceived as a distraction from the “real priorities” of the team.

10 Tips for Leading in the Gray Zone

Successful gray-zone leaders understand they are dependent upon the support of others, particularly those with decision-making authority. They work hard to earn credibility by engaging, involving, and empowering others in pursuit of making meaningful improvements. Succeeding in this environment draws heavily upon your social and communication skills.

Some of the best gray-zone leaders I’ve encountered draw upon these 10 essential approaches for success:

1. They cultivate a track-record over time that shows their focus is on strengthening the organization, not grandstanding for personal gain.

2. They choose opportunities that move the performance needle in the right direction.

3. They do their homework to understand the background and context of current systems, processes, and approaches. Armed with these insights, they uncover interests and engage others in building toward these interests.

4. They focus on understanding and supporting the priorities of their up-line managers. They don’t go off chasing dragons without enlisting sponsorship.

5. They approach every opportunity clear in the understanding they must gain support—often from multiple stakeholders and power-brokers. They use empathy and positive persuasion to gain support.

6. They grow comfortable engaging at all levels of an organization and across functional or business unit boundaries.

7. They tune-in to strategic and executive imperatives and identify gray-zone issues that will accelerate the pursuit of these items.

8. They work as network connectors, striving to bring the right talent to bear on the issues.

9. They create a reciprocity deficit with others, offering help before asking for it. (This common-sense approach is one of my favorite great habits of successful leaders and contributors at all levels.)

10. They make heroes out of the individuals around them, increasing loyalty, and growing their influence in the process.

The bottom line for now: Leading in the gray zone demands courage, creativity, and a genuine desire to make a difference. It’s a process for cultivating influence and then applying it to strengthen the organization while empowering and supporting those involved in the efforts. There are risks, but in my experience, the biggest threat comes from failing to try and make a difference. What are the gray-zone issues in plain sight staring at you?