Tony Hsieh, who died tragically a week ago, in 2013 radically overhauled the structure of Zappos where he was chief executive. Feeling that traditional org structures were no longer suited to running complex, modern businesses, he adopted a holacratic approach with “no job titles, no managers, no hierarchy.”
Keith Ferrazzi, a marketing executive turned business consultant, starts with a similar observation in his book Leading Without Authority, published this year and written with Noel Weyrich. The old rules of work don’t apply any longer—few things get accomplished in silos, the most vital projects are cross-functional, and organizations that require you to get permission from your boss won’t survive.
But Ferrazzi’s solution, unlike Hsieh’s, isn’t to blow up the structure, or obsess over making sure that reporting relationships are perfectly engineered—it’s essentially to coach individuals to ignore the structure as best as possible. “Position does not define power—impact defines power,” he quotes WW CEO Mindy Grossman as saying.
The foundations of Ferrazzi’s philosophy are familiar, and logical. Like Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People years ago, Ferrazzi exhorts individuals to stop blaming others and recognize their own power to improve their team’s work, even if they’re not a manager.
He outlines some steps:
- Identify relationships that are key to your success and that of your organization. Many times they’re defined by tension, competition, distrust, dysfunction—and our instinct is to blame the other person and walk away.
- Establish a rapport with those people, spending time to get to know them personally, asking them for feedback on your own work. This involves being genuinely interested in them, and investing a lot of time. Ferrazzi preaches “serve and share,” being generous and opening yourself up to connect with others.
- Once you’ve shifted the dynamic, enlist them in making the change that needs to happen. Ferrazzi calls this “co-elevation.” The process of getting to know them has likely even helped you understand things that might have been holding them back. (Ferrazzi counsels against giving up on people or assuming they’re lacking in talent—a welcome contrast to the sort of aggressive strengths assessments championed by Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio.)
For managers, this means acknowledging the limits of formal authority and taking the time to create personal connections with anyone you need to be successful.
There’s an abundance of practical tips:
- A few times a week, invite anyone who is frustrating you to have a cup of coffee—or presumably whatever virtual equivalent is available these days. (p. 64.)
- Make sure that you know the three or four life events that have shaped who your close colleagues are today. (p. 43)
- To connect with people, try asking them about their family, occupation, recreation, or dreams—which you can remember by the acronym FORD. (p. 88)
- Start any interaction by quickly sharing what’s on your mind personally and professionally, and then ask them what’s on theirs. (p. 89)
- Bring at least five ideas to meeting with someone that you think might be useful to them. (p. 72)
- Use a 5x5x5 process—One team member explains a problem for five minutes, colleagues ask questions about it for five minutes, and then for the final five minutes they give candid feedback. (p. 115.)
- Ask groups working on a project to air upfront the issues that are likely to stand in the way of their successfully collaborating. (p. 106)
- Ask people to anonymously rate the level of candor in the room. (p. 111)
- Send frequent emails asking for candid feedback. “What do you think we are missing?” Ferrazzi provides a template. (p. 114)
- Don’t ask “why” something happened, because it’s too easy to come off as judgemental. Ask what they thought of what happened. (p. 140)
- Always ask for feedback for yourself when you give it to someone else, even if the person is more junior than you are. (p. 136)
- Celebrate small wins—they build confidence that leads to great things. (p. 168)
Yeah, but…It’s worth being thoughtful about drawbacks to the approach Ferrazzi recommends:
- It’s easy for managers to tell people to lead without authority, because they retain a halo of authority even when they cede formal control.
- Leading effectively without authority can be harder for female and BIPOC workers because of bias. They also face obstacles to formal authority and the compensation that comes with it.
- It would be a copout to tolerate organizational illogic and dysfunction and ask individual team members to work outside of their job descriptions to make up for that. Ferrazzi does suggest that human resources teams could play large roles in activating—and presumably recognizing—leadership, which could help formalize needed changes.
- Pursuing a relationship with someone that stretches into sharing about your personal life with an eye to achieving a business goal or promotion seems calculating. (Ferrazzi insists that you need to genuinely care about them.)
- After meeting with an investor for the first time, Ferrazzi learned about the investor’s marital problems and offered to pay for a visit to a psychotherapist. (p. 68)
- Target was struggling in 2014 when Brian Cornell was named CEO. His recovery strategy focused on in-house brands, and accelerating their creation meant assembling teams outside of traditional organizational silos, such as marketing, design, operations, and legal. By 2018, it had paid off. (p. 99)
- An ad executive friend of Ferrazzi’s calls, texts, and emails a rotating list of nearly 100 clients and associates to praise and celebrate them. When needed, he’ll check out their social media for things to celebrate. (p. 160)
- “Who are the most critical people to help you achieve your goals right now, whether or not they are currently aligned to your org chart? These are your team.” (p. 25)
- “The age of radical interdependence requires us to engage in these kinds of deeper, richer collaborations with people we often have no control over in order to fulfill our mission and move the organization forward.” (p. 24)
- “In the end, you need to own the decision whether you want to have successful relationships with your coworkers, bosses, clients, or partners.” (p. 50)
- “The bottom line is that to lead effectively, your teammates must feel that you care about them.” (p. 75)
- “Millennials are the largest generation in today’s workforce, so it’s a lot less expensive to pass out compliments, medals, and ribbons than to absorb the costly turnover when all your top talent abandons ship. And frankly, the desire for recognition among millennials lifts all boats.” (p. 167)
- “The old model—the heroic leader taking command—was never very realistic, and now it’s obsolete. The team must serve the team, and the leader’s role is to facilitate that co-elevation.”—Audible CEO Bob Carrigan (p. 179)
Apt historical quote cited:
- Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Always do what you are afraid to do.”
The bottom line is that Leading Without Authority is even more timely right now, as traditional org structures have faded with the pragmatic approaches required during remote work and shifting markets. The emphasis on making genuine connections to colleagues is harder, but arguably more important in this moment. And we know from surveys that workers crave feedback and recognition, and feel they’re getting even less than before—sapping morale and loyalty. The book’s strength is just how tactical it is—including providing example dialogue, group exercises, and emails—in addressing these problems.
All page numbers referenced above are to the hardcover edition. You can buy Leading Without Authority at Bookshop.org or Amazon. (We may make a commission when you buy a book.)
Watch a video where Ferrazzi discusses his philosophy.