Which is more challenging: the internal organizational resistance or market resistance?
A portion of my work is spent with cohorts of upwardly mobile, mid-senior leaders who are developing their growth programs as part of their commitment to professional development. One of them asked me this question during a recent coaching session, and as usual, it was a question from the white hot, front lines of a growing organization that led to great insights.
The inconvenient truth is that many growth initiatives that would fare well in the external market are prematurely extinguished inside firms when caught in the complex web of internal politics, barriers to resources and budget turf wars.
I recall specifically a time when I was pitching a growth program for resources when the then COO of our firm told me quite clearly that if this didn’t work out, I would be on the outside looking in. It’s this kind of resistance that we need to be able to push through if we’re going to thrive. (PS – it did work out)
Helping Growth Leaders develop their skills in both dealing with inside the company resistance and marketplace pushback is critical to not only their career success, but the organization’s success as well.
This set of skills in our Complete Growth Leader competency system are taken from the “influencer” and “challenger” branches of the model. Influencer relates to those skills of lateral and vertical influence, where the Growth Leader can make a confident and effective case for the work needed to build a new product or service in the face of powerful organizational resistance. Challenger skills allow the Growth Leader to have the persistence and critical thinking skills to drill down into those areas of disagreement and find a path forward that balances discovery and risk reduction.
So what does building these skills look like in a day-to-day sense for leaders? Let me share a couple of key areas along with some short experiential applications:
1) Play the long game – When you are a growth leader in a firm, you are always on the prowl for talented, cross-functional team members. Just as a pro golfer keeps notes on each golf course, you need to keep notes on people who impress you both inside and outside your firm. When it comes time to make the case and press through the resistance, you’ll have the rolodex and the relationships that can help you pull together teams that carry the day.
To this day, I still keep in touch with key members of the breakthrough teams I had the privilege to lead. By periodically checking in to see if you can help, you are setting yourself and your firm up for long-term successful execution. When you need the extra nudge or insight, this network of top 10’ers always comes through.
2) Develop great sponsor relationships – Great internal work always requires sponsorship and air cover. This too is best put in place well in advance of need. Do not underestimate the power of having a great upward relationship with so-called staff roles such as legal, IT, HR and the like. When it comes time to find a wise person, you can gain a great deal of insight from members of the senior leadership team who are not core P&L owners. That being said, it’s also important to develop some “across the aisle” contacts with sales and operations, as well.
It’s very important to learn the cycles of your firm so you know when you can ask for risk-related capital…and when it’s off the table. Your ability to judge well and have great timing will come from your casual senior-level contacts.
3) Flirt – Be provocative, push the boundaries of the status quo and see how people respond. Every leader I coach does this in his or her unique way, but all of them are able to “move the boundary back” to get room for themselves and their team to be able to do the work of experimentation that leads to growth. This delicate balance of earning freedom through performance is key to managing up and getting the freedom you need to do some of that early validation of your new and useful hypothesis for growth programs.
4) Keep your powder dry – Doing the heavy lifting of growth leadership is hard work, so before you put all your chips on the table, do what I call a Phase 0. Use your intuition and your contacts to put together a back of the envelope business case and test it. You can do this with a series of coffee conversations that tease out benchmarks, timing, customers who might be open to a beta event, etc. By doing this work beforehand, you can avoid using up your political capital on ideas that just don’t have the legs to move forward.
There is an old saying in the aircraft design community: “If the politics don’t fly, neither does the airplane.” The same is true for our work to grow our firms from the inside out. If you want to see your ideas flow to the market, you need to develop a skillful inside game.
So what’s the answer to the question I posed in the opening? You might glean from my emphasis on the internal organization that that’s my bias…and you’d be right. It’s the not-so-subtle internal resistance of many firms that keep them from looking for the new jobs to be done that would allow them to form products and services in higher-margin niches.
If you would like to know more about the tools and processes I use to diagnose and coach growth program leaders and teams, please give me a call at 847-651-1014 or click here to set up a no-strings-attached phone call.
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