Are You in the Zone? The Making of an Effective Leader


I’ve been working with the senior team of a large public firm on developing vibrancy in their growth and renewal programs.  One of the executives is ready to take the key role in leading a large scale new initiative with enterprise level impact, and asked me for some coaching on how the task changes from their more comfortable role in the BU.

It’s no surprise that organizations are very complex politically.  There are gatekeepers at many points in the firm that have developed a much larger power base than their formal title or org chart position might reflect.  There are more ways to take wrong turns than correct ones – so how to choose?

For my growth coaching program, I use a structure of four zones of influence:

  • Personal is the zone of the individual and the work we need to do on our mindset to understand how we show up in the world.  
  • Interpersonal is the next layer of influence and involves the skills we use in individual interactions to develop productive relationships.  
  • The third zone is the work we do as groups, and the complexity and opportunity present when we work together in teams.  
  • Finally, the fourth zone is enterprise, and that is working on a scale of influence that includes multiple business units and perhaps whole industry segments.

By far the biggest step is moving from the group to the enterprise level, because rather than growing up in a new team, you are entering ecosystems that have their own evolved complex power and influence structures that you have not seen form.

The basis of influence at this level is a fine balance of careful communication, narrative development and judicious use of formal power.  Developing and aligning your work to the master narrative of the firm (what is the best and highest service of all the stakeholders), is the key to having the ability to influence action.  Clearly developing these narratives, ideally collaboratively, is essential to building efforts that succeed.  Formal power is reserved only for the thorniest of issues, and only when diplomacy has been exhausted.

The truth is that every underlying influence skill area that is “just good enough” at your current level will be challenged and exposed when moving up to the next level of challenge.  Every time your work takes a bigger stage, you need to go back and look at the four zones to improve your foundational skills.  In most organizations with organic growth programs, there are predictable points of resistance, for example when a funding need occurs for customer research, or the first pilot run of the product or service needs to occur.  By noting where this happens in the cycle, you can zero in on which stage you need to build strength in.  It’s no accident that world-class athletes spend more time on the fundamentals than their less-skilled peers – that’s where the game is won and lost.

Getting back to our executive above, through our work together, I was able to identify three key tactical activities she could use to increase her ability to make an impact. Here’s how to give them a try in your own work:

  1. Reduce the frontal area of the program.  Frontal area is a figure used for vehicles that tow trailers to show just how much wind resistance will be developed when towing the vehicle.  Many times growth leaders are attempting to put forward a program that is shaped like a billboard and the amount of resistance generated is huge.  By finding a smaller pilot piece of the larger vision to complete, you can have a much higher probability of a successful outcome.  The key, is to have the maximum amount of learning from the smallest disruption.  Once the pilot is complete, you can build on that momentum to flesh out the bigger vision.
  2. Develop you own influence map – starting upside down.  I learned a great lesson early in my career from then Motorola President and CEO, George Fisher.  George had just come on board and was to complete his first leadership session of the flagship business group, with the meeting starting at 9am.  This was a big deal, and we had been “practicing” our presentations for several days.  On the day of, George arrived at 7:30am and entered through the loading dock of the plant, doing impromptu skip level chats all the way from the back door to the executive conference room on “management row.”  Needless to say, everyone on the factory floor would have walked across glass for George, and second, based on his grass roots insight, he asked really good and relevant questions.  The point of this story is to do the same for you and your project – find those who are in overlooked portions of the firm and listen to them.  Then, sketch your own influence map.  You will find that getting things done is immensely easier when you understand the “soft” power structures in your firm.
  3. Test your “asks” with the “wingman.”  Become practiced at the art of influence mapping around key senior leaders.  All accomplished people have 3-5 key members of their team that are called on to provide counsel, advice and collaboration.  By spending time with the appropriate member of the group, you can get early feedback, and most importantly, understand objections early.  The coaching here is to approach the most resistant part of the group first, to suss out the toughest work to be done.  Once complete, the other resistance will be much less challenging.

My work in helping firms develop durable differential advantage in people and projects takes me all over the world and puts me in contact with many leaders who are shaping growth in their firms.  If you would like to have a short chat about how to approach your strategic challenge, give me a call at 847-651-1014 or send me a note.

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