How I Managed Multiple Teams

Without Any Formal Leadership Position — Part 1

Several months ago, I found myself in a challenging situation. The company I was working for got acquired in late 2019. When we were about to put the next major release (developed from the ground, yes!) of our software solution out into the market. Unfortunately, our new owners were not eager to make this happen, for valid reasons. Yes, it was an MVP and did not have all the boxes checked yet. It was a new product-focused at a new market segment the damage of not going to market was not considered big. It was a big thing for me and several of my teammates though. We had been working on this project for years. And several people among us changed their careers plans because of this project.

I was reluctant for this to fail in the final hour and decided I disagreed with not bringing the product to market. That turned out to be a major challenge since a new org chart was in place by then. Everything ‘new’ had to adhere to the rules and procedures of the new mothership. Instead of the small startup team, all the sudden I had to cooperate with many people. In a 1500+ person organization. Instead of walking over to R&D and reaching out to Marketing, I suddenly found myself searching where I needed to go, who I needed to talk to, who I needed to do things for me and who the true decision-makers were in the new world.

Long story short, I managed to drive and lead a project that released our MVP to selected markets. As I experienced a moment of joy, I felt I wanted to reflect on what had happened. How did I pull this off without any formal authority, team or whatsoever? How did I manage to move and influence all the people involved? Why were they motivated to follow me? A journey outside their area of responsibility?

Summing it all up, there are many methods I applied along the way. There is an overlap between them and there is no defined sequence or priority. Yet, they are pretty universal principles that you will be able to apply in a lot of situations.

Inform them

The obvious one. You don’t know what you don’t know so this is the first one. It starts with informing people, making them aware of what you are working on. Ask questions to see whether they understand what you are working. And to what extent they are willing to chime in on your ideas. I can say a whole lot more about how you should inform them but that would need a different post.

I would say that informing them is the starting point. So expect the unexpected with regards to what is coming next.

Show them where the world is heading

With or without us

Informing the others involved might resolve in right about nothing. Okay, good for you. Now you go do what I want you to work on. That is the moment when it is time for the next level of information.

Show them several macro-level trends. Make them understand how what you are working on fits within that trend. That is… If what you’re working is part of something bigger. If that is not the case, you should wonder how sustainable your next big thing will be anyhow.

Make sure to put things in the right order. And stick to the right tempo. Don’t go like “We need this new product or service because of this and that major trend.”. Instead, do it (for example) this way: “Have you considered major trend this and that and how do you think it will impact our business?”.

And stop.

Full stop. Make people think. Don’t fill things in for them. Let them make up their mind. They have to come to a point of understanding.

I had one of these experiences a few years ago. I attended a keynote in which an expert looked at the SaaS Market opportunity. The slide contained four circles, growing in size and outlining:

  • The PC market
  • The client-server market
  • The cloud market
  • The intelligent cloud market

Each circle was at least ten times as big as the previous one. And with numbers that large, it is hard to measure them. They could have pasted in any number. And yet, it triggered me. They didn’t tell me to invest in the intelligent cloud. All they showed was the potential. And left everything else to me.

Run the business case for them

A quick upfront warning: this one does not work with everybody. Not everybody is into figures and needs them to make a decision. At a point though, someone will all the sudden ask about the numbers.

Be prepared. Build a business case. The real one. I have built many business cases over the years and to me, there are two possibles ways of building them:

  • Either you build it because its needed, yet it isn’t your money you are about to invest.
  • Or you build it with the intent to convince your wife or partner to do something outrageous together.

Any business case you write based on the first principle is a matter of connecting the dots. Drawing up a lie with a proper alibi because the figures will always make up bottom-line.

Build the business case with the second mindset and it will not only look different. It will feel different. It will feel different because you don’t want to lie to your wife. Do you still believe those figures if she was to invest all your collective savings?

This comes with a side-effect. When you build the case while thinking about your wife, you tend to memorize the figures much better. And when a senior leader prompts you for the net return, it will be top of mind.

Show them the no-go scenario

I like to regard this as one of your last options. In other words: don’t use it when you don’t have to. On the other hand… it is pretty powerful to use. In this particular case, I was at a point where I was kinda stuck. I felt I was hitting walls with every step I took. Emails would remain unanswered, promised answers got delayed and more of that. Dead-end street.

That’s when I ran the figures once more. To identify a significant amount of money we were about to risk if we would not drive this forward. I gave it one more shot, sent the mail stating that, if we would not make this investment, we put x dollars at stake.

I had a response within three minutes.

And in all, that turned out to be a decisive moment. The path forward remained bumpy. A principle decision to go forward though arrived shortly after that email. My job didn’t stop there. But we will save that for another day.

The world has truly turned upside down.

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