Virtually every senior leader we advise must work across silos to achieve their business objectives. Yet if you’re one of the leaders who’s tried to get something done in today’s highly matrixed environment, you know that the toughest audience isn’t your direct reports or even your CEO. It’s your peers.

That “one team, one dream” approach sounds great until you try to put it into practice. Different priorities, incentives, processes, and customers—not to mention the crush of enterprise-wide change initiatives, heightened expectations for speed, constrained resources, and a disruptive global environment—mean that everyone feels like they and their teams are already working at their limit. It all makes getting peer support, not to mention resources, a steep climb.

Take the example of Catherine, an SVP of Operations at a global consumer products company. Her CEO asked her to take a successful process improvement program that had led to more profitable, predictable sales in her own business unit and deploy it across the whole company. The CEO saw this as a big priority with a lot of potential to improve the company’s overall performance and expected Catherine to spearhead the effort. But rolling out this program was going to require a number of business unit heads to buy in and lead the effort in their respective organizations.

Catherine carefully packaged up the idea, laid out what the other teams needed to do and then presented it to the business heads. She was surprised and discouraged at the reaction she received. While they agreed with the project conceptually, they didn’t see how it would deliver the same value in their businesses. They had their own initiatives with different customers and strategic goals to deliver. Some felt ambushed or annoyed at being asked. She was at a bit of a loss as to how to move forward without their involvement and asked for our help in thinking through how she could partner more effectively with her colleagues. And she was still on the hook by the CEO who was impatiently waiting to get the project rolling.

3 Things That Get in the Way of Partnering

As we analyzed the situation together, Catherine was able to realize that 3 things were getting in the way of her moving forward.

  1.   Looking at full collaboration as the only way to work with peers
    Catherine was getting stuck on what she was seeking and expecting from her colleagues. She was looking for the other business units to join in and collaborate fully by contributing resources and working together with her and her team to move the program forward. When the other business units weren’t interested or actively resisted, she couldn’t see a way forward.

  2.    Coming to the partnership with ideas already fully formed
    Another problem we uncovered in Catherine’s approach was that she went out to her colleagues with a fully baked program, asking them to collaborate on something they knew little about, were not involved in planning, and which would have a clear impact on their teams. She had not considered the full implications for other business units of taking on her program – however great it was and however much the CEO was on board.

  3.    Failing to manage the expectations of the CEO
    Catherine’s CEO had only one thought regarding the initiative that she asked Catherine to spearhead: it seemed like a really good idea for the whole company. Excited by the opportunity to have a bigger impact, Catherine jumped on the CEO’s suggestion. She came back to the CEO with a presentation on an enterprise-wide implementation and agreed to help with the messaging around it at the next employee all-hands meeting. Unfortunately, the CEO’s enthusiasm for the project sowed the first seeds of resistance. Catherine had skipped the opportunity to gather initial input on the project from her peers.

6 Ways to Reframe the Path to Partnering

The answer comes in the way of defining – or redefining – success when it comes to partnering. Here are 6 steps to avoid Catherine’s predicament and get more from partnering with your peers.

  1. Involve your colleagues and potential partners at the start.
    Make them part of your thought process right from the conception. Prepare an outline of your initial ideas and a series of questions to fully understand their perspectives, concerns, and priorities. The goal of the first meeting should be only to understand—not to persuade.

  2. Be upfront about your agenda.
    Be clear about what you want this project to accomplish, your vision for the enterprise, and where you need help, input and buy-in.

  3. Start by asking for collaboration if you need it…but have alternate paths to get to the goal.
    Go into the conversations with your peers seeking their collaboration and letting them know your preference would be to work together.

  4. Pivot to a consulting mindset if you need to.
    If you get resistance, make it clear you still plan to move forward but want to be sure you fully understand the impact points on your colleagues’ organizations. If Catherine had considered this approach, she would have gone to her business colleagues with something like this message instead. “I am considering rolling out this initiative. I have just started to think about the approach, and would love to share my initial thinking, get your input on what this might look like in your business, and what impacts it might have on you and your team. Ideally, I would like to work together with you on this initiative if you can, but if you can’t, I would like your advice and input up front so that this ultimately works for you and your team.”

  5. Assess and address downstream effects.
    Use the input you receive to put together a perspective that includes the interdependencies with, and real impacts on, your peer organizations. Leverage this enterprise view to educate and manage the expectations of the CEO.

  6. Tap into outside perspectives.
    Whether from an executive coach, a trusted industry colleague, or another source, if you’re stuck when it comes to partnering, an objective view can help you rise above the internal frustrations and pressures to find a new path to engaging your peers.

Ultimately we were able to work with Catherine to help her reboot the project and recraft her approach to partnering. The objective perspective we gave her enabled her to step back and see a clearer path, and a more effective one to partner with her peers and colleagues. Ultimately, as the wins began to pile up, Catherine’s ideas gained momentum as did the company’s sales.

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