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At a recent meeting of the leadership learning group I belong to, Kingston-based consultant Rob Wood noted that “increasingly today, to accomplish critical goals, leaders must lead outside as well as inside their own organizations – connecting strategically with external partners, not just friendly ‘partnerships’ but real, intertwined activities with consequences for all.” He added that achieving your goals through an external network adds another level of complexity to your leadership role, in particular because the cultures and the business or operating models of others can be quite different.

No organization, of course, is an island. In his 1973 book, The Nature of Managerial Work, McGill University management professor Henry Mintzberg noted that every leader – from the foreman to the chief executive officer – has a role within the unit, but also another role between that unit and its environment. “The president guides his firm and looks out to an environment consisting of competitors, suppliers, governments, and so on,” he wrote. But mostly that role was as a disseminator of information and a connector.

These days, it’s possible we are entering an era where more of our crucial work is done as part – or at the centre – of outside networks, be it industry groups, alliances, joint platforms or lobbying efforts on government. In the MUSH sector – municipalities, universities, schools and hospitals dependent on governments – it seems a necessity.

This will vary with your job, but a tally and some conscious thought may be in order. What percentage of your time is spent in trying to achieve success in such external situations? A lot or very little? How important is this activity to your personal or organizational success? When are you a leader and when are you just part of the gang?

In these situations, it’s unlikely you will have much, if any, power. You will need to influence with your abilities – logic, persuasion, interpersonal relationships, and strategic and organizing flair. In some ways, that’s the ideal of modern leadership, but too often we are using power, explicitly or implicitly, in our leadership activities, so this can be a challenge.

I think here of Cornell professor Samuel Bacharach’s advice in Get Them On Your Side, Keep Them On Your Side: “In order to get results you have to identify allies and resistors, you have to get buy-in, you have to build coalitions, and you have to lead politically.” Ironically, in that book he is focusing on leading within your organization, but that may be the point – there are differences in this external role, but this is calling on skills you already should have.

Listening is key – this kept coming up in the discussion at my leadership group. But it’s a deep listening, to understand what motivates people and what does their organization need for you to be successful in your joint efforts. Often this external work is confined to big meetings of all the participants, but you may be more successful with one-on-ones – lunches and coffee chats – to understand what can be achieved and what can’t.

In Leading Leaders: How to Manage Smart, Talented, Rich, and Powerful People, Jeswald Salacuse, former dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, compared the attempts to put together international coalitions to fight Saddam Hussein in 1990-91 and again in 2003. George H. W. Bush spent considerable time in the early 1990s understanding the needs of his coalition partners, talking to them and building trust, which led to a successful coalition. His son was more lackadaisical, seeming to expect other countries to come along and often communicating with their leaders through the media rather than one-on-one. In the end, his coalition was thin.

Be careful you aren’t slipshod as well. Although important, often this activity is viewed as a side activity because it doesn’t involve the people we normally work with in our own organization. They may even resent the time you give to this pursuit. That’s part of the reason why these efforts to change or build something beyond our own organization often dissipate. You need to ponder sustainability: How to keep the project going, assuming that’s worthwhile. If it’s important but you’re not the leader, look for a role as the group’s secretary or co-ordinator, giving you the challenge – and the opportunity – to keep it rolling. That also forces you to make appropriate commitments in your own schedule.

Prof. Salacuse also writes of the difficulty of leading top-notch people in academe, investment banks, management consultancies and some areas of traditional companies in which followers are often concerned as much with their outside affiliations on task forces and industry committees as their internal role. That gives this external dimension another aspect to think about.

There are no magical solutions. But also none of this is beyond us. It just requires attention, thought and care.


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