Co-Elevation: Your Way to Leading Without Authority

High-Impact Teams
10 Minute Read
October 1, 2021

Breathtaking advances in science and exponential technological innovation bloom all around us, making our lives better and easier. And yet there are people at all levels of organizations who feel fatigued, fretful, and even beaten down at work. The complaints are all the same: turf battles, budget brawls, and organizational constraints.

Many are quick to blame the mounting pressures caused by technology. But I disagree. This era of explosive change has merely exposed the built-in flaws and unsound footing of how we have always worked. Even at companies that extol values like inclusion and collaboration on their websites and breakroom walls, I hear a similar beleaguered sentiment echoing up and down the chain of command. Executives, managers, and front- line associates alike bemoan their less- than- productive relationships with colleagues in the midst of disruption and transformation.

Limitations of Authority

When I was a young entry-level consultant at Deloitte in the 1990s, the work I was assigned left me feeling restless and bored. I filled my off-hours doing things that were more interesting to me and, I felt, more beneficial to Deloitte. I made calls to ex-classmates, professors, and old employers to tell them all about my new employer and ask them for new leads. I booked myself as a speaker at small conferences on weekends, hoping to generate buzz and drum up business for Deloitte. I even organized a new business quality award in Illinois that advanced the state’s economic agenda while helping connect Deloitte Partners to regional business leaders.

The result? My first-year review was a humiliating experience. I wasn’t holding up my end of my assigned duties. But my supervisors saw promise in my work generating new business for the firm. They gave me an expense account and set me loose to keep promoting Deloitte full-time.

In less than a year, I had developed an informal marketing function at Deloitte. With no one reporting to me and no real authority, I simply engaged everyone related to marketing that I could. I never let a title (or my lack of one) stop me.

I left Deloitte in 1994 to become global CMO at Starwood Hotels. This role, working with CEO Barry Sternlicht, gave me full authority over the marketing resources for all the company’s divisions around the world. Together, we created a powerful global suite of brands that offered a consistent experience to our guests. Over time, we consolidated Starwood’s marketing resources, all in service of efficiency and global consistency.

There was one person who fought my centralized authority. Starwood’s head of Europe insisted that he and his marketing people were far better suited to decide where and how to spend Starwood’s European marketing budgets. It was true that he knew the market more intimately, but my mandate was to invest in the global brand. We collaborated on European marketing, but he had to relinquish the control he would have liked.

Then Starwood’s global president moved on, and guess who replaced him? Starwood’s head of Europe. It wasn’t long before I found my CMO position gutted, with most of my budget dispersed to marketing heads in regional divisions across the globe. My job was set to become a hollowed-out shell of what it had been; I was heading out the door.
It took some time for me to process what I learned from that defeat. Looking back, it became clear that once I had a title and authority at Starwood, I set aside many of the leadership traits that had earned me the job in the first place. I had excelled at leading without authority. I was a natural at it. But once I had some authority of my own, I didn’t spend as much time building strong relationships as I had at Deloitte. I’d assumed that my new global role would give me and my team the authority to achieve great things.

New Way Forward

Through my decades of team coaching, I’ve come to see how many people are repeating the same mistakes I made at Starwood so many years ago. Too many managers rely on their title, position, and budgetary control to get their work done. They waste too much of their energy on painful bureaucratic infighting, energy that would be better spent leading others to collaborate and seek audacious new solutions. And I find that people without formal authority are often sitting on the sidelines, waiting their turn.

But employers need us to seize opportunities, take the initiative, and build value for our companies. Sclerotic old-school command-and-control decision making is no longer going to cut it. A 2016 survey of HR professionals by my old employer Deloitte found that just 24 percent of large companies with more than 50,000 employees were relying on functionally organized hierarchies to get work done.

“Organizations,” the report said, “are shifting their structures from traditional, functional models toward interconnected, flexible teams.”

The report noted that the entire concept of leadership is being radically redefined: “The whole notion of ‘positional leadership’— that people become leaders by virtue of their power or position— is being challenged. Leaders are instead being asked to inspire team loyalty through their expertise, vision, and judgment.”

Leading without authority has never been more important, and the need for it grows more urgent by the day. What’s more, it is becoming the 21st century organizational model. The trouble is that for most managers, the secret to applying the model reliably and with excellence remains a mystery.

However, the Deloitte survey revealed that although cross-functional teams are held in high regard, “just 21 percent feel expert at building cross- functional teams, and only 12 percent understand the way their people work together in networks.”

That’s not going to get it done. The old rules of the game aren’t working anymore. But every day I still see people clinging to those old rules by their fingertips. Why? Because there are no rules to the new game we’re playing, and no manual for how to play the game well.

Enter co-elevation.

Simply defined, co-elevation is a mission-driven approach to collaborative problem solving through fluid partnerships and self-organizing teams. When we co-elevate with one or more of our associates, we turn them into teammates. We enter into close co-creative relationships based on candid feedback and mutual accountability. This sort of leading without authority requires personal qualities and practices like generosity, gratitude, vulnerability, forgiveness, and celebration.

With its guiding ethos of “going higher together,” co-elevation nurtures a generosity of spirit and a sense of commitment to our new teammates and our shared mission. The resulting outcomes almost always exceed what could have been accomplished through regular channels within the org chart.

Bottom line: Regardless of your title, position, or where or how you work, the ability to lead without authority is an essential workplace competency. And when we co elevate, we work with more positive energy, generate more innovative ideas, expand our abilities, and execute faster.

Want to Learn More?

Join me during the ATD Virtual Conference to learn how you can use co-elevation to unlock your team’s potential. Learn the rules and techniques that can help your organization boost productivity, deepen commitment and engagement, and create a level of trust, mutual accountability, and purpose.

Editor’s note: This post is adapted from Leading Without Authority (Random House, 2020).

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