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"Gray zone" leadership: A path to personal and organizational success

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In a 2020 article here at SmartBrief on Leadership, I shared the idea of organizational "gray zones" — the areas between functions where process, communication, and coordination problems generate noise and friction.

These gray zone challenges fight efficiency, stifle collaboration and shut down innovation. The fascinating thing about these gray zone problems is that everyone sees them, but no one ever seems to own fixing them.

This odd reality of organizational life — that we deliberately ignore problems in plain sight — is your opportunity to lead, scale your impact and grow your career. Get this right, and you will cultivate your influence, strengthen your professional networks and find yourself involved in leading at a high level. In this article, I share encouragement and suggestions to help you lead and succeed in your firm's gray zones.

"Yep, that garbage can is on fire."

I once observed an organization's culture where talking but not acting on the firm's problems was akin to a competitive sport. The level of inaction was so bad that the group inspired me to write a not-so-cleverly disguised short article about an imaginary (but plausible) group discussion around a watercooler. Here's the short form of this discussion:

"I think that garbage can is smoking," offered participant A.

"Are you sure? I see the smoke, but I doubt it will turn into a full-blown fire," said participant B.

"This is just typical around here," said C.

"It's probably development looking for a reason to delay the release again," said A.

"It's probably something product got wrong in the requirements; this could be bad. Should we do something about it?" asked D.

"Look, it if we spend our time putting out every fire we encounter, we'll never get our work done," said B.

"I agree," said A. "I'm late for a meeting. I'm sure someone will take care of this."

Raise your hand if you've encountered a similar group dynamic in your organization.

OK, everyone, lower your hands.

Gray zone challenges are mostly sins of omission

While I'm hopeful most of us in our organizations would rush to deal with the smoldering garbage can before it turned into a full-blown fire, it's commonplace for groups to accept flaws in processes and approaches as part of the landscape.

"That's just how we do it here" or "Yeah, we know, and when we get some time, we'll fix that" are oft-heard responses to a new person pointing out an obvious problem.

While there's a lot wrong with a culture and the organization's leaders where gray zone issues proliferate, it's not hard to accept that many problems are sins of omission, not commission.

In environments with too many initiatives chasing too few resources, people are struggling to keep their heads above water. For managers dealing with ridiculous span-of-control realities and navigating unrelenting demands from above, daily survival is the goal.

In both instances, there's little time or energy available to fix gray zone issues. To make matters worse, it's never apparent who owns fixing them. Yet, these are not gray for the motivated individual, but rather golden opportunities to step up and lead without the title.

5 ideas to help you succeed in the gray zones

1. Learn to recognize opportunities hiding in plain sight

The first challenge is teaching yourself to spot gray zone issues. Here are just a few commonly lurking near the surface in most organizations:

  • Clunky communication and coordination processes that demand seemingly endless meetings just to "get on the same page"
  • Organizational cultures where ideas and talents are locked firmly in silos and rarely see the light of cross-functional collaboration
  • Environments where everyone is busy scurrying around doing something in an endless series of fire drills
  • Situations where there's a disconnect between the organization's strategy and the work that's taking place
  • Settings where past mistakes are repeated over and over again
  • Complex challenges or problems that demand innovation and careful coordination

After reading this article, start paying attention to situations where something or some process flaw stands in the way of individuals or groups doing their best. You will be surprised how many of these gray zone opportunities you spot.

2. Embrace gray zone problem-solving as a team sport

While you might not think of yourself as a coalition builder, your success in helping your firm level up in problem-plagued areas is directly related to your ability to gain support from the right resources at the right time. You need a strong network and ample credibility to gain support from individuals across this network.

I guide professionals to adopt a weekly Start/Strengthen/Repair process to grow and strengthen their networks. It's simple, and you can start this important work immediately. Whenever you plan for your upcoming work week, take a few moments to do the following:

  • Start: Identify the individuals you want to meet and initiate a working relationship with because they are interesting, influential and capable of impacting your work or success
  • Strengthen: Think about those relationships that have gone dormant and that require tending. This includes looking at your larger external network as well. Identify the individuals you will reach out to this week
  • Repair: And last, but not least of all, identify a relationship that is in need of repair and make a plan to begin rebuilding a bridge

Follow this guidance weekly, and hold yourself accountable for doing the work.

Make sure you focus on creating value for your networking targets. Approach them with ideas, opportunities and authentic compliments for something they or their team members did. Ideally, introduce them to others who might help them advance their agendas.

With practice, this Start/Strengthen/Repair routine becomes second nature and ensures you have access to the right resources at the right time for your gray zone initiatives.

3. Frame gray zone challenges in ways that benefit your boss (and firm)

Few managers, including yours, want their team members freelancing across the organization on issues unrelated to their day jobs. Yet, the deft gray zone leader actively involves their boss and frames situations as an opportunity for them to gain visibility as an organizational problem-solver.

One of the power tips I suggest here is to work hard over time at uncovering your boss's goals, priorities, career aspirations and even fears. I like to understand what it is at work that keeps my boss awake at night and find ways to help vanquish these concerns via gray zone initiatives.

While not every boss will open up to you on career aspirations or fears, it's reasonable for you to ask questions about goals and targets. Pay attention and tune in to their priorities. Armed with this context, you are better prepared to engage your boss and ask for support or permission to take on a gray zone challenge that relates to their interests.

Remember, someone chooses you for success, and the boss gets the first vote. It's always a good plan to support your boss's agenda and help them gain a few more restful hours.

4. Shine the spotlight brightly on everyone else

Effective gray zone leaders understand the moment when a group has succeeded in solving a problem is the optimal opportunity to shine the spotlight on the people who made it happen. There are three big reasons I advocate this approach:

  1. People who work around you appreciate the credit they gain from being part of a successful initiative. They'll appreciate you helping them achieve this credit and be apt to support or join your future endeavors
  2. The opportunity to thank other managers and executives for their team members' support in solving a vexing problem is an opportunity to gain visibility with them. Believe it or not, these executives will recognize your role in bringing the issue to the surface and building a coalition to solve it. This strengthens your reputation
  3. It's the right thing to do

5. Remember to advocate for yourself

Learning to lead in the gray zone is one of the best ways I've encountered to gain advocacy for helping your firm at scale. Cultivating a reputation as someone able to bring resources to bear and lead problem-solving initiatives opens the door to more significant opportunities.

However, don't expect the initiatives to find you — you have to reach out to those who decide what gets done and who does what and convince them you are the right person to help.

The reality is that we all have to find a way to advocate for ourselves in our careers. If you've followed the formula here, I'm encouraging you to avoid the "Look at me" style of advocacy and instead adopt a "Look at them" approach.

Yet, you will need to ask for the opportunity to do more. Make sure to let your firm's leaders know you want to contribute to solving the big problems standing in the way of the organization's success. Your track record and the knowledge that you come complete with an army of individuals excited to join you for the next dangerous mission will open doors to new opportunities.

The bottom line

Success in our careers is much about solving problems standing in the way of organizational goal achievement. Gray zone leadership is an approach that allows you to contribute at higher and higher levels while creating value for your team members and your organization. It's a way to grow your influence and cultivate what I describe as "clean power."

Importantly, it’s a way to change the fates of organizations and individuals for the better.

 

Art Petty is an executive and emerging-leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

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