You don’t have to be a leader to lead. If you’ve been wondering how to get noticed for your skills and hard work, here’s an opportunity that’s right under your nose: gray zone problems.
Gray zone problems are in every workplace. Executive coach Art Petty says gray zones are “the areas between functions where process, communication, and coordination problems generate noise and friction.” They’re the issues everyone is aware of, but that no one has taken (or wants) responsibility for. If you take the initiative to tackle them, Petty says, it can transform 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.”
Gray zone issues are the things that drive you crazy in what might otherwise be a great job, a great team, or a great company. Petty says, “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.” Everyone’s got their own issues, their own priorities, and there is seldom any money or resources dedicated to these problems. Eventually, the issue becomes part of the landscape; no one really sees it anymore. And certainly, no one owns it.
Petty says there are probably opportunities for gray zone problems all around you. Look for situations like these:
- The organizational culture’s 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 actual work that’s taking place
- Settings where past mistakes are repeated over and over again
Make sure you’re ready to take on problems that weren’t directly assigned to you. You’ll need to have a strong record of success in your role and be up to date in delivering on your current projects. If you’re struggling to do your own work, no one will trust you or authorize you to take on more.
You’ll need a strong network within the organization. Petty says, “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.” Have your key resources identified and queued up before you request permission to take an issue on.
Make sure you have a case for how solving this problem will help advance your manager’s goals – and the company’s at large. Petty again: “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.” Mi success es su success.
Finally, be sure to credit everyone who helps you solve the issue. The best leaders are quick to acknowledge the team, rather than taking the credit for success themselves. Management guru Peter Drucker said it best: “The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say “I.” And that’s not because they have trained themselves not to say “I.” They don’t think “I.” They think “we”; they think “team.” They understand their job to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don’t sidestep it, but “we” gets the credit…. This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done.”