Project Management

Leading Without Authority: Influencing Your Stakeholders

From the Vision to Value: Executing Strategically Focused Initiatives Blog
Executing initiatives, and their component projects, successfully means delivering value to customers. The Vision to Value blog focuses on solutions to the organizational problems that inhibit that success.

About this Blog


Recent Posts

Do Executive Sponsors, Not Project Managers, Hold the Key to Project Success?

Has an Executive Sponsors Ever Deserted You?

Are Strategic Projects Really the Most Important?

Culture v. Project Success: How to Win

Are You Herding the Cats or Leading the Cats?

Categories: , Leadership, Leading Up, Persuasion

Influence ImageLeadership is more than leading the people who report to you. As a project manager, you need to lead a team which you rarely have any authority over. The absence of hierarchical advantage adds a challenge, but is ideal training on how to deal with managers, customers, and difficult people. The key is making them feel that they chose the direction. One of the best methods of doing this is storytelling.


To start, you need to listen non-judgmentally. Too often, we jump to conclusions, share observations, blurt out solutions, and fail to give others time to assimilate information from our point of view.

A few years ago, I was talking with a potential client that had a very successful data analysis company. The problem they were having was with a custom piece of proprietary hardware they had designed and built to collect the data. The business development manager, who loved hardware design, was managing the product development and was relaying the current situation. I asked for the history on how they got to their current disheveled state. He sighed and told me his tale of woe.

The first release was a success, but after short time a key supplier of one of the core components, a small company, went out of business. This made him look for a new supplier. Adding to the frustration was that all the other suppliers charged significantly amount. We talked about the functionality and a few other particulars on that version. He continued by saying that about a year later they created a new revision and changed that same component's functionality to use firmware so reprogramming would be easier. They contracted with an individual, who was desperate for work, to design the part. As a result, they got a great deal. Unfortunately, the protocol used was nonstandard and no other suppliers used it. When the contractor found full-time employment, they were again without support. Version 3, the version currently use, had another component losing support and they needed to find a new vendor.

The present problem was on a contract with a new company, started by a recent college graduate, to supply a subset of components. He was running into multiple problems, various vendors were arguing that he had designed the interfaces incorrectly, and now he had taken another job out of state. The business development manager was left with money invested in an unusable product. He insisted the problems were unavoidable and the company's strategy was prudent and fiscally conservative.

Building The Story

I returned to my office to determine how to approach telling them that they needed to focus on gathering and analyzing data, not building hardware, and the business development manager's pet project should be given to a company that specializes in developing custom hardware. I sent them an email asking about their growth plans for each business unit and clarifying a few other points from our conversation. From this information, I outlined the following agenda:

  1. Summarize the information that I had gotten, ask how they are going to achieve their aggressive growth goals, and what role the business development manager would have in that.
  2. Ask them how they were going to address the common issues any growing company would see—security, cross-training, hiring new staff, etc.
  3. Ask how they are going to continue managing a custom product development while doing this ramp.
  4. If required, list the problems with the previous versions highlighting the areas that were a result of not having an established hardware company managing and building their custom equipment.

As I replayed what I had been told, they started filling in the answers, arriving at the conclusion that they should focus on their core business of collecting and analyzing data, rather than building hardware. I never had to mention bullet 4, they came to that conclusion on their own. Investing time in building a trusting relationship with a reputable product development group, whose responsibilities would include architectural design, building, and supplier management, would free up time of the business development manager to... well... develop new business. It would also insulate the company from problem in the hardware supply chain.

Obvious Solution

I could have told them in the first meeting that product development was not their forte, and that the business development manager's pet project of managing all the vendors was costing them dearly, but I would have not been invited back. As obvious as some answers seem, when situations have evolved over time the people in the middle are unable to see some of the most obvious answers. Playing back words in a different context is the key to shedding light on the proper direction and draws them to the conclusion using their own words. Your job is to simply facilitate the process.

Posted on: November 11, 2015 07:12 PM | Permalink

Comments (10)

Please login or join to subscribe to this item
Simply great, Todd. My own experience is also the same. I always got great results when I acted in this sort of indirect way to point out what needed to be done by clients. This practice also develops strong relation with clients.

Thank you, Manas

Thank you for Sharing.
In my opinion Leading Without Authority will not be an easy task, big challenge to influence stakeholders.
Great Approach.

I've experienced this a number of times as well, that last 'Obvious Solution' paragraph is great.

Yes, it is difficult, however, as project managers, we must do it daily. We rarely have authority over either our teams and and stakeholders. This is the fun of Project Management!

Please share with everyone some of your tricks in leadership in these situations.


Nicely written.

You are basically starting from the initiatives, organizational change management, scope definition, do it yourself or contract out and so on.

I understand that these are not the role of project manager, Of course, this is for a matured organization which knows about program/project management.

I understand that PMs do not have authority but that does not mean one need to do program, business analyst work. Of course, there is lot of overlap on the roles.

I can relate well to the last paragraph "you will not be invited back"

Thank you for your thoughts, Balaji.

Great article.

Great article.

Please Login/Register to leave a comment.


"I think popular music in this country is one of the few things in the twentieth century that have made giant strides in reverse."

- Bing Crosby