Brian Fitzpatrick joined Google as a senior software engineer in 2005, shortly after the company’s IPO. Brian specialized in open-source software development and he quickly became a champion within the company for various initiatives focused on end users.
One such project addressed a user’s control of his personal data. Brian started out working with two like-minded colleagues, but he soon attracted a broader team of coders and supporters. Their crowning achievement was a service launched in 2011 called Google Takeout, a unified site for exporting user data from multiple services like Gmail and Google Photos.
Without any formal authority or role in organizational strategy, Brian drove broad change across the company. What began as an independent effort became a key component of corporate strategy, with then-CEO Eric Schmidt highlighting Takeout to government regulators as evidence that Google wasn’t pursuing monopolistic practices such as customer lock-in.
In our view, Brian’s work is an excellent demonstration of strategic leadership. He developed unique insight to solve an emerging need and then he drove transformational change to realize that vision. But Brian’s accomplishment challenges conventional definitions of strategic leadership. He had no formal authority as a leader, operating without any title or mandate. Also, all of his work was done outside the boundaries of strategic management practices within the organization.
It has become increasingly accepted that the work of strategy is no longer conducted solely from the C-suite. Companies like Google and 3M have benefited from embracing innovation that comes from all parts of the organization. As more companies seek to embrace this kind of emergent strategy-making, it’s worth examining what makes individuals like Brian successful. What are the key actions of strategic leaders who drive innovation without formal authority?
To find out, we conducted a study examining over 300 leaders to identify the actions that define strategic leadership. We started with focus groups drawn from both our graduate class at Northwestern University and a global high-potential program we run at Aon. Those individuals came from nine countries and numerous industries. We asked them to identify a person they considered strategic and then to describe what that leader did. We then conducted in-depth interviews with a dozen of the leaders they cited, including Brian at Google. For comparison purposes, we made sure that these leaders included a mix of those with and without formal authority.
All these leaders demonstrated the essentials of classic strategic management. They identified patterns that revealed new opportunities, they developed a unique solution to create value, and they managed risks that could undermine their success. Whilewhat they did was consistent, how the leaders in our study did their work varied. Strategic leaders like Brian, who don’t hold positions of authority, operated in ways that were tailored to a less formal context.
Across the examples we’ve analyzed, leaders who succeed strategically without formal authority do five things well:
- They develop a broad and varied network of relationships, allowing them to gain insights and implement change in ways that are different than their peers. Brian’s network at Google went well beyond the engineering unit he was a part of. He built this network proactively and used it first to understand the mindset of key stakeholders and later to influence them to adopt his suggestions. Getting to know colleagues in legal, public relations, and policy provided Brian insight into strategic concerns that few of his fellow engineers were aware of. These relationships also gave Brian influential advocates he could call on when needed.
- They identify “strategy gaps,” focusing on areas where existing solutions and decision makers aren’t addressing important needs. Brian knew that providing users better control of personal data was critical to Google’s success. He noted public comments from Schmidt emphasizing that nothing prevented users from switching away from Google. What Brian also noticed was that while this was technically true, it was rather difficult to do in practice: users who wanted to take their photos to a different service had to go through many tedious steps to do so. For some Google services, it was so challenging as to be impossible for the average user. Brian realized that while easy control of personal information was important to both users and to Google, nobody in the company was focused on addressing the issue.
- They link their work to existing priorities, moving opportunistically to join projects already under way. While Brian could explain his goals using statements made by Eric Schmidt, this didn’t give him automatic legitimacy or the ability to compel others to adopt his recommendations. He had to find willing partners that he could collaborate with. This initially led to projects that weren’t very prominent or impactful, but that gave Brian the chance to gain experience and produce working examples. A big break came later when Brian had the chance to partner with a major initiative — the launch of Google+, the company’s competitive response to Facebook. The team building Google+ was looking for ways to differentiate their product from Facebook and the ability to control personal information was seen as compelling. Brian’s prior work gave him the chance to step in and help the team build that data control feature for the product launch.
- They work with an eye toward scale. Takeout was the logical culmination of Brian’s work, but it wasn’t the starting point. He had to build several working examples and a coalition of supporters before he found the right time to pursue his broader ambitions. After Brian had completed several projects, he and his team could more easily explain how tying them together via Takeout would be better for users and for the company. Brian also took steps to make that future decision easier, using common coding methods across those initial projects that made each subsequent project easier. This approach to scaling up was a clear case where those without formal authority had to approach their work differently. Those with formal authority to make strategy can plan proactively for longer term requirements and align resources accordingly. Strategic leaders without formal backing still operate with the long term in mind, and they are creative in planning their initial work so that they are ready to scale when the time comes.
- They orchestrate milestones to build their credibility, using a combination of success stories and communication from supporters to legitimize their work. The smaller projects that Brian’s team started with let them experiment and prove their concept. This gave them valuable feedback and built their confidence to tackle bigger opportunities. Brian became more strategic in his project selection as time passed, targeting products that were more technically challenging and of greater impact. Along the way, Brian also focused on creating advocates who could vouch for his team’s work. The owners of initial products provided testimonials and advocacy as the team sought to take on bigger challenges. Often we see informal leaders use champions in positions of authority to deliver key messages, encouraging them to call on their peers and make recommendations that pave the way for further work. Eventually, these leaders develop a track record that then allows them to exert influence in their own right.
By doing these five things well, leaders without formal authority can create value and even impact organizational strategy. This was clearly the case for Brian at Google. Four years after its launch, Takeout continues to expand and remains a critical component of the company’s strategy. It has helped Google avoid criticism regarding the handling of customer data even as the company faces increasing overall scrutiny from regulators regarding other competitive practices.
We consider these findings to be informative for organizations looking to harness emergent innovation from their employees. Today, many companies are focusing on idea generating activities like innovation challenges. Our findings suggest that it is the individual leader and their ability to lead strategically that is just as critical as the idea. Organizations and individuals alike would be well served to avoid focusing on idea generation alone, as it is strategic leadership focused on these five actions that creates transformational change.
Aaron K. Olson is Chief Talent Officer at Aon plc, a global firm specializing in risk management and human resources. He is the co-author of the book Leading with Strategic Thinking and teaches graduate courses at Northwestern University.
Keith Simerson provides consultation, executive coaching and leadership development in the areas of strategy formulation and execution. He is the co-author of Leading with Strategic Thinking and four additional books including Strategic Planning: A Practical Guide. He also teaches graduate courses at Northwestern University.
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