Spend time observing successful individuals in your organization who are visibly succeeding—taking on more responsibilities and gaining access to critical projects, and you will notice three significant themes: 

1. Successful individuals learn to make themselves valuable to individuals in positions of influence—especially their direct boss—by solving vexing problems or seizing promising opportunities. 

2. They are master coalition builders, always emphasizing getting things done through and with others. 

3. They shine the spotlight brightly on others and benefit in the process. 

These behaviors are at the core of what I describe as gray-zone leadership. It turns out, learning to spot and seize gray-zone opportunities is a spectacularly great way to get ahead in your career. 

The Gray-Zone Idea:

Every organization has gray-zones—these are the spaces between functional, divisional, or positional boundaries. It’s no one’s land, yet the issues spanning the gray-zone are visible and often irritating to all parties. Gray-zone items include:

  • Process or communication problems.
  • Cross-functional collaboration challenges.
  • Any strategic or change initiatives that demand coordination across different groups.

Your challenge and opportunity are to cultivate the communication, networking, and political skills essential for success with gray-zone issues. 

Gray-Zone Issues Hide in Plain Sight

You don’t have to look too far or too hard to find gray-zone problems. They’re hiding in plain sight in most organizations. A few examples include:

  • Opportunities to collaborate across functions or business units to increase sales or customer service quality.
  • Opportunities to share technology across business units where different development teams are often creating complementary or even redundant offerings.
  • Preparing an organization to succeed with a new service or product offering.
  • Coordinating strategic initiatives that require cross-functional execution.
  • Eliminating or improving long-standing cross-group processes that are no longer essential or effective.
  • Communication and coordination issues of all sizes and shapes.

Eight Tips for Leading in the Gray-Zone

Successful gray-zone leaders understand they are dependent upon the support of others, particularly those with decision-making authority. They work hard to earn credibility by engaging, involving, and empowering others in pursuit of making meaningful improvements. Succeeding in this environment draws heavily upon your social and communication skills.

Some of the best gray-zone leaders I’ve encountered draw upon these eight essential approaches for success:

1. They focus on strengthening the organization, not grandstanding for personal gain.

2. They choose opportunities that move the performance needle in the right direction.

3. They focus on understanding and supporting the priorities of their up-line managers. They don’t go off chasing dragons unless they have sponsorship.

4. They are empathic stakeholder managers, working to understand interests and align activities to meet those interests. 

5. They tune-in to strategic and executive imperatives and identify gray-zone issues that will accelerate the pursuit of these items.

6. They work as network connectors, striving to bring the right talent to bear on the issues.

7. They understand the power of reciprocity in cultivating long-term, future support. They also understand the best way to create reciprocity debts is to help others succeed. 

8. They make heroes out of the individuals around them, increasing loyalty and growing their influence in the process. 

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Learning to lead in the gray-zone is a recipe for success accessible to everyone. This approach blends your genuine desire to make a difference with a clean power technique for navigating organizational politics and growing influence. The great news is that there are significant gray-zone opportunities in front of you, just waiting for someone (you) to lead the charge and solve them. 

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Learning to lead and succeed in the gray-zone is just one of the practical, powerful lessons in The Influence Course