7 tips for managing sideways

Effective managers extend their influence in multiple directions.
By Eddie Huffman

Accountants and business experts agree: If you want to create a stronger team, make a more substantial contribution to your company, and expand your sphere of influence, then you need to think outside the silo. CPAs need to focus more on connecting with and influencing their management peers, not just the people above and below them.

The buzz phrase is "managing sideways," and it's a way to break out of hierarchical managerial structures. Managers with strong connections to their peers report that the benefits flow out to the company as a whole.

Forging ties with management peers enhances individual career success and the company's bottom line, according to Thomas Barta, an international speaker and co-author of the leadership book The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader: How to Succeed by Building Customer and Company Value. Barta and his co-author, Patrick Barwise, surveyed more than 8,600 senior marketing and nonmarketing executives from around the world about their personalities, knowledge, leadership techniques, business performance, and career success. The work reflects "the skills and behaviors of functional leaders in general," not just those who work in marketing, they wrote in a recent issue of McKinsey Quarterly.

"To make change happen, you have to leave the office and engage people," said Barta, who is based in Cologne, Germany.

Here are some tips from manager CPAs and experts for managing sideways:

Seek out opportunities to connect. Watch for good days and times to connect more deeply with peers. The end of the week can be particularly conducive to meaningful conversations, according to Diego J. Baca, CPA, an audit manager for Ernst & Young in Denver and a graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy.

"There's something about Friday afternoon conversations that really brings out a lot more in people than throughout the rest of the week," he said. "I've found that some of my deepest, most robust conversations that I've had with colleagues have occurred on Friday afternoons, or when things are dying down in the evening."

Bridge gaps between departments. HoganTaylor LLP addressed a disconnect common to many accounting firms—between the audit and tax departments—by creating an audit and tax collaboration team, according to Ashley Cooper, CPA.

"We meet quarterly and talk about how we can help each other, what audit can be doing differently to help us serve clients better in the tax process, those types of things," said Cooper, a tax manager and graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy based in HoganTaylor's Oklahoma City office. "Really just talking about our grievances and how we can make each other's lives easier."

Educate yourself. Leslie Hilton and Phil Sandahl evaluate and coach professional teams for Team Coaching International (TCI). Managers must learn about other managers' needs to work with them effectively, Hilton said.

"With a peer, you have to be extremely curious, and you really have to understand what their objectives are—what they need to accomplish, both formally and informally," she said. "You have to want to understand where they're coming from first before you're going to have any influence over them."

Hilton is a team and executive coach and strategic adviser to TCI, a global professional services firm based in Sausalito, Calif., and co-founded by Sandahl.

Barta suggests keeping an eye on your company's long-term goals and strategies to get a better feel for other managers' priorities.

Close the loop. Educate other managers about your team's activities and needs by strategically sharing key updates with them.

"Even though it doesn't necessarily have to do with their team at that point, they might have some input, they might have some perspective," Baca said.

Having substantial relationships with management peers makes it easier to target information without wasting their time, he said.

"Knowing the other managers' strengths, weaknesses, passions, and experiences can enable you to approach the right manager with the right information at the right time," he said. "If you build good relationships with people and understand those points, you can easily direct and guide conversations to the right people in the right circumstances."

In Baca's office, top-level coordinating and engagement partners help make sure everyone is pulling together.

"When we have update meetings, status meetings, or any type of key decision-making meetings, we'll include them in everything," he said. "They're hearing information pretty much from every group, and they can be the liaison between the different teams."

Connect the dots. Look beyond the mindset of "How will this affect me?" when meeting or talking with management peers, Hilton said.

"Ask yourself, 'How could what I'm doing be additive?'" she said. "Or, 'How could we partner together?' Actually being proactive. I might just go and sit down with a peer and say, 'I have no idea if this makes any sense, but as you were talking about that, I was thinking about this.' That's a way to get information—to try and listen on a couple of different channels, as we say in team coaching."

Give to get. It's easy to delegate responsibilities to subordinates, but working with a fellow manager may require a more nuanced, quid pro quo approach, Cooper said: "It's more of a collaboration than it is delegating to that person. 'If you help me with this, I can take this off your plate.'"

Exploit strengths. One manager in a firm might be an expert on tax codes, while another might be better at communicating with clients. One of the best ways to team up effectively with other managers is by recognizing and playing to the abilities of individuals, Sandahl said.

"We are stronger as a team because of our variety, because of the diversity of strength on our team," he said. "One of the things we work with on teams is looking at what are those strengths in diversity that make this team stronger."

Baca cited an example of a fellow manager who excels as an auditor.

"She gets down into the details," he said. "She's thinking about risk in ways that even some of our higher levels aren't thinking about. So we try to give her a lot of the tasks and responsibilities when it comes to audit quality."

Managing sideways will become even more important as business models move away from traditional top-down structures to more agile, interconnected ones, Sandahl said.

"With the accelerated pace of change, the more traditional structure is just too slow," he said.

Eddie Huffman is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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