Success in the Sandbox


What Leaders Need to Know about Forging True Peer Alliances

STOP! If you can make a significant impact in your organization without aligning your peers better, faster, and cheaper than you did last year, then read no further.

But if forging more successful alliances with other executives in your organization is key to achieving your leadership vision, I invite you to read on.

Leaders get tons of advice on how to get the ‘masses’ on board with their agenda. However, sustainable organizational change often succeeds or fails based on the strength of the ‘lateral’ support they get ? the support of their peers within the organization. And when the going gets tough, many people find themselves blindsided by the lack of ‘rubber hitting the road’ endorsement they have from their colleagues.

So, ask yourself: Do you know what your peers are saying to colleagues and staff regarding the progress and pitfalls of your most important work when you are not in the room? Have you invested the time and energy to secure solid alliances that will hold up when the going gets rough… and rough it will get if you aspire to ‘have it all,’ namely to create sustainable shareholder value, to help create an employer-of-choice organization, and to be part of a high performing senior team that offers real colleagueship, both on and off the court.

To ‘have it all,’ leaders need both the will and the way to forge ‘true’ alliances. When the individual pressures at the top of the company house are huge, when resources limited, and when the time available to build real executive colleagueship is scarce, peer-to-peer alliances are essential to creating sustainable change.

As an executive coach for over 20 years, I have sat in countless senior team meetings, reviewed thousands of peer evaluation reports, and spent hours of time in individual sessions hearing (in veiled or explicit terms) about ‘THEM. You know THEM: the ‘self-serving, territorial, budget hording, ego-maniacs down the hall.’ Maybe you’ve even met THEM. I only meet US, the good guys.

But, because executives need each other to achieve important organizational goals, and there is great work to be done to better meet the real needs and wants of a global marketplace, there cannot be ‘US’ and “THEM.’ There can only be ‘WE.’ Because only with ‘WE’ can there be great executive collaboration. Not just good collaboration. Not just easy collaboration. But great collaboration.

Great collaboration means that (1) the results of shared efforts meet, if not exceed, the stated objectives; AND (2) peer relationships are improved through the process ?note: they don’t just survive but are strengthened via the experience.

More on diagnosis. Then a prescription.

Overwhelmingly, I find that breakdowns in executive relationships are mostly the result of neglect and skill-hiccups, not bad intent or staggering incompetence.

An all too common cycle begins with us talking to ourselves (usually inaudibly) where, of course, we make perfect sense. We then sit in senior team meetings where the goal is typically selling versus discussing, hints of discord are minimized, and tough issues avoided. But when balls get dropped (which is almost inevitable), and the blame game begins (always optional), we generally concede that the major culprits were, either ‘THEM’ or ‘NOT ENOUGH TIME.’

I’m not buying it. The same 24-hour day, 7-day week greets all of us as it has throughout the industrial age. The problem in my mind is that we’re trying to microwave our relationships and instant message our expectations. And it doesn’t work.

My prescription: a new map.

Step 1: Approach key peers with a ‘start slow to go fast’ proposition

One of the more cynical axioms of organizational life is that while we never have time to do it right, we always have time to do it over. But, if there is great collaboration, there should be no need to do it over.

To collaborate successfully, be it across disciplines, functions, levels or geographies, executives must first consent to take the time to forge real agreements. To do so, two key issues that must be addressed — and both questions need to be asked in the context of COLLABORATION:

RESULTS: What can we achieve if we partner together on this initiative?

RELATIONSHIP: What kind of alliance (public or private) is required for us to get the results we want and have the experience we want?

Taking a closer look at the first question ? focusing on results ? I must caution that I am not talking about project management. I am talking about COLLABORATION ISSUES, meaning that the results must involve people, turf and time ? the issues that are tough, especially when big egos are in play. If getting to answers takes you less than an hour and there is no tension in conversation, I can assure you that you do not have answers that will stand up under the inevitable pressure that is ahead.

To make sure you are getting the answers you need to get the results you want, take the time to flesh out some more specific issues. Ask yourself:

  • What, exactly, is an A+ result on this initiative?
  • What grade will the initiative get if we don’t work together at an A+ level? Is that grade ‘good enough’?
  • Based on the standard of result we are willing to work to achieve, what needs to get done and why? What are the ‘real’ deadlines and key milestone dates for each of us? Who is accountable for what key areas of responsibility?

I cannot go on without discussing another key aspect of reaching an agreement on these results ? and that’s communication. For those of us who study human behavior, ‘communicating’ goes in the same category as ‘acting with integrity.’ When asked, individuals report that they communicate quite well. In fact, some 90% believe they are in the top quarter of great communicators. They contend that “the other guy has the real problems.”

But, are we really all that effective? And, if we think we’re great communicators ? but we really may not be ? are we really clear on our answers? Does the fact that we write it down and say “yes” increase our clarity?

You bet. But clarity isn’t enough to win the gold medal. The conversations for agreement, as well as the actual work, must aspire to strengthen the relationships and enhance their ability and motivation to work together in the future. It’s the groundwork we lay to pave our path to future success.

Step 2: Build agreements that you can remember and reference when the pace picks up

The key to gaining agreements that will carry partners through the life of the project is to … (drum roll) … contract early and explicitly.

‘Contracting,’ as I will use it here, refers to the process of achieving clear and viable agreements about both work outcomes and processes. We tend to associate the process of contracting or negotiating only with outside partners, such as vendors or consultants. But the success of most accomplishments rises and falls with how well we partner internally as well as externally. I can confirm that the internal partnering is an under-developed practice in many companies.

Much of what follows related to ‘contracting’ is adapted from Peter Block’s work which is summarized best in his seminal book, Flawless Consulting. Peter is an organizational consultant and was asked early on why he chose to use the word ‘contracting,’ which sounds so formal, stiff, and binding; in short: legalistic. As he explained (and I’m paraphrasing), those of us who want to get important work done in organizations can use all the help we can get to drive more clarity, specificity, and focus at key stages of project work. (Stages might include the project definition; the negotiation of roles and responsibilities, deliverables, or timeframes; the resolution of breakdowns and unexpected problems; the evaluation of success or failure; and accountability for those outcomes.)

Legal contracts contain two basic elements that apply to many work endeavors: mutual consent and valid consideration. ‘Mutual consent’ refers to the element of choice. We only need to contract when one of the parties has the real option to decline the partnership. ‘Valid consideration’ refers to the fact that both parties need to receive something of value for the contracting process to make sense.

The discipline of contracting that I’m recommending here is fundamentally about calibrating expectations and commitments, not about enforceability. It is about achieving clarity before we start, which, from my experience, remains a huge opportunity area.

Step 3: Address ALL the contract elements

Having decided to contract, the next step on the journey is to systematically address two categories of elements that must be incorporated into the contract: the RESULTS elements and the RELATIONSHIP elements.

The results elements that require up-front, explicit agreement between parties relate to the following questions:

1. What do each of you want, for/by/to whom, why, by when, and how?

2. When should you celebrate?

Take heed in answering both questions. If you are not specific, then it will be much harder to be and feel successful. Hear me clearly: If you want everything done well, you’ll likely get nothing done well. And the corollary: If you strive to please everyone, you’ll likely please no one. Make the hard trade-offs early and you stand to be pleased later.

As with any work endeavor, we are most successful if the result and the experience we intended are achieved. The project elements cover the essential result-related factors. How successful were you on defining what the project had to produce?

The process elements relate to the level of success of the experience. How successful was the experience of working together? You can achieve the targeted results but create painful memories and damaged relationships at the end. This is not ideal.

Consider this: Human beings are not merely logical, rational entities. We are also emotional beings. In fact, there are many instances when people who work together behave more emotionally than logically. As an example, people don’t always share their honest opinions with each other, even when asked. But they might tell a slew of uninvolved people who didn’t even ask or who don’t have a direct investment in that information. On the face of it, this behavior makes no logical sense because it would be more effective and efficient for professional adults to surface and resolve problems with the parties directly involved as soon as possible. As we all know in business, time is money. But suppressing issues that trouble us or opting to tell those not involved with the problem is a frequent phenomenon in organizational life.

Why does this happen? First, we bring varying levels of ‘emotional intelligence’ or maturity to our work tasks. Some of us are more comfortable and skilled in having sensitive conversations because we learned how to do that early in our personal or professional lives and have been successfully reinforced to continue with those practices.

Secondly, environmental stressors (e.g., deadlines) are at play and can trigger

unplanned behavior or outcomes that are more emotionally fueled than logically defensible. For example, when workload increases, many people struggle more to prioritize. They gravitate towards easier, but lower priority tasks, like answering voice or email versus saying NO to small requests or disappointing non-priority customers versus concentrating only on key commitments that carry the most organizational significance. Engaging in less important activities under pressure is more an emotional coping response to the pressure, not a logical, pre-planned strategy.

Given these aspects of human nature, in order to have the most successful experience of working together, there must be some foundational assumptions for the process elements. These assumptions include:

  • We want to ensure that the relationship between parties is strengthened, not weakened, from the experience.
  • We want to decide early how best to work through the inevitable slippage between logical intentions and emotional urges when the going gets rough for one or both of us.

Clients often ask me: Do we have to write this so-called contract down and then sign it? I tell them that writing things down helps with the #1 reason things break down in organizations: Neglect and distraction. And I ask them: Why would you not write down the contract, since it’s not about enforceability? If enforceability is not an issue, then there simply are no downsides to recording key agreements, referencing them early and often, and sharing the ‘contract’ proudly with others to reinforce a focus.


This pathway will lead to success only if the relevant parties can weigh in, candidly and without consequence, on the elements that are outlined. Further, for this form of contracting to produce targeted results, it must also be true that:

  • Each party believes that there will be no success without the other.
  • Each party has the real option to proceed or decline based on the contents of the agreement (i.e., the right of refusal or mutual consent).
  • Each party is motivated to deliver real benefits to the target audience, as well as to the project partners (i.e., valid consideration).
  • Each party is willing to be ‘in the room together’ to make these agreements.

Final Guidelines

The most successful posture all adults can assume at work is the following: Take 100% responsibility for your 50% of the relationship. Regardless of how easy or hard the other parties make the contracting conversations, you (and the work) will be best served if you:

  • Say what you really think and feel (directly and respectfully).
  • Call out the hard choices and tradeoffs early.
  • Provide the levels of reliability, mutuality, and predictability you are asking for from your partners.
  • Help your partners learn/get something beyond what they asked for. Always.

A Tool: How to Forge Clear Agreements with Colleagues

What follows is a template for people to follow first, and modify AFTER having some direct experience with the ROI of clarity related to each element. Like spinach, sometimes you have to try it first to appreciate the lasting value.

What The deliverables defined in words and numbers

Who There are many stakeholders to consider:

  • For Whom: the decision makers/project owners/project funders
  • By Whom: the action-doers
  • Serving Whom: the priority constituency that need to most benefit from this project result

Why Don’t assume the why, make it clear:

  • The overall purpose of this work (what problem is being solved and/or what opportunity is being leveraged)
  • The facts that led to this investment: i.e., data about the problem or opportunity; data about the efficacy of the proposed solution

When Outcome and milestone deadlines for both delivering something to someone and assessing/communicating progress

How Key elements of the strategy:

  • How will it be known that they are on board with the exact investment of time/energy, etc. required or presumed?
  • What information will have to be shared by whom and about whom for work to be done and results to be assessed/share?
  • By what means will you reach the deliverable?
  • What measures will be used to assess and track the quality of the outcome and use of resource?

Celebration You will know it’s time to celebrate when you know:

  • What are the numerical targets that will represent success?
  • When will the results be measured/communicated?
  • Who will do the announcing?
  • How will credit be apportioned?
  • What would constitute a failure and how would accountability be shared?
  • What are the necessary hand-offs to arrange for sustainability?

Relational Elements

1. Along with bottom-line business successes, what do the key players genuinely hope for via the project experience and result? (For maximum success, always assume it’s more than just financial success that constitutes meaning, legacy, and fulfillment to individual professionals)

2. What are the concrete descriptors of what a great partnership looks and feels like to everyone involved? The key to remember is that there is no wrong answer… just clear and calibrated expectations and longings. For instance: One person might think that a trusting partnership means close to full autonomy whereas the other might expect frequent check-points as a sign of mutual respect and inclusion. For best results, review the following questions together:

  • How will we communicate routine information to each other?
  • How will we alert each other to things possibly going wrong?
  • How will we work through surprises?
  • How will we disagree with each other?
  • How will we talk about each other on good days? On bad days?
  • How much time will we spend with each other?
  • How much of our personal lives/experiences will we share?

3. Knowing ourselves and our trigger points, what might cause our partnership to be damaged by this experience?

4. What (real or perceived) imbalances might we expect to occur in this project and what should we do when they start to appear?

5. How will we deal with (i.e., uncover, communicate, resolve) the inevitable minefields, surprises, and setbacks? How should we deal with real or perceived lapses in our highest intentions?

6. What are our respective needs/wants about confidentiality? What is okay to talk about and with whom? What is not okay to talk about and with whom?

7. After all is said and done, what are our top 3 reservations about proceeding and how should those concerns be routinely monitored and managed?

8. What would signal the need to renegotiate this agreement and how should that be initiated?

9. What OTHER issues feel important to raise now about working together?


Laurie Anderson, PhD, is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years experience as an executive coach to leaders in organizations ranging from Fortune 100 companies to the World Bank. Visit or call 1-708-524-2444 for more information on Laurie’s services for individuals, groups, and organizations.

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