The Power of Proximity

Have you ever been passed over simply because you were not around when opportunity came?

Don’t feel bad—it’s the power of proximity, and it’s a normal function of organizational life. Those closest to the point leader often find themselves with the most opportunities. Not necessarily because they are the most talented, or the most capable, or even the best fit, but because they are there.

I’ll go ahead and say it for you: “That doesn’t seem fair.” It’s not, but neither is life, which doesn’t make anyone feel better, but nevertheless is still true.

Obviously, there are some drawbacks to proximity, but for a driven, young leader, the advantages typically far outweigh the disadvantages. Young leaders want new challenges and opportunities. They want to learn through experience and be coached on their performance. They want to better understand and contribute to the bigger picture, and there is no picture bigger than that carried by the point leader. Being near him or her matters.

Every point leader knows this is true, because they were once a younger leader vying for opportunity. But as a point leader, it’s easy to become consumed by the position. Unfortunately, allowing subtle forces like the power of proximity to go unnoticed and unmanaged eventually causes a range of problems.

We’ll get to those problems another time. For now, let’s talk about what you can do as a point leader to push past the power of proximity, because whether you are over an entire company or just a small team, this force is always present. If you are one of those young leaders waiting your turn to run point, stick this in your leadership tool belt, because one day you will be the one people are trying to sit beside.

Here are four specific ways I’m trying to fight the power of proximity with my staff:

1. Recognize its power

Pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t make it nonexistent. Boy, I wish that were true with many things in life, like four-way stops in my neighborhood!

The power of proximity does exist in every organization and every team.

I recently had coffee with a staff member two levels down the organizational chart. It was by his request, but there was no hidden agenda on either side of the table. We knew that, but his peers didn’t, and they were pretty skeptical. When someone lower in the organization meets with the point leader, his or her peers take always note.

Why did they care? Why does it matter who the point leader meets with? Because proximity to the leader can provide opportunities, and every leader wants to be in the opportunity batter’s box. Everyone below us knows it, so we should stop pretending it isn’t a reality.

2. Spread the wealth

Even if you don’t believe in political socialism, you should be an organizational opportunity socialist. Opportunities to try something new, lead something different, or just investigate a new skill set are not corporately few and far between, but when you are living on an organizational island, they can feel out of your reach. As a point leader, you can ensure that everyone who wants an opportunity gets one, because you are most likely the gatekeeper of opportunity.

3. Skip-Level Meetings

Knowing your staff from top to bottom is not always an option, but every leader can connect with more than just their direct reports.

At Watermarke, we have instituted something we call skip-level meetings—a leadership principle I learned from a fellow leader at North Point, Dan Stonaker. Here’s how it works:

Approximately once a week, I take a staff member who does not report directly to me out for lunch. If it’s a female staff, my assistant comes along. I provide the staff member a list of questions to consider prior to the lunch and, over our meal, I ask them to provide feedback on their job, their team, their boss, our team, and our mission. The goal is to solicit complete honesty, and thus far, it’s been incredible!

If you want the questions we use for our skip-level lunches, just subscribe to the blog before May 11, 2015. I’ll send everyone the full list of questions along with our approach at that time.

4. Diffuse competition by paying greater attention

People are doing GREAT stuff all over your organization, but if you don’t solicit stories and celebrate success, you will never know and inadvertently cause your staff to compete for your attention. It’s silly in a way, but if people know you know, it diffuses their tension.

This is an ancillary win to beginning every meeting by celebrating stories of success. Not only do we reinforce our mission and vision through celebration, we reward through public recognition. And I get to look people directly in the eye and personally tell them “thank you.” That means a lot.

Proximity will make a difference in your leadership ability. It can cause unwarranted competition among staff and lead younger leaders to prioritize getting noticed. If you as a leader don’t take active steps to mitigate the power of proximity, the unintended consequences could be both personally and organizationally significant. As point leaders, though, we can get this right, and in doing so help the leaders below us while keeping our organization healthy.

That’s all I’ve got. I’m still learning how to control this organizational power. What else can a leader do to avoid the pitfalls of proximity? Share this post and leave a comment below to let us all know.