There is a plethora of information out there about how to influence – and yet, according to our research, influence is still one of the top three most sought-after traits by leaders looking to develop their impact.
The leaders who most aspire to having more influence are those who have to lead from the centre – key middle managers with significant responsibilities – what we call the B-Suite.
Responsible for influencing their teams, negotiating with their peers, pitching ideas and issues up the line, and positioning their organisation positively in the external market, B-Suite leaders are influencing in all directions, all the time.
Without influence, B-Suite leaders could simply not do their jobs. Yet in the work that I do with B-Suite leaders, I have found that B-Suite leaders rate pretty poorly at being strategic about influencing.
When pressed, most leaders realise they want influence as a means to an end – few leaders see influence as the end in itself.
Purpose but no influence is frustrating – a statement that many leaders will relate to. But influence without purpose is pointless or dangerous. When you combine influence with purpose, you start to see B-Suite Leaders developing C-Suite impact.
The first thing that gets in the way of B-Suite Leaders having the influence they crave is their own mindset. Leaders often feel that they are being political. They feel that deliberate influence is quite Machiavellian. They watch other leaders managing up, or managing outcomes, and they often find it a little distasteful.
Without addressing your mindset, there’s no point investing in skillset.
Ask yourself, how do I feel about deliberate influence?
Most of us dislike the term ‘managing up’ intensely; for many of us it conjures up images of greasy-pole climbers and upwardly mobile politico types. Most of us don’t like to think of ourselves in this way, so we shy away from exerting influence deliberately.
In fact, we make excuses to avoid it. We tell ourselves that we are too busy, that we don’t know who to influence, that we are too introverted, that it’s not our job to influence or our structure or culture prevents us doing it.
While there is a level of truth in all of these statements, they are also convenient stories to avoid doing something that we don’t like or we don’t feel confident to do.
If you play at level, you’ll stay at level.
So how do we shift our mindset around influencing, stop making these excuses, and stop feeling frustrated?
First – be purposeful about what YOU want. Without purpose, influence is pointless. Be crystal clear about what you want from the act of influencing. Perhaps it’s about enhancing your day-to-day performance, removing roadblocks for your team, improving your relationship and influence, or increasing your perceived value and eventually, seniority. It can be as explicit as changing a stakeholders mindset, negotiating a win-win outcome, adjusting the balance of power in a relationship or asking for more resources.
Start every influencing exercise with a very clear purpose in mind, and the more that purpose is in service of others, the less distasteful you will find it.
Second – be purposeful about what THEY want. Remember, your audience does not want to say yes to your solution. They care about what will happen for them afterward. Describe, in detail, what that will look like.
By looking through the transaction (the point where you get what you want) and out the other side (to the point where they get what they want) you will ensure your influencing evolves from transactional to strategic.
Steve Jobs did this incredibly well – he described an experience, even a lifestyle, that would happen once you purchased an apple product. He based his influence on the most important question for his listeners – why should I care?
Lastly, take time to work out your pathway of influence. A planned pathway makes the difference between ordinary ideas getting there and great ideas getting nowhere.
Plotting the pathway is obviously critical in big, complex organisations but it can be even more critical in smaller and more nuanced organisations when you cannot afford a single wrong step. And it is an essential planning step for influencing when the stakes are high.
The pathway is made up of five key influencing conversations:
- Logical. A collaborating peer or a finance partner who supports the logic of your ask.
- Social. The cultural or reputation influencers in your organisation that could derail you.
- Functional. The owner of the greatest benefit needs to be your no1 ally.
- Influential. These are the people that your target decision-maker trusts; they may not even have a formal position. You may not know who they are to start with but you need to find out.
- Personal. Find out where they stand on the issue you are influencing on, never go in blind when the stakes are high.
For most B-Suite leaders, adjusting their relationship with influence – and how much they are prepared to invest in it – is a major tipping point in how much impact they will have.
The more you exert influence, the more influential you become, and the easier it becomes to influence outcomes.
Quite simply, influencing creates influence.
Written by Rebecca Houghton.