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Executive Influence

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A  perplexing but not uncommon phenomenon is when high performing leaders advance to more senior roles, only to struggle with achieving the kind of outcomes that distinguished their careers in the past. Did the organization misjudge their talent? Did the leader suddenly become less competent?  In most cases the answer is a resounding no. Instead, these leaders were not sufficiently prepared to assume the challenges of leading and delivering results across a complex, matrix organization where they need to rely more on their influence and less on their functional expertise. The good news is that influence can be taught and developed, and leaders can be better prepared for these new challenges.

There are many factors that contribute to successful influence, such as reputation, industry expertise and formal authority. In addition, executive presence and  strong presentation skills are important. Most leaders are able to develop the latter through practice and preparation, in addition to drawing on functional knowledge. However, there are additional components of effective influence that become more important as one’s span of responsibility increases. These include:

  1. Effective analysis of key stakeholders
  2. Adapting one’s communication to optimize fit with different audiences
  3. Leveraging key relationships to augment support with key constituents

In trying to gain buy-in from key stakeholders across an organization, it is essential to start with a rigorous analysis of their objectives and priorities. Will they be supportive, neutral or actively resistant to the position the leader is promoting? Conducting a thorough due diligence for each key stakeholder allows one to understand their unique viewpoint as well as potential “hot buttons.” In addition to rigorous analysis, leaders need to demonstrate keen active listening to identify common ground between their position and key stakeholders.

Equipped with this intelligence, leaders are in a better position to socialize their ideas and tailor their delivery to meet the needs and style of their audience. For example, engaging a team of direct reports around a new initiative may require a more emotional and passionate appeal to build momentum. A more analytical appeal is often warranted when trying to secure resources and support in a senior leadership forum. However, a common mistake leaders make is burying the “headline” when communicating with senior leaders, erring on the side of too much data. Careful consideration of the audience and “what do they need to know?” to make a decision can alleviate this tendency.

One of the more practical models in the literature related to influence is one developed by The Center for Creative Leadership. This model identifies three influence tactics: Logical Appeal (rational and intellectual appeal that speaks to the mind), Emotional Appeal (passionate and energetic appeal that speaks to the heart) and Cooperative Appeal (establishes a mutual connection or benefit to the person you are trying to influence).  Often leaders tend to use the appeal that comes most naturally to them, but developing a broader repertoire of communication allows a leader to be more impactful with different audiences while still remaining authentic.

Finally, leveraging established partnerships with colleagues within the organization to influence stakeholders and lend support is a skill that goes beyond networking. Developing and nurturing relationships is essential, and in many of our client organizations this is critical to succeed within their culture. This also speaks to the need for organizations to be deliberate and proactive about ensuring new leaders from outside organizations have exposure to key stakeholders and constituents.

Promoting the development of influence is a sound investment to ensure the ongoing success of leaders as they assume broader responsibility and/or move into enterprise roles. Providing organizational support to foster effective influence can make the difference between success and failure for rising stars and key contributors.

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