- You’re a CEO who needs to get a significant project signed off from the Board.
- You’re a mid-level manager keen to let the exec team know they’re piling on too many conflicting priorities.
- You’re a front-line leader who wants your direct manager to adopt your idea.
What do these three situations and leaders have in common? The need to influence up.
Influencing those with more positional power than you is a critical skill to master if you want to be a successful leader. The ability to truly influence – without being able to rely primarily on your authority – can make a world of positive difference, not only to yourself, but – more importantly – those you lead. Getting your message heard up the chain impacts the leaders above you that you’re wanting to influence too and, ultimately, the organisation.
This skill really can be ‘make or break’. I’ve seen skilled managers fail because they haven’t yet nailed this and, worse, I’ve seen bad leaders succeed in their roles because they’re skilled at it.
Influencing up is not sucking up either. If your ‘influencing up’ moves into political manoeuvring and excessive politicking, then it’s not effective leadership. Managing or influencing up is as much about outlining risks and challenges as it is about getting your ideas heard and agreed to by those in positional power.
Here are 5 ways to do it better:
- Drop your agenda. Pick up theirs.
When wanting to influence others, we can get a little too gung-ho on why whatever it is we’re suggesting is a good thing for us or our team. We get overly excited and talk just about that. YOU know why it’s a good thing from your perspective, after all. But its more effective to get into their shoes. What’s in it for them? If you were them, what would the benefits of your idea be? What are the risks to them, or to what they care about, if they don’t take up your brilliant idea? My friend Russell Pickering took a great look at this in one of his recent articles.
Before you start selling your idea as the best thing since sliced bread, forget for a moment about yourself or your stakeholder and look at it from the other side. This might seem basic, but I have seen even seasoned leaders forget to do this.
- Communicate in a way they like, not how you like (which may be very different).
If you’ve ever looked into Social Styles, you’ll know that people have preferred ways of communicating.
- A Driver wants you to get to the point quickly. Give them options – preferably bullet points. Cut the niceties and long paragraphs.
- An Analytical is all about research, proof and the process. Don’t rush them and be prepared for low risk-taking. The worst thing you could do to land your idea with this person is to bounce into their office without a meeting or agenda and riff this new idea.
- An Expressive leader is all about the latest thing. What’s the big idea? Drop “innovative” or “cutting edge” into the conversation and do that brainstorm.
- An Amiable leader wants to know all about the impact on people. Ask them questions more than tell them stuff.
You get the drift. If you’re an Amiable trying to influence a Driver, you need to show some versatility and adapt your communication style. This will be very different from how you primarily like to communicate. You don’t have to understand Social Styles in depth to do this well. Just watch and consider their different preferences when it comes to communication. And realise that people are different from you when it comes to what lands well.
- Ask yourself, who and what do they listen to?
You’ve probably seen whoever it is that you’re trying to influence be influenced successfully by others. Taking out sexism, misogyny and racism at play (which is another battle altogether), you have probably seen them listen effectively to others.
Maybe Mary in accounts seems to get things through with the exec team. What does she do? How does she approach it? Is there something distinct about her approach that you can adopt? Can you even enrol them or other key stakeholders further up the chain to help your case?
Is it all about bottom line? Would they be interested in the latest HBR article or leadership book where an expert outlines your case well? Think about what these people deem as reliable sources of information and consider how you could leverage these to make your case.
- Outline the risks of inaction.
This one is standard practice, but it’s not used enough in my opinion. Once again, go back to thinking from their point of view and consider the risks of inaction if they don’t do what you’re proposing. Sometimes the house is burning down and it’s you who can be the smoke alarm. Other times, the risks are more long-term but equally serious. And yes, once again, look back to point 2 too. Consider how who you are talking to wants to receive information. Do you need statistics, data and research to point out the risks? Or will saying that the market-leading competitors are all doing it and we will be left behind if we don’t cut it as the angle? Or maybe they’re an Amiable and the risk to engagement and employees will be huge if they don’t adopt this idea? You can make the same point in different ways.
- Let go of the outcome. Focus on what is within your control.
Sometimes when influencing up you do all the things and it still doesn’t work. Maybe you’re frustrated at their response which you deem to be “stupid” or “short-sighted”. Maybe they interrupted you and didn’t listen. People will be people and you can’t always get what you want yaddah yaddah. Focus on what you have in your control – your own behaviour and approach.
If you reflect on your behaviour, planning and thought, how you responded – even if you don’t get it across the line – you’ll learn and can take comfort in that.