How to influence people outside your organisation

For today’s leaders, winning the commitment of people outside the ambit of their power is a significant stepping stone to achieve desired outcome



In every conversation I have had this past year with business executives, the talk turns to the increasing complexity of top level jobs. By complexity, these senior leaders mean that rapid unpredictability has become endemic. They are not able to operate their factory or office or business in a consistently smooth way.  New legislation, foreign competition, labor discontent, protests by social activists, lagging adoption of new technologies, currency fluctuations, and other disruptive events can unexpectedly eat their profits or damage their company’s brand image.

But the volatility of the external environment is just one side of how globalisation and technological progress have impacted organisations. The other side is the organisation’s internal environment. Within organisations, traditional hierarchical lines of authority represented by pyramids are giving way to single lines with multiple dotted lines drawn as networks and matrices. Indeed, the jargon is switching from “moving up the career ladder” to “travelling across the career lattice.”  Describing these new organisational structures almost 10 years ago, Thomas Friedman announced in his book, The World is Flat that, “hierarchies are being flattened and value is being created less and less within vertical silos and more and more through horizontal collaboration within companies, between companies and among individuals.”

Evidently, with the challenge of leading organisations becoming so much more complex, the demands on leaders have become that much more intense. To cope effectively, several new capabilities are needed. One in particular is the focus of this article: boundary spanning leadership. The essence of boundary spanning leadership is learning to influence people over whom one does not have direct authority or power in order to achieve a co-created vision. Here is how the idea of boundary-spanning leadership translates into practice.

Boundaries mark the edge of a territory, indicating a limit or border. But boundaries can also be the location of new or advancing activities. Chris Ernst and Jeff Yip, researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), have identified five boundaries: vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic, and geographic. So, for example, spanning a vertical boundary means leading across levels of employees differentiated by hierarchical rank and titles. This happens regularly in organisations and has always been considered one of the main roles of a leader.

But the remaining four boundaries are not as easy to span. Horizontal boundaries involve working across functions with peers with a different expertise. Stakeholder boundaries call for building relationships with partners outside the organisation—such as vendors, customers, shareholders, advocacy groups, governments and communities. Demographic boundaries relate to harmonising the different motivations and working styles of men and women of all ages and from differing educational and regional backgrounds. Geographic boundaries call for crossing distance, locations, countries and cultures—usually by working virtually. Spanning these boundaries demands that leaders learn to influence others without exercising hierarchical authority. For today’s leaders, winning the commitment of people outside the ambit of their power is the hallmark of success, and is essential to achieving desired outcome.

In an interdependent world, where the actions of independent stakeholder groups can impact the company’s business results in positive or negative ways, what does it mean to be influential? What can be achieved by using influence? How can influencing be learned? To address these questions, I will share two real-life stories (of managers who have been given fictional names), and then focus on what C-suite leaders and business owners must do to work effectively with people outside their organisation.

Consider Shakander Singh who relocated early in his career from Punjab to Tamil Nadu to be a sales manager for an agro-business firm. He didn’t know a word of Tamil. Moreover, in rural India where relationships are paramount for doing business, he did not have the advantage of his predecessor–a senior manager who had worked in the region for 20 years and knew the market and people like the back of his hand. Soon after, the sales function was decentralised and Shakander picked up additional responsibilities for opening and running a regional office. Could he succeed?

Charged with building the business single-handedly, he spent the first four months travelling incessantly to meet every customer several times over. He turned his language disability into an advantage, thoroughly entertaining his clients by his comical attempts to speak Tamil. His halting business communication did not become a liability because customers valued the objective, logical and transparent way in which he made quick decisions. Over three years, he earned the commitment of customers and increased his sales force and business volume, which won him acclaim from his seniors and a promotion.

When Shri Gokul Parikh was assigned to manage a factory beset by problems—such as exorbitant operating expenses, outdated technologies, rampant absenteeism, lack of quality consciousness among workers, and aggressive union leaders—he and his management team decided against recommending closure of the factory to the senior bosses. Instead, they chose to work directly with the union and the workers. For this, they reached out to convince employees that if the factory became profitable, the economy of the township and region would improve and workers and their families would prosper. Somehow, the workforce sensed that the management team had a sincere purpose and were won over by their honest, transparent communication. This set the stage for introducing a simple process for drastically reducing absenteeism and within a year, production grew from 75 per cent to 125 per cent of target.

In both these instances, the managers had to reach out to work with people outside their direct span of control and win their cooperation. Singh had to interact with customers to keep and grow his agri-business. Parikh had to align his own management team and then communicate with residents to turnaround dismal productivity and change the fortunes of their factory-based township. How did they manage to do this?

As these stories illustrate, gaining influence is essential to leading others. Ideas have to be sold, people have to be motivated, and decisions have to be implemented. The first step toward becoming influential (according to earlier research at CCL) is to broaden one’s own ways of influencing others. One must ask oneself: Is my current style appealing to my listeners’ head (for thinking), heart (for feeling), or feet (for action)? When tackling a problem, each of these styles will work with some stakeholders and not others. So, why not learn to use all three?

Logical appeals include facts and detailed evidence, propose competing choices, explain why a particular option makes more sense, and spell out reasonable next steps for handling an issue. Stakeholders are persuaded because long-term benefits are clearly described.

Emotional appeals connect with the group or individual’s values and motivations, and their image of themselves as competent or good people. Stakeholders are introduced to a vision that they can fully support, infused with enthusiasm, and supported by the appeal-maker’s confidence in their ability to achieve the vision.

Cooperative appeals describe the resources available, propose how obstacles on the path ahead can be removed, identify champions, and seek feedback and ideas from stakeholders. This appeal works best when the initiating manager is able to walk his or her talk, can volunteer time and expertise, and knows how to build coalitions and alliances to advance the effort.

Influence cannot be taken for granted. Influence must be secured—at first, through genuine human interaction and dialogue, with one person or one group at a time. When seeking to influence others, customisation counts; a wise tactic is to consider what kind of appeal to make – to head, heart, or feet. And mentally rehearsing different ways to dialogue—with an individual or group–is always useful.  Evolved professionals realise that when working in an organisation, it is not about having great ideas; it is about pushing through ideas inside and outside one’s workplace–across many people with many diverse priorities– in order to make something happen.

The importance of learning to influence others over whom one does not have formal authority is well expressed by one senior manager’s comment. He said: “I had a picture of what I wanted to do. But then, merely having the picture is not a solution in itself because you need the support of the entire system to make you successful.”  His observation must be taken to heart for it typifies the perspective of highly effective managers who have learned to influence without authority, and thereby successfully introduced changes, launched innovations, and achieved outstanding results.

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