A Conversation about Influence: Conversation #2

Image: conversations About InfluenceAllan Cohen & B. Kim Barnes

Allan Cohen, DBA, is the author of many books about leadership and influence, including Influence Without Authority (with David Bradford; Wiley, 3rd edition, 2017). Kim Barnes is the CEO of Barnes & Conti Associates, Inc. and is the author of several books including Exercising Influence: A Guide for Making Things Happen at Work, at Home, and In Your Community (Wiley, 3rd edition, 2015.) Allan and Kim are neighbors, colleagues, and friends as well as fellow Wiley authors.

While we both focus on the topic of influence, we approach it from different backgrounds. This has led to many interesting conversations. We thought it might be useful to share some of them with you. We took several influence situations (borrowed with permission from Barnes & Conti’s Exercising Influence program material) and thought about how we might advise a client to approach them.

You need the support of a senior manager to sell your department on the need for a change in a key business process. This manager is not noted for risk-taking and usually prefers to have direct reports out front on changes. This time you need a strong and public commitment.

Kim: I would begin by learning where the manager stands on the change. Ask some open-ended questions about the proposed change and draw them out to learn how they see it. Maintain a neutral stance in order to learn as much as possible. Identify any concerns and what might need to change for them to be able to support it publicly. Summarize your understanding of their position. If they don’t wholeheartedly support the change, you may then need to disengage temporarily to consult with other change leaders as to how the change might be rethought. Engage with the manager to come to an agreement on a revised plan; then be direct in explaining why it would be important to have their public support. If needed, describe the consequences of not having senior manager support – i.e., people might not take it seriously, the change might not occur in a timely way, etc. If the manager remains reluctant to take a public stand, ask what you could do to make it easier for them, then provide whatever information or other support they ask for if it at all possible.

Allan: This is particularly challenging because you are trying to get a senior manager to exhibit uncharacteristic behavior.  Although I agree with Kim that a good first step is to understand how the manager views the proposed change, and then to see if modifications can be made, I suspect that the bigger problem is working to understand the manager’s reluctance to take out-front positions.  That makes it possible to empathize with their concerns and risks. Then, if necessary, help them see the consequences of choosing not to publicly support an idea or proposal. Acknowledge the value of allowing direct reports to gain visibility in front of senior management and give an example of such visibility that has made a positive difference for a direct report. Senior managers often take pride in helping develop junior people in this way.

So, ask the manager to consider situations when support from someone in the senior role can help accomplish important change. Treating this as a useful exploration of how managers can effectively use their formal position can make the discussion a developmental one for both of you. If you find that the reluctance to take a public stance reflects the manager’s ambivalence about using position to reinforce proposed change, you will be doing them a favor by opening new possibilities for effective leadership.

Kim: Allan, I like that you see this as an opportunity to deal with this issue in a deeper way. I think your approach can work if the manager trusts you and sees you as a person they can learn from or with. This can be true if you have a formal or informal role as a “trusted advisor” or are seen as something of an expert in the art of leadership – for example, if you are an internal or external organizational consultant.

Allan:  It would be much easier if you already had a trusted advisor relationship, formally or informally. Nevertheless, one can use the opportunity to deepen the relationship and become a trusted advisor, even if you haven’t been thought of in that way. One way to become more trusted for your advice is to recognize that there may be a big potential gain for the other and to get to the wider organizational perspective in discussing it.  But I concede that it carries risks, and the possibility of being seen as “too big for your britches.” Which risk is worse, being told to tone it down, or have your project fail for lack of support? It takes skill and grace to communicate to a senior manager about something they are unaware of and to provide your insight as a service, not a “gotcha.”

Kim: Fortunately, many of those who read this operate in the world of organizations with great skill and grace – but also the ability to balance risk and reward.

Watch for the next iteration of this conversation and feel free to challenge us with your own influence scenarios!

Allan and Kim

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