HOW TO INFLUENCE SOMEONE WITH MORE AUTHORITY THAN YOU
The one question I am asked more than any other, by a factor of ten, is “how do I influence a stakeholder with more positional power than me?” The stakeholder could be a boss, head-office, a chairman, a board, shareholders or the government.
Typically, the person asking me the question is required to do something they don’t believe in, such as commit to an “unrealistic” financial target. By the time I hear about it, they’re usually frustrated and fixated on why the stakeholder is wrong and they’re right. They explain their logic to me in great detail, and ask me for strategies to help convince their more powerful stakeholder to see the word through their eyes.
This is exactly the wrong approach. Your ability to influence those with positional power has little to do with your logic and zero to do with what you see through your eyes. Instead, it’s a function of two main factors; your currency and your courage. Before you even consider trying to influence someone with more power than you, make sure you have assessed both of these factors very carefully, to see whether you have any chance of success.
Your ‘currency’ is a metaphor for your credibility, your reliability and your motive. Before you start assessing yourself favourably on these dimensions, let me be clear; how you perceive yourself is completely irrelevant. The only thing that matters is how your more powerful stakeholder would assess you, if they were speaking freely about you to someone else.
How would they assess your credibility on the issue at hand; do they believe you are the ultimate authority or do they feel that they know more than you do? Given your track record of delivering on your commitments to them, how would they assess your reliability? What about your perceived motive; to what degree would they believe you are acting in your interests versus their interests?
Before you try and influence anyone with positional power, take a really critical look at yourself through their eyes. If you believe you have high credibility and high reliability, you have a ticket to the game. Once you’re at the game, it’s all about your perceived motive. Your stakeholder must believe that you are acting in their best interests, not yours. In essence, they must feel that you care even more about their needs than they do.
Currency is the first condition that is necessary for influence. If you have that, it becomes a question of courage.
Put simply, your courage is your risk appetite. It’s ultimately a question of what you are prepared to stake in pursuit of your outcome. At one end of the spectrum, you may be fearful for your job and not willing to tolerate any risk at all. If this is where you’re at, then you have almost no ability to influence the situation. My best advice is to let go of your frustration, accept your situation, and get on with it as best you can.
If you’re at the other end of the spectrum, you may be willing to stake it all. Perhaps you’ve had enough of being ignored or micro-managed, or perhaps you feel so strongly about your point of view that you’re prepared to walk away if your stakeholder insists on pushing ahead. If this is you, and you have high currency, then you’re in the strongest possible position to influence your stakeholder.
A high-stakes example
A CEO client was having a terrible time with his company’s major shareholder. The shareholder was becoming increasingly interventionist, culminating in an expressed desire for the CEO to deliver another round of cost savings. The CEO had spent lots of time with the shareholder, helping them understand why that course of action was not in the best interests of anyone, laying out all of the data and logic, but to no avail.
From a currency point of view, the CEO had delivered exceptional performance over his first three years, including an aggressive ‘cost-out’ program. He was considered to be one of the best leaders in the industry, was loved by his people and admired by the business community more broadly. He had always acted in the best interests of the business and there was also no ready successor should he leave. Sufficed to say, his currency was very high.
After weeks of fruitless conversations, the CEO’s courage rose to the same level as his currency. He told me he was not prepared to continue in what had become an increasingly interventionist situation. In particular, he was not prepared to inflict another cost-out program on the organization under any circumstance. He was prepared to resign if it came to that, even though there were significant financial consequences for him in making that decision.
I confirmed that this was not a negotiation tactic; he was detached from the outcome and prepared for it to go either way. I also confirmed that this was not his ego talking; he was genuinely trying to act in the best interests of the business. With this context, we prepared a short monologue, which he delivered at his next interaction with this shareholder.
“I believe I have delivered on every expectation and commitment over our three years together, and led this business to a position of market leadership. Despite this, in the past few months, you have increasingly questioned my judgment and intervened in the operations of the business, culminating in this latest request for more cost savings. I have tried repeatedly to help you understand why this is not in your best interests, the interests of our customers or our staff, but to no avail. Of course, it is entirely your prerogative to have a CEO who is prepared to execute your wishes, including another cost-out program. In good conscience, however, I cannot do that. If you are determined to push ahead, then I’m no longer the CEO you need. I love this business, but I will step aside if you no longer trust my judgment. I realize this sentiment is probably not what you were expecting, so let me give you some time to think about it. I look forward to your decision, and will respect it either way.” Then he got up and left.
The shareholder called him within the hour to express how much he appreciated the CEO’s selfless commitment to the business, apologized for the increasingly interventionist behavior and asked him to continue in the role. The CEO regained an appropriate level of autonomy, did not do any more cost-out programs, and continued to lead the business very successfully.
Next time you find yourself at odds with someone more senior than you, rather than get lost in logic, data and a debate you are unlikely to win, start by reflecting honestly on your currency and your courage in that particular context. These two factors have a much greater bearing on your ability to influence them.
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