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 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62(originally published by Booz & Company)


Using Influence to Get Things Done

Convincing senior management colleagues to follow your lead requires a blend of skills that add up to influential competence.

New to her job as a senior vice president of IT at a Fortune 100 healthcare company, Kate faced a challenge that the firm had swept under the rug for a long time. Over many years, the company had installed multiple redundant technology platforms and poorly integrated systems, neglecting fiscal discipline and network efficiency. Since she controlled about US$180 million in corporate IT expenditures, or approximately 20 percent of the company’s total IT budget, Kate was asked to join a council composed of the company’s top executives and the 12 business unit heads who were responsible for the remaining 80 percent of IT costs. Their job was to adopt a plan for bringing the technology budget into line.

Kate knew that the only way to drive down the company’s overall costs was to eliminate the legacy IT systems of the business units and move all the software onto one platform. But doing so would cause a great deal of short-term pain and expense for the business unit executives, without generating a real improvement to their individual bottom lines. By recommending this, she would certainly step on the toes of the executives whose fiefdoms would be affected; moreover, she didn’t have the power to force any of them to accept her plan. And worse yet, Kate didn’t know the council members very well, and they didn’t know her.

Kate was in a tough spot, but not an uncommon one. Contrary to what’s implied by the Trumanesque “buck stops here” image of the CEO, most major decisions in large companies are made collaboratively. Executives work together in collegial small groups such as boards, councils, and committees and often arrive at decisions informally; titles tend not to be a major factor. Even when the CEO makes the final decision, groups of executives almost always play an important role in framing and formulating it. Thus, an executive’s ability to influence peers and superiors as they undertake a broad range of crucial decisions involving such issues as strategy, budgets, brand positioning and pricing, and capital investments is a valuable skill — a skill that could be called influential competence.

The Japanese may say that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” But every company seems to have one or two executives who are able to avoid the hammer — whose influence far exceeds their job title. When they raise a controversial issue, their colleagues and bosses pay close attention. Their pet topics make it onto the corporate agenda and are often successfully addressed, even when they involve thorny problems and difficult new directions for the organization. These executives get things done, whereas others, often with more formal authority and power, command, cajole, and threaten to no avail.

As one would expect, the effectiveness of executives who have achieved this kind of influential competence yields career dividends. Such people are valued employees, and they are often given challenging and rewarding assignments. Their employers benefit, too. Big problems get solved, executive decision making is enhanced, and the organization is flattened somewhat, making it more flexible and less rigidly tied to a top-down, command-and-control environment.

This is an attractive payoff, but how does a manager develop influential competence? To answer this question, we analyzed the methods of executives who are able to convince their peers to take on tough and potentially divisive problems and solve them through consensus and action. We found five factors critical to using influence well.

1. Build up the courage to raise difficult problems. “Most people have difficulty with leading in committees because they don’t want to do anything to damage their careers,” says Larry DeVries, who was a vice president at the McDonald’s Corporation before retiring in 2010 after 40 years of service. “But you can lead from within if you get to the point where you have the guts to say, ‘Here’s what I have identified as the problem. Here’s what I think is a good solution. Here’s what I have already started in motion. If you agree with me, fine. If you disagree with me, now is the time to tell me.’”

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