Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Influential Global Business Leader

During a workshop that I conducted recently with a corporate client, I met Tom Walker, who had joined the company several months ago after a 20-year career with an agency of the federal government, where he was in charge of a department of 50 people.  In his new company, he also has a big staff, about 30, but with one difference:  his staff does not report directly to him.  Tom is responsible for one of the company’s most important corporate initiatives, and he has been given resources and a sizable budget to move this initiative forward.  However, he (like several of his peers who are also global leaders with their own initiatives to drive) has to manage a team that is spread out globally.

Although Tom is excited about the challenge and the opportunity to make a difference, he is also quite frustrated.  “When I headed my former department, I had 50 people under me who would do whatever I said.  I was their boss.  Here, I am not their boss.  While I am the global leader for this initiative, and these guys have been assigned to my team, they still have a day job and I am not their direct boss.  It’s hard to get things done this way.”

It is obvious that Tom is still adjusting to his transition, and I hope that he will succeed in learning how to lead in this new way.  Tom’s role is not unusual these days, as many organizations are driving new initiatives and innovations with parallel teams while maintaining their core business.  In some cases, they create what Harvard professor John Kotter calls dual operating systems – preserving the traditional hierarchy while building networks and teams.  In other cases, organizations are building matrix-type structures.

What is clear is that more leaders today need to learn how to “influence without authority.”  Authors Cohen and Bradford wrote about this many years ago, and their book is still very helpful.  As I have observed, experienced, and thought about this, here is my advice on what characteristics people like Tom need to build on to improve their influencing skills, especially in the context of a global workplace.  For each of these, I am just scratching the surface on the subject, so consider this as just a starting point.

1.     Legitimacy.  Yes, we no longer should rely only on our title or our place in the organization’s pecking order.  However, people in organizations still want to know the legitimate basis for your authority.  Is the team that you are leading supported by a powerful sponsor?  Is the team’s mission an important one for the organization?  Especially in cultures that respect hierarchy, your influence will be greater if employees see you as having the title and the authority.  You just need to be very careful not to over-rely on formal authority as your basis for influence. 
2.     Reputation.  People in organizations have more respect for those who others perceive as a winner.  Have you been involved in other initiatives or work that has had a positive impact on your department or with other departments?  If you are new in the organization, how many people know about your past experience?  Building your internal reputation will help you to become a more influential leader.   In some organizations, it might be the experience you have had working in the industry, or your academic degrees.  In other organizations, it might be your accomplishments for having worked on some successful projects.  Or your reputation might come indirectly, that is, through your association with a prestigious department or initiative, or with a manager you worked for who himself had a good reputation.
3.     Credibility.  This is related to reputation, but is basically about whether people see that your deeds match your words.  Do you follow through on what you say you will do?  Do you honor your commitments?  It’s not surprising that the more credible a leader is, the more influence he or she is likely to have.
4.     Likability.   There has been a lot of research lately on the importance of being likable.  Or recent Harvard Business Review article emphasized the importance of connecting first, and then leading.  In my discussions with executives, many of them are not convinced that being liked is as important as some other characteristics, and perhaps they are right.  Leadership is not a popularity contest, although it helps if people have a positive emotional connection to you.  Think about executives in your organization who are very competent, but disliked.  Your competence will only take you so far.  Here’s the thing about likability.  It’s not about going to charm school, or being slick.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  You make yourself more likable if you think more of the other person than yourself, if you show a genuine interest in others and listen well to them.  It is really not about you, but about them.
5.     Communication.  Not just what you communicate, but how well you communicate is important to influencing effectively.  You don’t have to be a charismatic speaker, nor have a dynamic-sounding voice.  You do need to be sure that your content is substantial, and that you master some communication basics.  For example, when speaking to an audience, maintain eye contact, stand erect, and show confidence.  When sending an e-mail, make the subject line interesting and impactful, and keep the e-mail short.  It also helps to know your audience so you can tailor your communication accordingly.  When I used to make presentations to research scientists in a pharmaceutical company, I made sure that my presentations contained lots of data and references. When working with colleagues and customers in different cultures, learning to adjust how you communicate is critically important to business success. 
6.     Alignment.  So this is where you have to figure out how meeting the team’s goals will also help meet the individual’s goals.  This means you have to take the time to know each of your team members better, to find out what they are interested in, and to find ways to align their goals with your team goals.  If you are a leader of a global virtual team, it is especially important to understand team members’ goals and how you can help build alignment.  Chances are, your virtual team member has an office close to her local boss; perhaps, she was even hired by her boss and they have maintained close working relationships over the years.  You will clearly not have a strong initial influence on this virtual team member unless you build trust and alignment.  One of the ways to do this could be through connecting with your virtual team member’s boss.

You don’t need all of these to be an influential leader; however, but their impact tends to be cumulative.  For Tom, some of these are easily achieved than others.  He certainly has legitimacy, for he was brought in by senior management and placed in charge of one of the company’s most important initiatives.  His reputation and credibility are still untested.  Tom comes across as a bit gruff and brusque, giving the impression that he does not care for your opinion, and so his likability quotient may need to improve.  His communication skills are adequate, but a little passion in his style might help.  And Tom needs to spend more time with each of his team members (yes, all 30 of them!), and even with their day-to-day bosses, to be able to help align everyone’s goals with the team goals.

Whether your team reports directly to you in the organization, or they are matrixed to you, I am convinced that building these foundational elements will help you become a more influential global business leader.

Cohen, A. and Bradford, D.  (1989).  Influence Without Authority.  New York:  Wiley.
Cuddy, A. et al.  (July-August, 2013).  Connect, Then Lead.  Harvard Business Review.
Kotter, J.  (2014).  Accelerate.  Boston:  Harvard Business Review Press.