As leaders, we often overlook our greatest opportunities to influence that exist in the conversations right in front of us every day. We miss chances to take the lead in relationships. We miss opportunities to initiate discussions in which we could coach, teach, or resolve complexity. Consequently, we are kept awake at night by what results from missing those opportunities to influence the future. Often we operate as if those unintended and unanticipated consequences do not exist.
Whatever you ignore or deny doesn’t go away. It may appear to. But it just resurfaces at some later date with hair on it.
Although we may not know what actions we can take on behalf of all stakeholders to effectively influence the people involved, we can do something to break the vicious cycle of worrying. We can start to notice exactly what conversations we’re in during the day in which we don’t pay attention to our concerns. We can then take advantage of these opportunities to be more “intimate” in our conversations with the individuals concerned.
One founding CEO I was in conversation with a while ago was concerned that one of her young, high-functioning direct reports would not be up to playing the bigger game on the bigger platform they were planning for the company. She had no direct indication from this person that it would be a problem for him—just a sense from comments he’d made that he would be challenged to grow in this way. She was ruminating with me about how he would interpret what was happening and whether he would still see his value as the company grew. Recognizing that talking about it with me wasn’t moving them any closer together, she asked what she could do.
No relationship improves spontaneously. Influence happens when you’re in a conversation.
I invited her to consider first whether she believed in this person’s capacity to grow in this way and to shift his orientation to the future. With her belief in him affirmed, we looked at how she, as a leader, wanted to influence his interpretation of how this change would affect him.
She had her own interpretation, a vision of the future that included him. She could teach him about her vision and invite him into it. Absent this conversation, her concerns would remain hers and hers alone. Nothing would improve.
APPRAISING OR CALIBRATING?
The challenge to having this intimate conversation for the founder would be to get beyond the unintended influence of hierarchical authority so that it wouldn’t stimulate fear in the young man. Everyone needs their job for one reason or another. And no one ever forgets who their boss is. Our concerns about our careers and personal futures won’t disappear overnight. We have too much at stake to not pay attention to rank.
Most people are motivated to not lose the job they have. It’s our job as leaders to transcend the primal fear that our hierarchical authority engenders.
In our work together, the founder and I designed the direct, peer-based conversation she wanted to have with her direct report. She felt that, as his boss, asking him to have any conversation would be intimidating. She sensed there was an implicit expectation that any conversation she initiated would be interpreted as a performance appraisal of sorts. I suggested she start by telling him what the purpose of the conversation would be (what she wanted him to know), rather than avoiding it (for fear of the purpose of the conversation being misinterpreted).
We discussed how this one conversation could open up their relationship, so that she could coach her direct report as situational dynamics played out. By initially declaring that she wanted to talk with him because she believes in him and his value to the organization, she could preempt any concern he might have about his tenure. She could even open up the possibility of his ongoing professional development.
Her commitment going in was to help him prepare for the coming change, and to establish a routine of communication so that when things get predictably messy they would be able to talk about it together. So she also chose to invite him to clarify his expectations of her in the form of support and communication. In this way, they were able to calibrate how they would work together.
INFLUENCE AND LEADERSHIP
It’s not uncommon to have legitimate expectations of our colleagues, but not communicate them clearly. We often look at each other in our roles and automatically expect specific things because “that’s something someone in your role would do.”
Influence comes in sharing what you see, your observations, and interpretations AND inviting other people to share theirs. This is where influence as a leader manifests. It’s not in observing, commenting on, and talking about how we want someone to be different. It’s in talking through our interpretations, visions, and commitments together that we get to the heart of the matter. And the heart of the matter is to be committed to a shared vision of the future–no matter how near or distant.