The ability to influence effectively is a vital competency for managers, particularly when it comes to ensuring the success of big strategic initiatives. In high-stakes situations, such as a company-wide change programme, restructure or roll out of a business-critical technology system, it’s important to get key stakeholders on side from day one.

Winning support for major projects like these, however, isn’t always easy–particularly with today’s flatter management structures, where leaders may find themselves having to influence people over whom they have no direct control. The rise of geographically dispersed teams is an added complication. Persuading peers to support an initiative that could radically affect the way they operate is that much harder when you are having to build relationships in the virtual space, with people you may never have met.

Matrix organisational structures, where boundaries between roles are fluid and employees may have dual reporting relationships, can also be difficult to navigate. In this scenario, employees are typically drawn from different functional disciplines to make up project teams, while still retaining their original role – making it difficult to identify where key stakeholders sit and what their perspective on initiatives might be.

So, what are the influencing skills and techniques you need to rise to the challenge and drive strategic initiatives through successfully?

Identify key stakeholders

Work out who the key stakeholders for your project are likely to be. Think about who will be supportive, who will fall into the ‘neutral’ camp and who is likely to meet you with resistance. Don’t limit your list to the movers and shakers in the business. Make sure you also include the influencers who can open doors or give you access to the data you need to support your case. Assess where you already have relationships and where you will need to invest time in building them. List all your key stakeholders and try to prioritize them in terms of their importance to the success of your project. You could rate them on a scale of 1 -10 so that you can you can see at a glance who the key players are and how much work you need to do to get the right people on side.

Take a strategic approach

Once you have a clear picture of the stakeholder situation, you need to start planning how you will communicate and build relationships. If you’re working on an initiative that is critical to the success of the business going forward, stakeholder engagement isn’t something that can be left to chance–or indeed to one person alone. Everyone in the project team needs to take responsibility for making sure all the right people are consulted, informed and involved, to whatever degree is appropriate. Draw up a timeline for on-going communication with all the relevant parties, thinking carefully about what level of communication different people will need, how frequently you need to engage with them to maintain momentum and what approaches or channels you will use.

Flex your influencing style

We all have a preferred influencing style. Maybe you are someone who likes to focus on presenting the facts and figures to make a compelling business case. Or perhaps you prefer to whip up energy and enthusiasm by telling stories and painting a vision of what the future could look like. It’s important to recognize, however, that the people on the receiving end of your influencing efforts will have their own preferences around how they like to receive and process information. Some will want a formal presentation, with the pros and cons and all the salient details set out in black and white. Others will prefer a more discursive approach and will want to talk through the implications informally, before going away to reflect on their response. The best influencers are able to draw on a toolkit on influencing techniques and approaches, picking up on subtle signs about how best to deliver their message and adapting their style to suit the audience and the environment.

Understand other’s perspective

Try to step back from the situation and put yourselves in other people’s shoes. You may recognize that the planned initiative is going to make a positive difference to the business, but others may not see it like that. Think about how the planned change or new initiative will affect the people you need to engage. What impact will it have on the way they go about their work? What concerns are they likely to have, for their own role, and for the way their teams operate and are structured? Engaging in an open debate about the issues is more effective than trying to wrestle people into submission. Ask lots of questions and genuinely listen to what people have to say. These honest conversations will help you build trust and buy-in and will probably help to generate insights and ideas that will lead to a better outcome in the end.

Aim for a win-win situation

In business, as in life, it’s not always possible to get exactly what you want. But you are more likely to achieve a successful outcome for your initiative or change programme if you can find a way to deliver mutual benefit. Find out what is driving colleagues’ agendas and what is behind any resistance or lack of buy-in you may be encountering. They may be under pressure to deliver their own projects to tight deadlines, for example, and are concerned that your plans will get in the way. Try and show people how your proposals align with their own strategic or departmental goals. If you can identify what all parties involved stand to gain, you will have more chance of getting people engaged and achieving a win-win situation.

Author: Pam Jones is a Professor of Practice at Ashridge Executive Education. As a member of the Ashridge Open Programmes management team, Pam has responsibility for the design and delivery of a suite of influencing and performance management programmes. Before joining Ashridge Pam worked internationally with HSBC based in Hong Kong, and with Monash Mount Elisa Business School in Melbourne.

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