“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.” ~Colin Powell~
Maura wants to expand her influence in her company, but she’s realizing some major barriers have existed there for years. “Maybe I should just find a new job in a company with a different culture,” she said to a trusted colleague over coffee. “I think you should stick it out,” said her colleague. “In any organization, you’re going to run into challenges to expanding your leadership influence. Effective leaders strive to pinpoint and overcome these challenges, her colleague added. Sometimes they eliminate an issue; other times, they learn to work with it. Here are four roadblocks to overcome for effective leadership influence.
- The company needs a shared vision.
The vision is where it all begins. If all employees in your organization don’t share a strong vision, they’re not really clear on what they’re working toward together. That affects their clarity on roles and their individual and department goals and objectives, as well as overall morale. If you’re trying to expand your influence in a workplace that has no clear shared vision, motivating people will prove challenging. Plus, your ability to win the respect and approval of executives will be compromised if you don’t know what they envision the organization becoming. The solution: Talk with executives about the company’s strategy and vision, so you can understand it, speak to it, and communicate it to other members of the organization. Then set goals with your people that reflect this vision.
- Dysfunctional office politics dominate company culture.
Unhealthy relationships and communication barriers make it harder to gain influence. If you’re trying to build a rapport with high-level execs, but many of them don’t get along, it may be hard to make connections with them. If managers play favorites, or favor certain types of projects just because they happen to like them more, you might have trouble making your ideas heard. However, you can still make yourself an indispensable part of the team, working to bring innovative solutions to the table to solve the big problems. You should also cultivate a team of allies who are influential players in the organization, and work to build positive relationships with everyone else. The effectiveness of your leadership, and thus, your influence, will grow when you have a strong rapport with everyone.
- Roles and responsibilities are unclear.
It’s hard to build influence and be an impactful leader if you’re not quite sure what you’re doing. First and foremost, you need to have clarity in your own role in the organization—and your boss needs to be on the same page. Talk with your boss to make sure you both agree on your role and responsibilities. If you have questions about the roles and responsibilities of others, bring this up with your boss as well. If you speak with higher level executives, point out the need for increased clarity about roles and responsibilities. Ask questions about roles during meetings to clarify what each person on the team will do. Reaching out to people in other departments to ask them what they view as their role may also give you clarity. Plus, if it reveals any discrepancy between your boss’s view and their own, you can ask your boss or an exec to help iron out the issue.
- Workflow processes are undefined.
For various departments to successfully work together toward an end goal, you need a clear work schedule. Your timeline needs to show when each step needs to be accomplished, and how the project needs to be moved forward after each step. The whole team needs clarity about who relies on whom, when, and why. All team members will feel more driven when they understand exactly what the team needs them to do, and when. Without this information, the project is likely to flounder. That means you should never assume that people have clarity on the workflow process—you should spell out every step, create notes or a flow chart detailing it, and make sure everyone has a copy for future reference.
Maura found that asking questions about important issues like roles and vision demonstrated her leadership potential by showing she was thinking about the big picture. Strengthening the workflow processes of the team she managed boosted her track record as a leader. Like Maura, don’t be afraid to question the way things are—you might be the first who has had the courage to do it. Your leadership effectiveness and influence will grow as you work to strengthen people’s understanding of how the organization functions and what it’s working toward.
Have you worked to overcome these challenges? What were your results—did you begin seeing your leadership influence grow?
“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” ~Andrew Carnegie~
David had realized that departments in his company functioned as silos. Information was getting trapped rather than shared; the way communication was supposed to flow was unclear. Building relationships across departments would be a great way to expand his influence, his mentor told him. “Influence isn’t just about leveraging authority,” she said. “It’s about building relationships that make people want to listen to your ideas, and not just with people in your department. This means building cross-functional relationships with people working throughout the organization, in a range of departments and levels of hierarchy. You might not work with them closely, but you all depend on each other.”
- Understand what they do. Learn about the functions of other areas of your organization, and why they’re important. Have one-on-one conversations with key players in other organizational areas to ask them about what they do. Then, help them understand your own department’s focus in turn. This knowledge will position you to serve as a bridge between departments, conveying the responsibilities of other organizational areas to the people with whom you work closely. Understanding one another’s roles will build respect and encourage collaboration where appropriate. Plus, understanding the path of the workflow through the company will give you a bird’s eye view of its operations, preparing you to advance in the organizational hierarchy.
- Learn about their goals and objectives. A key component of building cross-functional teams is learning the goals and objectives of other organizational areas. Ask key players in other departments what they’re working toward. Share your own goals and objectives as well. When you understand what they wish to achieve, you’ll see how they fit into the company’s vision more clearly. You’ll also know how you can support each other in achieving your departmental goals.
- Celebrate their accomplishments. When you hear of another department’s success in an endeavor, congratulate the people with whom you’re cultivating relationships and share your appreciation. Make sure your own people know about the success as well. Send an email saying that your whole department is excited to hear about the success, or pick up the phone and make a quick call. Acknowledgement and gratitude play a huge role in building strong relationships.
- Establish strong communication channels. Work to pinpoint how communication could improve between departments or levels of hierarchy. Talk with the people you’re building relationships with to get their perspective. Improving your communication skills might mean making sure people in your department knows how it’s supposed to flow, or setting up new guidelines. Getting everyone on the same page about how to communicate will go a long way toward strengthening relationships.
- Ask what they need. Positioning yourself as someone who helps others get what they need to get the job done will make them see you as a leader. They’ll see you as the best person in your department to reach out to when they have something to discuss. Besides, in a world where people are used to others making demands of them, being asked about their own needs is a breath of fresh air. They’ll appreciate the sentiment greatly.
Working to build cross-functional working relationships will show you’re serious about leadership, as creating open communication channels is a vital part of active leadership. Plus, it will build your knowledge of the whole organization, priming you for advancement. David found himself gaining respect from higher level executives as he worked to build these relationships. Eventually, he was promoted to a higher level of management, and his strong knowledge of the different areas of the organization had positioned him to succeed in this role.
Want one-on-one advice for implementing these strategies in your workplace? Learn about Joel’s executive coaching program.
Do departments communicate effectively in your organization, or do they operate as silos? Have you tried any of these tactics to improve the situation? Share your experiences here.
“May we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.”
~Dwight D. Eisenhower~
At a team meeting, Valerie pitched a marketing strategy she’d been thinking about for a while. A fellow team member vocally outlined a number of holes in the plan, leaving Valerie feeling shaken. She’d believed this was the best idea she’d ever brought to the table.
“Dealing with dissenters in the workplace can be scary,” a colleague told her later over coffee. “It forces you to get outside of your comfort zone and hear criticism about your ideas, your performance, or group dynamics that might sting at first.” Often it’s hard to hear because it’s expressed with a tone of anger or frustration, her colleague acknowledged. He then added, “But dissent is actually a gift—it points out gaps that need to be filled, weaknesses that need to be strengthened. When you’re open to hearing dissent, you’ll continually improve your best ideas. Plus, open communication is key to building trust in the workplace.”
How to encourage dissent at work:
- Ask for critiques. Soliciting criticism is the only way to make your people feel comfortable voicing it. Don’t assume they feel comfortable stating it just because you respond well to it. Ask for it assertively; show real enthusiasm for hearing it, rather than making weak statements like, “Feel free to voice any criticism you might have.” Explain why dissent is so important to your organization to show you’re committed to hearing and using it. Trusting your people to provide input will make your whole team shine.
- Ask follow-up questions. To really listen to what your dissenters have to say, prompt people to explain their rationale for their dissenting opinions. If in a group discussion, ask others what they think about the dissenting opinion. Dig deep into the issue, igniting conversation that helps people more fully understand how they feel about the issue. That way, the dissent won’t just be taken at face value, and one person won’t shift the direction of the plan without everyone’s input. Dissent in the workforce needs to be explored, validated, and utilized by the group to be effective.
- Make sure the comments are directed to the people who need to hear them. Communicating dissent is only empowering if the people voicing it know it will be heard by someone with the ability to use their feedback. Make sure people know who will hear their comments. For example, tell your team about your upcoming meeting with high-level executives and assure them you’ll share their feedback there, if appropriate. Then follow through, and share the results with your team.
- Ask for solutions. Challenge dissenters to present possible solutions, even far-fetched ones. When people start thinking creatively, solutions that higher-ups never imagined might take shape. However, people should feel free to voice dissent regardless of whether they’ve thought of a solution yet or not.
- Rework the plan together. If critiques go to only one person who reformulates the plan singlehandedly, you’ll just see different problems arise. The plan needs to be reworked by a group who can see it from different vantage points and talk through concerns that arise in the moment.
- Express gratitude for the dissent. When you share genuine gratitude in the workplace with someone for having the courage to voice their dissent, you’ll encourage more constructive dissent in the future. Thank the person in front of the group to send the message to everyone.
Dealing with dissenters in your workplace will grow easier as voicing dissent becomes an accepted part of the culture. When it’s welcomed rather than feared, people will start to present it in a more positive way rather than feeling they have to be aggressive about it or stay silent. As people put it into practice, they’ll hone their ideas into stronger plans of action. Additionally, hearing and working with dissent is an important way of becoming a strong communicator, which is key to career advancement. Valerie and her team worked to address the issues raised at the meeting, and together they created a plan that was stronger than any of them could have created on their own.
Do you encourage dissent in your workplace, or do you avoid it? Looking back, can you see any missed opportunities to grow from dissent? Share your stories here.
“The art of communication is the language of leadership.” ~James Humes~
Mei had just scheduled a one-on-one meeting with an upper-level executive in her company. She didn’t get much face time with high-level executives, so when communicating with them, she knew she had to make it count. She understood that talking with senior executives was a great strategy for boosting her visibility at work. She immediately called her mentor and asked for advice. Her mentor walked her through these six essential strategies for making the most of the meeting.
- Get to the point. Make your point clear at the start, rather than slowly meandering toward it. By letting the exec know exactly why you’re sitting down together, you’ll make the most of her time. Don’t be long-winded—keep your words short and sweet. Mentally rehearse what you’ll say beforehand, and write notes if that helps you, to keep yourself on point as you present your ideas. Presenting your ideas eloquently, and showing how they align with the big picture, will impress the exec. Plus, you’ll leave time in the conversation for dialogue.
- Ask questions to gain clarity about what the executive needs to hear. This will allow you to customize your message to what the leader needs to know. For instance, ask if he’s familiar with a project before launching into a description of it, so you’re not telling him things he already knows. At the beginning of your session, ask if he has particular concerns or interests that you could speak to. If he really wants to hear about project X, and you spend fifteen minutes talking about project Z, you might not have impressed him as much as you hoped.
- Listen to what the executive is and isn’t saying. When communicating with high-level executives, you’ll get feedback not only from what they say, but from what they don’t say. If the executive hasn’t commented on what you see as the most exciting part of your plan, try to discern her feelings about it. If you sense hesitation about an idea, ask how she feels about it, so you’ll have the opportunity to provide additional data or other information to back you up.
- Be natural. Your voice and body language should radiate confidence, but don’t act like you’re on a stage. Execs will see right through that. If you look like you’re performing, they’ll try to figure out what’s amiss. Be optimistic but honest about areas that need improvement.
- Let the executive know how to support you. Make the executive feel like an ongoing part of your team by letting him know how he can support you. You might need support in bringing your ideas to higher-level executives. Asking for help, and voicing your needs clearly, shows you’re serious about bringing your plan to fruition.
- Make a follow-up plan. The exec will feel like an ongoing part of your project if you have a plan for how you’ll check in about it. Set a follow-up meeting a month out, or say that you’ll email him once you reach a particular milestone to talk about the next steps.
By using these strategies, Mei came across as professional and competent to the executive—just the kind of person this leader wants to work with in the future. Plus, her mentor noted, communicating well with executives in high-level positions could open up new opportunities for her in the organization. The executive might even become an advocate for her in the future if they continue developing a strong working relationship.
Have you had the chance to speak with high-level executives in your organization? Did you use any of these strategies? Share your experiences here.
“I believe ambition is not a dirty work, it’s believing in yourself and your abilities. Imagine this: what would happen if we were all brave enough to believe in our own ability, to be a little more ambitious. I think the world would change.” ~ Reese Witherspoon ~
Aaron felt like he was stuck. The job just seemed like a treadmill. The same thing over and over. When he took the job 8 years ago, he had visions of promotions and advancement. Now? Not so much.
As Aaron took stock of his career he decided to combat the stagnation. Surely there was a way to get around it. He just couldn’t figure it out on his own. He hired Joel to be his executive coach.
Part of it involved recording exactly what he was doing so he could be prepared and present it as needed.
- Sharing accomplishments. Words disappear and can’t always be remembered. Aaron saw the value in sharing his accomplishments through writing. He wrote a weekly message updating management on the projects he was working on.
He included the challenges he’d overcome and the progress he’d made. The make sure to explain how his work affected the progress of the job. And how the job would impact the company. This gave Aaron confidence his job was valuable and productive
- Meeting Preparation. Aaron doesn’t think fast on his feet. He works better when he has a chance to mull over ideas. This is true of most introverts. So Aaron decided to write out notes about what he wanted to say before meetings.
If you want to say something at a meeting or event, take the time to write it out beforehand. This way you can organize your thoughts, focus on what is essential, and not be fumbling for words when it’s your turn to speak. When you have something prepared, it makes it more likely that you will speak clearly and professionally. And you say what you intended to say.
- Prepare for and schedule one-on-one meetings. Again, if you have an agenda you want to cover, writing an outline of the topics can give you confidence going into the meeting. One-on-ones are a great opportunity to talk about your work and how it affects the company.
This is a great time to discuss your concerns about your career stagnation. Meetings with your boss can help you formulate a plan for your transition into the next step of your career.
- Volunteer for committees and events. Participating in a committee or helping to host a conference or charity event translates to an abundance of networking opportunities. Aaron found that committees and events gave him the opportunity to meet new people, talk about his work, and put his name and face in front of people who wouldn’t normally notice him.
After working this program for several months, Aaron feels much more hopeful. He sees his career stagnation breaking apart. His boss is on board with his goals for a promotion. Many more people know of him and his work. He’s received more praise and people are paying more attention to what he says.
“This is what I was looking for,” Aaron said. “Coaching really helped me. I can’t believe how much more excited I am about my job and its potential.”
How have you pushed back against career stagnation?