Just how can leaders make the best decisions and influence the people they need to work with, in order to succeed? Iain Blatherwick has some tried and tested suggestions.
A business leader I was once working with was in the lucky position of being able to set off on the acquisition trail. He decided how he was going to approach the meetings he had planned with potential targets and made sure he did lots of preparation and set out a clear agenda for each meeting. But they never went as well as he’d hoped.
During coaching sessions we discussed what might be going wrong, how it might feel if you were being invited to one of these meetings as a potential target and how he might rethink the approach before the next one. It became clear that, while the decision to have the meetings was the right one, going in with a set agenda wasn’t. A less formal approach was required, getting to know the other people and see how things developed in the meeting.
This new approach worked. And for me there is a clear learning point for any leader here: that a decision which feels so obviously correct is not always the right one. When you step back and talk it through with a few other colleagues, what appears at first to be logical may not be so. Most important of all, by talking it through and sharing your goals and objectives with others on your team, you can achieve a far better and more successful outcome.
Why ‘follow me’ is the wrong call
This example demonstrates that influencing is all about taking people with you. It’s about consultation, listening, developing the best ideas together, and through that process bringing people along with you. In short: leadership by collaboration.
It’s not just acquisition targets who need to be wooed in this way. The success of any business relies on building relationships with all the people who matter. Internal or external, your success depends on those stakeholders, and the more you can develop strong collaborative relationships with them – the more you involve them in decisions, the more they are likely to play the part you need them to play in driving the business forward.
Leadership is less and less about one individual asking the rest to follow them than harnessing and developing the strengths of the team and using the collective power of that team to push forward.
Take decision making. Very often there can be an obsession about delivering a quick decision, especially in times of rapid change. But isn’t it far better to make the right decision than a quick one merely for the sake of it? As a leader, even if I were convinced on a course of action, I would always want to do some element of sense checking with the team around me. However much you think you have something thought through, the very different perspectives other people bring can help you hone that initial idea and improve it.
There is an old-fashioned view, still widely prevalent, that you don’t want to look indecisive at moments like this, and you clearly can’t procrastinate or take too long over key decisions. But collaboration – and most importantly listening, really listening to others and their views – massively improves your chances of making the right decision.
The skills of the successful influencer
So what skills do you need to take others with you? Here are four which I think are always going to be crucial.
1 – Stay curious
This might seem a slightly odd choice as a key skill, but I place a huge value on curiosity. Being interested in the things you have to contend with, in the problems you have to face and in how they might be solved, really helps. If you want to take people with you, then genuinely being interested in them, listing to them, what they have to say, what issues they are facing, and giving them the sense that what they are doing is both of interest and importance. These are all things which give real and genuine power to the influencer.
Related to this is the desire to always be learning. Both via the traditional route, attending courses, for example, but also learning from your colleagues. What things have worked – or even not worked – in the past? Why were some actions taken and not others? All kinds of learning should be part of a healthy, successful leadership group.
2 – Be who you are
When people move into leadership roles people often feel they need to be somehow different. They suddenly have to have something called ‘gravitas’ or make an immediate impact. Despite the fact that they have skills and experiences which have specifically led them to this appointment, they still feel that somehow they have to be something they haven’t been before. But colleagues are not expecting some superstar moment to occur in the first board meeting you attend. You are there because someone saw you had the capacity and potential to add to that of the existing board members. You are there because of who you are. So carry on being that same person.
Organisations could – and should – invest more in preparing people for this moment. This could help reassure people that they are being promoted to this new role because they are already valued, rated and respected. That might dial down a little bit the slight ‘rabbit in the headlights’ moment which happens to far too many people.
3 – Have a sense of humour
Politics will always be lurking somewhere in the background in any organisation. People can therefore sometimes get a little bit too wrapped up in any argument and it’s vital to take the heat out of things before it all gets a bit too much. Humour can be a good way to reset, to get everyone back together, and laugh at how they’ve got themselves caught up in something really key. You need people to be calm and rational. A good board should, of course, have people with a diverse range of viewpoints. But these need to be chaired and managed in such a way that all those views are heard and respected. If things do get heated it’s good to have something up your sleeve to take the heat away and allow people to collaborate once again.
4 – Never stop listening
Above all the other skills, for me listening is most important. It may feel like it’s passive but it genuinely isn’t that at all. Listening is more than just having a conversation. It’s making sure that when you’re sitting down with someone that you really do put out of your mind anything and everything else that’s bothering you. That, for any leader, can be a challenge in itself, as there will always be lots of things going on. But you really do need to be ‘in the moment’ with the person you are working with.
And it’s not just what they say but how they say it. If you’ve really got to know someone you can tell what they are feeling deep down. Are they usually this unconfident? Why are they uncomfortable with a proposal? Honing your listening skills – understanding about the different levels of listening – is vital to get the most out of those key sessions. Really listening, really taking on board what someone has said, and where relevant letting that influence your decisions, is incredibly powerful.
Trust your team
Getting people to follow the direction of travel you have set – whoever those stakeholders may be – is never going to be easy. But being honest and open, listening and responding, is key and not merely plucking ideas out of thin air and telling them – this is what we are going to do. Leadership, for me, is always built around trust. For that to be established you need authenticity. That means being honest, and maybe even slightly self-depreciating: admitting that you don’t hold all the answers. But if people trust you, you’re already on your way to creating the relationships that you want – and need – to enable you to push the business forward. The alternative – mistrust – is a dangerous thing.
But with honesty, the skills I’ve outlined above, and being surrounded by the best people you can find that trust you and who you also trust in turn, who are willing to share that burden with you, then there really is no better place to be in business. And don’t let anyone ever persuade you otherwise.