A CFO persuades a highly regarded controller to leave a comfortable job and join her company. A department head inspires his team to put in the extra effort needed to make a seemingly impossible deadline. A company strikes a deal with a key supplier to jointly expand into an emerging market.
In these examples and scores like them, the factor that often spells the difference between success and failure is “strategic influence.” It’s a concept that originated in the military, to describe one country’s ability to shape another country’s actions and policies. In that sphere, influence largely equates to power. As the term has migrated into the business world, however, its definition has altered. Today, an executive’s strategic influence is not nearly as dependent on authority as it is on integrity and also on the strong ties forged with people inside and outside the organization who respect that executive’s knowledge and point-of-view and respond positively to them.
Strategic influence is quickly becoming a critical skill because the nature of work is changing: success now depends on the ability to collaborate with all parts of the organization and to manage a web of connections that spans the broader business community. “Your [personal] ability is a given these days,” says Jason Lauritsen, author, with Joe Gerstandt, of Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships. “The fact is that you can no longer get anything done without other people.”
As one sign of how important strategic influence has become, consultants including Dale Caldwell now specialize in helping companies and executives understand and develop it. As he explains, strategic influence can be thought of as the end point on a continuum that begins with networking, progresses to relationship-building, and culminates in a strong bond characterized by a high level of trust and respect, to the point where the person values your opinion over most others.
For senior executives, strategic influence is not only a skill worth developing but a value to be fostered across the organization. A CEO, for example, might encourage their CFO to build stronger ties to the company’s manufacturing team as a way to develop a broader perspective on the company’s full spectrum of operations. Strategic influence is, in a sense, the tangible outcome of many behaviors that senior business leaders are routinely encouraged to practice, from fostering a culture of transparency and accountability to developing their top talent and recognizing outstanding performance. These behaviors don’t simply enable senior executives to build stronger relationships themselves, but demonstrate to the entire organization that relationship-building is an important and replicable process and a genuine company value.
The first step in growing your strategic influence is to make time for it, which is not easy. Building relationships and cultivating networks is an important activity, but usually not one that people tend to prioritize. Even a brief amount of time devoted to it each day, however, whether spent making a quick phone call, sending a friendly e-mail, or having unhurried face time with a colleague you don’t talk to very often can make a huge difference.
You can’t network with everyone, of course, and some contacts are more important to nurture than others — even if you can’t always be sure which ones those will prove to be. Think strategically about who you’d like to forge stronger ties with, and why. Consider what their concerns and priorities might be, and where you have common ground, a shared interest, or the opportunity to help each other.
Toby Joplin, Vice President and CFO at RL Hudson & Co., a manufacturer of custom-molded rubber products, underscores the idea that strategic influence depends on strengthening relationships that you may already have, and that the best way to do that is often to let people know you’re curious about their concerns, and you want to help wherever you can. Joplin talks to his coworkers everywhere, from the company warehouse to semiannual sales meetings, because, as he quips, “It’s often said that there are two places where ideas go to die: legal and finance. I don’t want to be perceived as a naysayer. I want to help identify the root cause of a problem so we can get to a real solution.”
A similar philosophy can take you beyond the boundaries of your own company. Attend conferences, meetings of professional associations, or other events with an eye toward making contacts that can progress to strong relationships and ultimately to an expanded sphere of influence. Some C-level leaders may be able to join local peer groups. In other cases, they initiate them. When Dan Krick joined Lincoln Industries as Vice President of People Resources, he convened a regular meeting of human-resources heads from other nearby companies. Ten years on, the group is going strong.
It’s Not (Always) About You
Whether it’s a hallway chat with a coworker or a meeting of fellow CEOs, face time is an essential component of building stronger connections to the people you need to influence. To elevate the relationship to that level, focus on three activities: listening, offering help, and building trust. “If I could summarize my advice in one sentence,” says Acuff, “it would be this: It’s not about you, it’s about them. You have to see the world through the other person’s eyes.”
You also need to understand what you have to offer. Joplin, for example, sees his primary value proposition in his ability to provide risk-management advice. And, as much as he does not want to be perceived as inflexible, he also understands that such a perception can be an asset. “In many cases I prefer to be the one to communicate bad news to customers, in my role as ‘the money guy’,” he says. “I want the salespeople to always be their white knights.”
Not A Popularity Contest
The strongest bond you can forge with a colleague, client, or any business contact is respect, which is borne of trust. And that often hinges on how reliably you deliver on what you promise. One consultant dubs it the “say/do ratio”: the more often you deliver on a promise, the more strategic influence you will accrue. In other words, strategic influence is not a measure of your popularity, but of your credibility, your authority, your reputation, and your ability to inspire others.
Making those traits known to others often depends on strong communications skills, a fact that senior executives sometimes overlook. As Joplin notes, CFOs and other C-level leaders “tend to communicate a message once and assume everyone is instantly on board.” But there is value in repeating important messages through a variety of channels, to make sure all employees truly hear it and understand it. The more readily people within your company — and outside it, as well — know what you’re doing and why, and how that squares with your past statements and actions, the more likely you are to be able to influence them.
Communication goes both ways, however: it is also critical to listen carefully, and to keep an open mind. Disagreements are inevitable, but they present an opportunity to ask another person to explain their point of view or their decision in more detail. You may ultimately be persuaded by their rationale. Even if you aren’t, by having a dialogue you have seized an opportunity to strengthen your relationship.
Will all your efforts at relationship-building result in greater strategic influence? No. But, as Acuff emphasizes, it doesn’t need to work all the time. The important thing is to focus on it more than you’re probably doing now. The margin for error in today’s business world is small. The difference between good and great is small. Your goal is to help your company succeed in an increasingly collaborative and networked world. Developing a greater level of strategic influence, and encouraging the rest of the organization to do the same, is quickly becoming a necessary component of success.
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BUILDING THE STRATEGIC CFO
Chapters in the CFO action series presented by Build and GE Capital:
Chapter 1: Own the Big Picture
Chapter 2: Create More Time
Chapter 3: Build a Better Team
Chapter 4: The Great Communicator
Chapter 5: Big Data, Big Results
Chapter 6: Think and Act Sustainably
Chapter 7: The Leading Edge
Chapter 8: Think Global, Whether You Are or Not
Chapter 9: Building a Risk-Intelligent Culture
Chapter 10: How to Win the War for Talent
Chapter 11: Technology & You
Chapter 12: The Art of Strategic Influence
Chapter 13: Building the Customer-Centric Organization