Meeting the challenge of influencing stakeholders

In this series on influencing skills, David Atkinson will take readers though the principles, the methods, and the skills required for professionals to acquire and adopt as they seek to become effective advisors to key managers in their own, or their customers’ organisations. This first blog will set the scene by introducing the role of the trusted advisor and its relationship with the manager or, as David describes it, the “client”.

Global competition, disruptive technology, the rapid pace of change and the financial crisis are all contributing factors to the huge pressure placed upon decision-makers in our organisations.  Achieving leadership excellence is no longer a sole pursuit in our highly-networked, sometimes ‘virtual’ organisations. In these complex organizational systems, we all have to work as both clients and suppliers for information, insight and, of course, decisions.

What has become one of the defining characteristics of the modern business is the need for leaders to consult with and rely on advice provided from an increasingly wide range of specialist, technical advisors and other business functions. These include Procurement, HR, Finance, process improvement specialism such as Lean-Six Sigma Black Belts, internal Organisation Development experts and, increasingly often, key external suppliers. Decision making is no longer the sole preserve of the manager, even though the role does come with executive authority. And this is only right: why wouldn’t the modern leader seek the support and advice from specialist advisors if it makes the quality of those decisions better than they would otherwise have been?

Nevertheless, being a card-carrying process improvement expert, or a procurement professional providing expert advice to leaders and other stakeholders is not sufficient; it doesn’t guarantee their advice being heard or accepted.  What are required, alongside that technical expertise, are outstanding interpersonal and influencing skills.

More people than ever before are positioned to provide expert advice and many thrive in sharing their professional knowledge. These experts depend, for their success, on their ability to build credibility about their knowledge and expertise and good relationships with the people they are advising if they are to really deliver value.  They often have great personal expectations about the contribution they are making but, crucially, they don’t have the authority to tell people what to do. They have to influence, but without executive authority.

After many years supporting business transformation in our work, we have noticed that, in practice, many experts find it more difficult than is commonly acknowledged to establish their credibility and to build the quality relationships with their ‘clients’ that secure a real commitment to action.  They may be a black belt in the science of process improvement but they are not yet a black belt in the art of influence.

So, what does it take to be a truly effective advisor, trusted to bring expertise to complex business situations with skill and panache?  Let’s start with the key principles that underpin outstanding influencing for our aspiring trusted advisors.

The key principles for effective influencing without executive authority

I believe there are three key principles that should guide the practice of the ‘Trusted Advisor’ and they are:

  1. They must have and use a process to guide their work;
  2. They must be client-centered in their approach to the managers they are advising;
  3. It is essential that they are able to assess the readiness to change of their clients and have an understanding of how to increase it.

Reviewing each….

1.    Advisors must have and use a process to guide their work

In Four Pillars we have developed a clear process to guide the trusted advisor in their practice and we call it the Stakeholder Engagement Cycle. It has seven key steps and they are:

  1. Gaining Entry
  2. Data Generation
  3. Data Analysis and Diagnosis
  4. Developing a Joint Improvement Strategy
  5. Implementing the Strategy
  6. Evaluating the Success
  7. Making a Good Withdrawal

I will describe each step in the Stakeholder Engagament Cycle and how to use it in the second blog in this series, but one of the most important learning points is that advisors not only need to be competent at managing this process, the also need to remain conscious at all times as to where in the process they are currently operating.

2.    It is essential that they are client-centered in their approach to the managers they are advising

It is very useful for the trusted advisor to see the manager they are advising as their customer and client and/or, in many cases, their boss.  Their role then becomes clear – it is one of helping the client be more effective in their leadership, helping them to achieve their goals.

In this sense, advisors must develop a client-centered approach – an approach focused on supporting the manager by giving them useful information, developing a joint diagnosis of the situation with them and developing solutions and strategies that they can implement together.

3.    It is essential that advisors are able to assess the readiness to change of clients and have an understanding of how to increase it

In approaching the manager (or client), a good understanding of their readiness to change will be enormously useful in helping advisors plan their approach to influencing them.  One of the key determinants of readiness to change is the level of felt dissatisfaction with their current situation, because without such dissatisfaction, the desire to change will be insufficient.  In other words, a satisfied need is not a motivator and making an accurate assessment of their dissatisfaction will enable advisors to plan how to intervene successfully.

Acquiring and developing outstanding influencing skills are fundamentally important for professionals and specialists in today’s complex organisations. It’s a challenge for managers and leaders too. Matrix and virtual organisation structures make it much more difficult for managers to mandate their decisions and, these days, they are typically more open to working with their internal networks in more consensual and collaborative ways. This presents a wonderful opportunity for advisors that take their personal development seriously and see influencing as much more than a ‘bolt-on’ to their technical skills.

I will be addressing the critical skills and attributes of successful trusted advisors in this series of blogs on influencing without executive authority.  In the meantime, join the discussion, reflect on your practice, or simply get in touch and I’d be happy to help guide you through your next steps to becoming a genuine trusted advisor to your clients and customers.

By David Atkinson

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