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Influencers: the fundamental ideas of business management and leadership are being challenged, disrupted and reinvented

David Dumeresque , 30 May 2012

David Dumeresque

For many business leaders, the boundaries between manipulation and influencing are often clouded.

This is understandable in the current economic climate and when managers have to deal with new organisational structures and higher levels of complexity and uncertainty. They are facing demands resulting from a variety of conflicting and confusing changes in the working environment.

The fundamental ideas of business management and leadership are being challenged, disrupted and reinvented daily. Corporate re-aligning is needed not just because of the economy, but also because of the radical transformation of society, industry and culture. On the one hand, managers are effectively thinking ahead, identifying opportunities for growth and planning their exploitation, while on the other hand, going into battle to offer their teams the support and engagement they require.

Operating under fire can damage motivation and engagement, thus eroding their own creativity and energy and leading to a vicious circle, which affects their team as well.

Much has been made of the benefits of non-hierarchical structures, but in many organisations this is neither practical nor desirable. In organisations with several layers of management, however, the dissemination of information from top to bottom can be a complex process resembling Chinese whispers. This neednʼt be the case since the use of intranets should remove any complexity in the communication process. CEOs can communicate directly with employees on the shop floor without the need for their messages to go through layers of middle management where alterations are often made to the original – sometimes by accident and sometimes deliberately for political reasons.

Even where hierarchical structures exist, senior managers would do well to identify and engage with potential influencers within their ranks to help provide the effective management of their organisation and the support they need to achieve results. These influencers are the people who may or may not be in management positions, but they are certainly the people that others look up to.

They may be specialists within a department, for example IT or HR, or they may simply be blue or white collar workers within the company. The objective of engaging with influencers is to amplify messages across a wider group of people, and to reduce any potential ambiguity or possible damage to motivation that may arise when these edicts come directly from above. Influencers can play a particularly important role when the heat is on and managers are under considerable pressure.

The term 'influencer' is more commonly associated with external activities such as politics, business-to-business and business-to-consumer (professional advisors, journalists, industry analysts, academics etc) and online activities (Linked In, Twitter etc). In their understanding of the role of influencers within their organisation, management might take a leaf from the social media casebook. Influencers on social media networks are generally passionate individuals who are specialists or professionals in their given area.

They will produce and share relevant content that appeals to the interests of the community within which they operate, prompting discussions and interactions that may influence the behaviour of the community. Some take advantage of their presence on social networks for personal gain or as an ambassador of a brand or organisation but, above all, they connect and are followed because they are trusted and relevant.

Within the corporate ranks, some influencers are easy to identify, whereas others often go unnoticed because they donʼt necessarily stand out as being exceptional management material. Indeed, unlike leaders, the influencer is not elected or promoted as such and indeed might not be interested in leadership roles. They tend to be passionate about their jobs, mixing well with all layers within the corporation and often shying away from office politics. Like a good captain of a sports team, people will tend to migrate towards them when the going gets tough, because they seem unmoved by adversity and are able to handle difficult situations with calmness and clarity. This ʻsilent authorityʼ is someone who influences others with their mere presence. They donʼt have to overtly demand influence – it is just known and given.

Success in identifying these influencers will often depend on the attitudes and experience of the line managers. For example, managers who are from the Baby Boomer generation may inadvertently communicate in a way that a younger generation (Digital Natives) perceives as aggressive and manipulative, misinterpreting assertive behaviour as self-serving, when the intention of the manager is simply to find common ground. The key is to find a common language in which to communicate, which means managers understanding their colleagues. This requires that they consider each individual, identifying whatʼs important to them and structuring their communications accordingly. Each person is motivated differently and there is no 'one size fits all' formula.

Once the influencers are identified, consistent communications are vital in developing a well-functioning team and gaining recognition within the organisation. Consistency is the key word here, as there is nothing more frustrating than a manager who behaves inconsistently with different team members, or with individuals on different occasions. The intranet is a powerful tool in the communications process, but offline activities are more important in the conveyance of management edicts.

Influencers will start to play an increasingly important role in businesses, particularly where large groups or teams of people are engaged in the various activities of the company. Even where there may be a flattening of the hierarchy, the increasing demands for improved productivity and quality, combined with flexible and rapid responses to customers, will require that people work more closely together.

Those who are engaged in online marketing and branding activities understand how powerful social media influencers are to many campaigns. These people share information with their network of followers, disseminating usually positive brand messages to multiple people. The vast majority of consumers trust recommendations from people they know, and many will trust consumer opinions posted online. That same engagement internally with influencers will play a positive role within companies, supporting management as they navigate the company through increased levels of complexity and uncertainty.

David Dumeresque (pictured) is a partner at executive search firm, Tyzack Partners

 

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