Leading from the middle: the art of influence for managers

- October 25, 2023 4 MIN READ


Before founding my company, I held a senior HR role at one of Australia’s largest organisations with tens of thousands of employees. In that role, I often found myself needing to ‘influence’ outcomes I had no authority over, writes Rebecca Houghton, founder of BoldHR.

‘Influence’ became my secret weapon, helping me build connections, rally colleagues behind a shared vision, and basically, get stuff done– all without direct responsibility for the staff members or decisions. Middle managers, or as we like to call them, the B-Suite, often face similar challenges.

Responsible for managing their teams, negotiating with peers, and pitching ideas and issues up the line, they navigate complex structures without direct power, making influence their greatest asset.

For these leaders, there is no shortage of information online about how to influence– yet, according to BoldHR’s research, it’s still one of the top three most sought-after traits by leaders and managers looking to increase their impact.

So, what’s going on? Why do some leaders seem to wield influence effortlessly, while others struggle? And why, despite the plethora of information, does the hunger for practical strategies to enhance influence persist among the B-Suite?

The answer lies in a new approach to understanding and developing the art of influence, one that bridges the gap between theory and real-world application. Let’s dive into five strategies and ideas that middle managers can immediately apply to enhance their influence—strategies road-tested by hundreds of B-Suite leaders inside our programs.

Rethink ‘influence’

In our work with hundreds of B-Suite leaders, we have found that many fall short when it comes to strategic influence. It’s not that they don’t value influence; rather, most see it as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

They grapple with the paradox of acknowledging its necessity while fearing the label of manipulation. It’s as if the term ‘influence’ or ‘managing up’ conjures images of unsavoury ambition and ruthless political maneuvering. Most of us don’t like to think of ourselves in this way, so we shy away from exerting influence deliberately.

In fact, we make excuses to avoid it. We tell ourselves that we are too busy, that we don’t know who to influence, that we are too introverted, that it’s not our job to influence or our structure or culture prevents us doing it.

While these excuses may have elements of truth, they are often convenient narratives that mask our reluctance to engage in something we find distasteful or uncomfortable.

Ask yourself, how do you feel about deliberate influence? And could you be unintentionally sabotaging your own potential for growth and impact by holding onto misconceptions about influence?

High performers understand that influence isn’t about climbing a greasy pole; it’s about propelling positive change.

Be purposeful about what you want

Having a purpose is essential, but it’s not enough. Purpose without influence can lead to frustration as you watch your vision remain unrealised—not only for you but for those who believe in your vision.

Conversely, influence without a purpose is futile. True magic happens when purpose and influence align, enabling B-Suite leaders to elevate their impact.

So, be crystal clear about what you want from the act of influencing. Perhaps it’s about enhancing your day-to-day performance, removing roadblocks for your team, improving your relationship and influence, or increasing your perceived value and eventually, seniority.

Start every influencing exercise with a very clear purpose in mind, and the more that purpose is in service of others, the less distasteful you will find it.

Be purposeful about what THEY want

Speaking of others, allow me to introduce you to one of the simplest, yet most persuasive strategies in the art of influence: to truly influence, you must be purposeful about what THEY want—the individuals or groups you seek to influence.

A lot of people spend too much time thinking, “What do I want to say?” and a grossly inadequate amount of time on, “What does the person I want to influence need to hear and understand?” It’s a common misconception that influence begins with our message, but in reality, it starts with understanding. The meaning of communication sits with the receiver, not the sender. Therefore, if you want your influence to be truly impactful, shift your perspective from your message to their needs and wants.

When people feel truly heard, they’re more open to liking you, trusting you, and therefore, being influenced by you. So, ask questions. Describe, in detail, how your proposal will benefit them. By looking beyond the transaction, you transform your influence from a mere exchange to a strategic relationship.

Plan your pathway to influence

Having a well-thought-out pathway can mean the difference between ordinary ideas gaining traction and great ideas going nowhere.

Plotting the pathway is obviously critical in big, complex organisations but can be even more critical in smaller and more nuanced organisations when you cannot afford a single wrong step. And it is an essential planning step for influencing when the stakes are high.

Your pathway should include five key influencing conversations:

  • Logical: Seek collaboration from peers or partners who understand the logic of your request.
  • Social: Identify cultural or reputation influencers who could either support or derail your efforts.
  • Functional: The ally with the greatest stake in your proposal should be your number one supporter.
  • Influential: Identify those trusted by your target decision-maker, even if they lack a formal position.
  • Personal: Understand where stakeholders stand on the issue before entering discussions.

No amount of reading about it will change your ability to influence

Finally, remember that influence isn’t a spectator sport. Reading about it can only take you so far. To truly transform your influence, apply what you’ve learned, experiment, learn from experiences, and refine your approach.

For most B-Suite leaders, adjusting their relationship with influence is a major tipping point in how much impact they will have.

By making a few small—but transformative—changes in their mindset and approach to influence, everything becomes easier. And isn’t that the job of a true leader? I think so.

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