Influence or Impose? 10 Important Lessons for Ambitious Executives to Increase Their Influence

Feb 4th, 2020


“The key to successful leadership is influence not authority”

Kenneth Blanchard


On 31st January, Britain formally left the European Union. Just weeks before that, Prince Harry and his wife Meghan announced they were stepping back from royal duties. The headlines around both events have been full of winners, losers and battles as if the outcome could only benefit one side. However, I believe that successful outcomes can be win-win, even in sensitive and complex negotiations. To get there though, you need to influence not impose, and that means seeking to understand not hoping to be understood.

An executive team that I am working with report to the CEO of a fast-growing business. He is an ambitious and charismatic fast-thinker, who expresses a desire to have his team members share and contribute. Yet when they meet as a team, his transactional leadership style comes to the fore. He tends to become impatient, with the result that his executives are often reticent to try to influence him, telling him what they think he wants to hear, rather than what he needs to know. In situations like this, it is essential to frame your message in a way that will make it heard, identifying the other party’s preferred approach and matching it. If, like this CEO, they have a short attention span, it is important that your first words have impact, so framing the points that are important to you in a powerful, succinct way will have a better chance of influencing a productive response.

We all have critical stakeholders – people we need to influence – and that may mean influencing down as well as up, or even sideways.  A new client has taken active steps to gain the  trust of her new team of 70 following her promotion. With such a large team, she inevitably did not know all of them personally. Before looking at ways to approach her working relationship with them, we discussed her experience with her own new boss. He had gained her trust by being open and transparent and taking the time to align with her from the start. This reminder prompted her to take the opportunity of timely annual appraisals to get to know each of her new team-members and – above all – let them know that she is there to listen to what they have to say. The outcome of the appraisals influenced decisions on performance bonuses so it was key to build trust in this meeting and be able to have a fair and open discussion.

Learning to influence can also make the difference in times of change. As part of a restructure, another client has recently seen several of his high-level colleagues leave the organisation and found himself wondering whether his position is secure.  I encouraged him to ask his CEO specific questions to provide the clarity he needed. With precise information about the priorities for his role – which we realised matched some of his greatest strengths – he is now able to build a strategy not only to work in line with them, but to leverage his strengths. Understanding the expectations of his critical stakeholders has increased his confidence, given him the opportunity to raise his profile and influence his own career development by coming forward with ideas that are relevant and important to the organisation.

If you or your organisation need to navigate a period of change, negotiate your way out of a crisis, or convince a critical stakeholder to see things in a different way, practise adapting your approach as an exercise in influence. Here are some ideas to help you:


  1. Start with where you are in agreement

As Stephen Covey puts it, “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. You will be much more likely to influence people if you understand their point of view and identify common ground. Starting from the point where you are in agreement will help build rapport.  It is useful to continue to refer back to this point if discussions break down as it is the best place to leverage creative thinking.


  1. Know your stakeholders

Drawing up a stakeholder map is an effective way of identifying the people you need to influence and how. They may be more or less visible, but all are critical to the result, so take the time to understand all the forces in play. Who are your direct stakeholders? Who are the indirect stakeholders influencing them? What motivates them and what is their interest in the outcome of your work? What information do they want from you and how do they want you to deliver it?


  1. Know yourself

As a leader, it is in your interest to encourage your stakeholders to speak up, even when they may be bringers of bad news. But have you created a space where they can do so? If not you risk being surrounded by people who only say yes and that may lead to important, potentially dangerous information being covered up, as recent scandals such as the rigged Volkswagen emissions tests have shown.


  1. Understand the why

Before any negotiation, make sure you fully understand the why, both your own and the other parties’.  Defining what a “progressive new role within the institution” was a thorny issue for both Harry and Meghan and the rest of the Royal Family, but both parties understood why it was vital and what is at stake, and so had a common commitment to find a solution, even though that meant compromise on both sides.


  1. Think parallel

Meetings are often unproductive and even conflictual. An effective chairperson   influences and guides participants to look at issues from an aligned perspective which can prevent the interruptions and disagreements that often hinder progress. This can help change rigid views and lead to more effective decisions being made.

For more on this kind of parallel thinking, why not look at Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats process.


  1. Predict, don’t defend

If you are in a critical situation where you know you are expected to come up with the goods, anticipate what is on your audience’s mind from the word go. By letting them know that you intend to deal with the problem, whatever it may be, before they raise it, they will feel that you understand their concerns. You in turn will gain their trust and respect – and take back the control of the situation.


  1. Keep your feet on the ground

Research shows that people who betray strong emotions in a negotiation are less likely to achieve the outcome they seek. Prepare mentally before a meeting or presentation by taking a few moments to breathe deeply to ground yourself.  A relaxed mind moves faster and is more creative.


  1. Have a contingency plan

As you prepare, imagine the worst that could happen and put together a contingency plan. But be aware that even the best laid plans can sometimes misfire, and if that happens to you, remember the E + R = O equation. You may not be able to control the event (E) but you can control your Response (R) in order to get your desired Outcome (O). How you respond, regardless of what the person in front of you does, will influence the outcome of the negotiation underway.  Show curiosity when being challenged – it not only shows an interest in the other person, it also gives you valuable time to pause and think about the best response.


  1. Add value always

If you become known for adding value in every conversation that you have, thinking one step ahead so that you can bring something new to the table, people will always return your call. And then you’re well on your way to influencing them.


  1. Show integrity when the going gets tough

Integrity at a time of challenge can have great influence and create life-time loyalty.  During the 2008 market crash, one CEO whose investors had lost a great deal, promised them he would build the business up again and pay them all back with interest. He had also lost a significant amount of his own personal wealth, yet three years later he kept his word. The trust he built by doing so has influenced consistent investment and a loyalty that goes far beyond most investor-client relationships.


Find Out More

 Do you need to build confidence in working with your stakeholders? Are you hitting a wall as you attempt to make a change? If so, begin the conversation by emailing Oona at

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