Are You Managing the Dimensions of Your CEO Influence?

In the July-August 2018 edition of the Harvard Business Review, Professors Michael E. Porter and Nitin Nohira published an article titled "How CEOs Manage Time". It was a fascinating insight into how CEOs do and should spend their time. 

I drew one aspect from their thinking for a round of recent CEO coaching sessions, focusing on how CEOs exert influence. 

How do you influence? 

When I practised as a local government Head of Service, many staff mistakenly believed I was all-powerful. On the contrary, as a Head of Service, I had certain limited powers, though I mostly achieved my outcomes by influencing. 

That is why Porter and Nohira's article intrigued me and why I began to include their thinking in my practice. 

The two Professors identified that CEOs exert influence along six dimensions, each of which involves a duality or seeming contradiction akin to yin and yang. They asserted that managing those dualities is the hallmark of an effective CEO. I would agree. 

The Six Dimensions 

  1. DIRECT/INDIRECT – a CEO is directly involved in numerous activities and makes many decisions. However, they also exert significant influence over the work of others in their organisation, using integrative mechanisms that increase the flow of business communication, identify roles, and aid problem-solving. How often, though, do they get drawn into activities and decisions that ought not to involve them? My CEO colleagues in the charity sector find this a challenging balance to strike. 
  1. INTERNAL/EXTERNAL - a CEO works with a senior team, and at times, with employees at all levels, especially if they 'walk the talk'. Bill Taylor would also argue that the best leaders also 'talk the walk'. However, a CEO will also engage with various external agencies as they are the organisation's face and bring those external perspectives to the organisation. That is pivotal for my charity sector colleagues, especially fund managers, charitable donators, and government bodies. 
  1. PROACTIVE/REACTIVE – a CEO must articulate a compelling vision and lead the organisation to a brighter and more prosperous future. They also need to respond to unforeseen events, from minor issues to major crises, as all may have an untold impact on the organisation. For example, one of my clients manages inner-city stables that provide equine activities for young people with learning disabilities. That interface often gives rise to challenges, both major and minor. 
  1. LEVERAGE/CONSTRAINTS – a CEO's position and control of resources gives them clout – influence, and power. That enables a lot of leverage. That said, they also need to build organisational buy-in. Getting the entire team's support through sending the right messages and taking the right actions can often be nuanced. You could, of course, try the 'my way or the highway' method though I have seen the fallout for those who did that, and I would not recommend it. 
  1. TANGIBLE/SYMBOLIC - a CEO can decide concrete things like strategic direction, resource allocation, and hiring. However, much of what they do is intangible and symbolic. Their persona and actions set the cultural norms in an organisation, demonstrate and shape values and provide meaning. I am helping one client reshape her organisation's culture as the previous incumbent led mostly charismatically, though not wholly successfully. 
  1. POWER/LEGITIMACY – every CEO holds some form of formal power and authority. The Board invests it in the CEO's appointment, and it is reinforced, or not, by the CEO's competence and track record. However, more tellingly, in modern-day business, a CEO's influence rests on the legitimacy that comes from their character, along with the trust they earn from employees. That trust arises from the CEO's demonstrated values, fairness, and commitment to the organisation. Living those values, building trust and demonstrating commitment is demanding, and the pace can tell. I regularly share with clients to take time out, reflect, question, and refocus. 

The most important aspect 

Critical to successfully handling these above dualities is how you manage your most important resource – your time.  

That is why, in closing this month's article, I urge you to follow the hyperlink at the start of my post and read Porter and Nohira's article. It will provide you with a wealth of ideas! 

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