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Are you an influencer?

Life would be so much easier and less stressful if we could influence others to do what is in their best interest by merely persuading them with logical, rational arguments.

But it often turns out to be really hard, often futile, so we just give up in frustration.

Efforts to influence others can be at the individual level, helping someone to do things like lose weight, give up smoking or drinking or do regular exercise.

It can be at the organisational level — where research shows that 70 percent of all change management initiatives fail to make a difference.

Or it can be in communities and up to national level, all with a view to modifying behaviour. So much effort is invested, too little impact is felt.

My life as a director, a consultant and a writer is all about influencing people, typically to help them work better together without wasting time, energy and emotions struggling with conflict, bureaucracy, silos or other impediments to high performance.

I’d like to think that at least sometimes my circle of influence is adequately significant. But I am possessed of no magic wand, and so however brilliant my change management operations may be, the outcomes with my ‘patients’ are still sometimes less than overwhelming.

Are my Business Daily columns influential? Do I merely raise awareness but stop short of influencing behaviour? Or are some of my readers actually stimulated to change in the way I am advocating?

As for my consultancies and directorships — more so when I am a board chairman — how do I influence behaviours?

All these thoughts swirled around in my mind as I read Influencers, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler — a group of change consultants themselves, who were curious to find out how others who had been of influence went about it.

One of my favourite examples reminded me of my recent hospital experience. A large medical centre’s service quality scores had been steadily decreasing, as patients and their families felt they weren’t being treated with care, dignity or respect.

So a team was formed to locate those among them who scored highly – the “positive deviants” – to see how they behaved in ways that resonated with their customers.

The good behaviours the team found among the high scorers were smiling, making eye contact, identifying yourself, letting people know what you are doing and why and ending every interaction by asking “Is there anything else that you need?”

A strategy to influence the behaviour of the other staff was initiated, resulting in the centre’s scores rising significantly.

Another example is the extraordinary work of microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunis. He found that by grouping women from a village in Bangladesh together and making them communally responsible for evolving viable business plans and for repaying loans made their success rate phenomenal.

I related to this case as some years ago my wife launched a microfinance company, through whose work she saw that the most valuable role it could play was to influence the value of reliability and the behaviours that supported it. It worked.

When it comes to altering behaviour, the authors found that you need to help others answer only two questions. First: Is it worth it? If not, why waste the effort?) And second: Am I able to do this thing? (If not, why even try? Then, you must replace judgment with empathy, and lectures with questions.

The moment you stop trying to impose your agenda on others you eliminate the fight for control.

Storytelling is a powerful way of influencing, they also reveal, relating personal experiences, with all their challenges and setbacks, but where the goal was achieved.

Whose stories? Those of opinion leaders in the group, to whom others listen. For it isn’t the mere merit of an idea that predicts its adoption rate.

Rather, whether opinion leaders embraced and promoted it.

Then, insist on immediate feedback against clear standards, we are advised. Break tasks into discrete actions, set goals for each, practice within a low-risk environment, and build in recovery strategies, while offering real-time coaching.

There’s so much more in this book I would like to share, but I must go to my concluding question: are you skilled at influencing others? Or are you too pushy, too instructive, or otherwise insufficiently smart? Look out for high influencers, and see what to learn from them.

Building your brand for boardroom role

Just before all public events were cancelled earlier this year I was invited by the Women on Boards Network to run a session on building one’s brand as a board member. It was, as I expected it would be, a lively evening with over 50 bright, engaged women in the room.

How fortunate we are in Kenya to have many women who are already competent directors, plus many more board-ready members of that gender. And how fortunate we are to have an organisation dedicated to developing women to become high-contribution board members and to link them up with organisations seeking such people.

My theme for the evening was about making a contribution, about adding value as a board member. And of course just about everything I shared would have been just the same had I been with a group of men.

The process must start by understanding oneself and appreciating what it is that one is offering. Yet too few of us have indulged in the kind of self-exploration that this requires, and here I quoted Benjamin Franklin, who found that “there are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond and knowing oneself”.

But it is very doable, and I advised the good ladies to start by listing their achievements and the strengths that explain them, without bragging and without undue humility. That establishes (or rather should establish) a base for self-esteem and hence confidence and boldness.

Then, as they look back over how their lives have evolved, to identify their areas of competence, ones that are needed in the board room. Are they a financial guru, a legal eagle? A strategy wonk, a digital wizard? Is their field marketing, or talent management? Are they change champions? Which sectors do they know inside out? Is their hot spot compliance or sustainability? Have they been through challenging mergers or acquisitions? How will they add value in the post-Covid world?

More questions, now more to do with values, attitudes and behaviour. Are they trustworthy and reliable? Emotionally intelligent? Skilled communicators? Thought leaders? Disruptive innovators? Mediators and consensus-builders? Networkers? What is their risk appetite? Are they short-term problem solvers, long-term sustainability builders? And before all that, will they make the necessary time?

I also introduced the Women on Boards group to personality assessments they would benefit from undertaking, helping them to reveal more about their preferences. What role in a board team would they naturally gravitate towards?

In the language of Meredith Belbin, what “team type” are they? A “People person”, who revels in coordinating; being a team worker; or a resource person? An “Action person”, who is a task-focused pushy character; an implementer; or a perfectionist-completer? Or a “Thought person”, who is a creative; a specialist; or someone whose natural home is monitoring and evaluation? Then, are they more of an extrovert or an introvert? Guarded or open? So many questions to help a person position and further build their brand.

I also helped the group I was with to examine their suitability for being the chairperson of a board. Are they the type who can bring people together around common visions and values; run lively and useful meetings to which participants look forward; build relationships with colleagues, management and other stakeholders… and so earn the respect of all concerned?

Good governance requires boards to list the personalities, skills and exposure mix that’s needed for them to fulfill their role holistically as a team. So those seeking directors’ positions must be aware of the gaps that any board wishes to fill and match these with what they are offering.
That’s what Women on Boards Kenya helps with, and so if you are a woman who believes you are ready to sit around one of those board room tables I encourage you to reach out to them.

The last slide from my presentation to the ladies came from a disturbing study which revealed that there are more men named John running big companies in America than all women. More named David too. But at least there are more women than men named Robert or James.
Good luck, ladies, the women on boards cup isn’t yet full, but here in Kenya it is filling reasonably well.