Think about all the people who work for you. How many did you come up with? You likely thought about your direct reports, indirect reports, and assistants.
Now think about all the people who you work for - your boss, clients, customers, and investors.
In the same way that we naturally think about those more junior to us as the people who work for us, we also assume that we work for people who are more senior to us. After all, the vast majority of us work in pretty hierarchical environments. We’ve all seen organisational charts in the shape of a pyramid, with rows of the most junior employees at the bottom and increasing levels of seniority as you move up the pyramid until you get to the big boss right at the peak of the triangle. Have you ever noticed that this is the same shape as a ponzi scheme? Anyway, I digress. Even organisations that tout and aspire to a flat structure have an undertone of hierarchy based on tenure, age, and perceived value. There are certainly benefits to this - order, clarity, structure. But, there are also disadvantages - slow decision-making, missed opportunities, stifled leadership development.
Strategic leaders who skilfully and consistently accelerate up the ladder understand that while this hierarchical structure may be accurate, the picture is incomplete. There are unofficial leadership dynamics and spheres of influence that organisational charts miss. It is these missing connections that strategic leaders use to their advantage. They recognise that while you work for your more senior stakeholders, they also work for you.
Understanding the importance of getting senior stakeholders to work for you, as well as how you can make this happen, is critical to accelerating your successes and also delivering the type of impact you want for your people, clients, and organisation.
Let’s start at the beginning: What is leadership?
Leadership /ˈliːdəʃɪp/ noun
the action of leading a group of people or an organisation.
- The New Oxford Dictionary of English
I often say “Leadership is not a noun. It is a verb.” and although the Oxford Dictionary identifies “leadership” as a noun, its definition is more akin to a “verb” - “the action of...”. Leadership is not what you are, but how you show up. There are many people who have zero titles but would be described as great leaders. And others who have the most impressive titles in the world, but one could argue that they are not really leaders.
In addition, leadership is about “leading a group of people or an organization”. There is no mention of seniority, department, or age. Nor is there any mention of gender, socio-economic background, race, sexuality or any other personal identifier.
By that definition, anybody can be a leader. But where are you leading them to?
What is the purpose of leadership?
The purpose is to lead people (or an organisation) somewhere. That somewhere is decided by the leader - you.
In your professional life, this may mean leading a group of people to launch a new product for your customers or a team to work more cohesively together. In your personal life this may mean leading your family on the holiday of a life-time to Disney World or squelching a long-time dispute between friends. Either way, your objective is to be successful in getting this unit of people together to have the desired impact.
Why leading more senior stakeholders is critical to your success.
If impact and success are your primary aim, then you must intentionally set yourself up for success. The people around you are your greatest resource to achieving this success - who you choose to lead in your efforts directly impacts your chance of success. Lead an ill-fitting, homogeneous, disconnected team and you lower your chances of success. Lead an optimum team with a diverse set of relevant perspectives, knowledge, skills, abilities, and connections and that’s where the magic happens.
While junior colleagues and contacts may have the skills to get the actual work done, they often lack experience-based attributes that will make your life easier. Namely power, influence, and access. These are attributes that one naturally gains the more senior they get, by virtue of their position, experience, and our corporate societal structures.
I once led a team to launch a new digital business for a Top 5 UK bank. Our team proposed a viable business model that played to our client’s strengths, with data supporting our recommendation. However, we hit a stalemate pre-implementation. A senior stakeholder wasn’t bought in on our proposal. While I’m confident in my influencing skills and the work that my team did, I also knew that me & my team alone would not shift our stakeholders mind as quickly or smoothly as I wanted. So I got my Senior Partner to get to work! I not only explained the situation to him, I actually gave him work to do. I asked him to contact the senior stakeholder blocking us, as well as her boss, and use his position (with my supporting points) to achieve my desired outcome. Within a few days, we were back on track.
That is power, influence, and access in action. I could have continued to try influencing myself but my results would have likely been less effective and slower. I could have just given my senior partner an update and hoped for the best, but that wouldn’t be me leading. I could have even given him an update with a proposed solution - a little better, but still not demonstrating leadership. I took it one step further. In my mind, he was part of my team and part of my resources to get what I needed done. And I treated him like I would anyone else on my team.
From Insights to Action
How can you lead more senior stakeholders more effectively?
Anybody can be a leader and anybody can lead anyone else. The question is how well you lead.
Getting senior people to work for you may seem like a difficult task. It may feel daunting bringing up feelings of imposter syndrome and stressful, particularly if you have challenging bosses. But with the right mindset and strategy, you can take actions that yield great results.
Be clear about what you are trying to accomplish. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will lead you there. So be clear about what you’re trying to accomplish, why it’s important, by when you need it. With this clarity, it becomes easier to identify the best team to support you to accomplish your mission.
Be clear about what your senior stakeholders want, to get their buy-in. If your incentives are aligned, it becomes easier to get buy-in and to get their support. Ultimately, you are leading them to enable you to serve them better. Aligning around common ground will help you do that more effectively
Reframe your thinking to see senior stakeholders as part of your team. The only thing holding you back from seeing more senior colleagues as part of your team is you - your limiting thoughts and beliefs. It may feel daunting especially if it’s a huge shift from how you currently operate. However, by reframing your thinking, you immediately have access to new, powerful resources to achieve your goals quicker and more effectively.
Understand the unique benefits of your senior stakeholders. Have an obstacle that you know can be expedited with senior input? Or a connection you would benefit from making, that you can’t quite get a response from? Senior stakeholders are great for that. Identify where they can be most beneficial and feed that into your plan.
Go into meetings with senior people prepared with a clear agenda, desired outcome, and ask. Go into a meeting with senior people without these three things and you will either lose their interest or they will take over. So be clear about what you’re trying to achieve and the specific request you have for them. If in doubt ask them how they think they may be able to help. Collaborating on the solution is also a great way to gain buy-in, but do come with a proposed solution. Nothing is worse than coming to a meeting with problems and no proposed solutions.
Remember that, similarly, you also work for your more junior colleagues. Role-model servant leadership by empowering your team to see you and other more senior colleagues as part of their team. By seeing the benefit from the other side, it becomes easier to pay it forward.
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