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Effectively Influencing Up

One of corporate America's most respected executive coaches offers advice to HR executives to ensure that their knowledge can make a difference in their organizations.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007
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Peter Drucker has written extensively about the impact of the knowledge worker on modern organizations. Knowledge workers can be defined as people who know more about what they are doing than their managers do. 

While many knowledge workers have years of education and experience in training for their positions, they often have little training in how to effectively influence upper management. 

As Peter has noted, "The greatest wisdom not applied to action and behavior is meaningless data."

HR leaders are knowledge workers in the classic sense of Peter's definition. We are in a unique position to influence up. We are given access to upper management -- without being given the line authority to tell them what to do. This means that learning to influence without direct authority -- in a positive and constructive way -- is a key part of our job.

The guidelines listed below are intended to help you do a better job of influencing your upper management -- or any decision maker when you do not have line authority. As an HR leader, I hope that you find them useful in helping you convert your good ideas into meaningful action.

* When presenting ideas to upper management, realize that it is your responsibility to sell -- not their responsibility to buy.

In many ways, influencing up is similar to selling products or services to external customers. They don't have to buy -- you have to sell. Any good salesperson takes responsibility for achieving results. No one is impressed with salespeople who blame their customers for not buying their products. 

While the importance of taking responsibility may seem obvious in external sales, HR leaders in large corporations can waste time blaming "them" for not understanding and appreciating "us." A little basic sales training for HR professionals could go a long way toward increasing our influence.

A key part of the sales process is education. To again quote Drucker, "The person of knowledge has always been expected to take responsibility for being understood. It is barbarian arrogance to assume that the layman can or should make the effort to understand the specialist." 

The effective upward influencer needs to be a good teacher. Good teachers realize that communicating knowledge is often a greater challenge than possessing knowledge.

* Focus on contribution to the larger corporation -- not just the achievement of your HR objectives.

An effective salesperson would never say to a customer, "You need to buy this product, because if you don't, I won't achieve my objectives!"

Effective salespeople relate to the needs of the buyers, not to their own needs. In the same way effective upward influencers relate to the larger needs of the organization, not just to the needs of their unit or team.

When influencing up, focus on the impact of the decision on the overall corporation. In most cases the needs of HR and the needs of the corporation are directly connected. In some cases executives need to be educated on how this connection helps them. Don't assume that executives can automatically "make the connection" between the benefiting HR and the benefiting the larger corporation.

* Present a realistic "cost-benefit" analysis of your ideas -- don't just sell benefits.

Every organization has limited resources, time and energy. The acceptance of your HR proposal may well mean the rejection of another idea that a line manager believes is wonderful. Be prepared to have a realistic discussion of the costs of your idea. Acknowledge the fact that something else may have to be sacrificed in order to have your idea implemented.

By getting ready for a realistic discussion of costs, you can "prepare for objections" to your idea before they occur. You can acknowledge the sacrifice that someone else may have to make and point out how the benefits of your plan may outweigh the costs.

* "Challenge up" on issues involving ethics or integrity -- never remain silent on ethics violations.

Enron, WorldCom and other organizations have dramatically pointed out how ethics violations can destroy even the most valuable companies. The best of corporations can be severely damaged by only one violation of corporate integrity. 

Hopefully, HR leaders will never be asked to do anything by management that represents a violation of corporate ethics. If you are, refuse to do it and immediately let upper management know of your concerns. This action needs to be taken for the ultimate benefit of your company, your customers, your co-workers and yourself.

When challenging up, try not to assume that management has intentionally requested you to do something wrong. In some cases, inappropriate requests may be made because of misunderstandings or poor communication. Try to present your case in a manner that is intended to be respectful and give them the benefit of the doubt.

* Realize that your key executives are just as "human" as you are -- don't say, "I am amazed that someone at this level ... ."

It is realistic to expect upper managers to be competent; it is unrealistic to expect them to be better than normal humans. Is there anything in the history of the human species that indicates when people achieve high levels of status, power and money they become completely "wise" and "logical"? 

How many times have we thought, "I would assume someone at this level ... " followed by "should know what is happening," "should be more logical," "wouldn't make that kind of mistake" or "would never engage in such inappropriate behavior"? 

Even the best of leaders are human. We all make mistakes. When your managers make mistakes, HR leaders can focus more on helping them than judging them. 

* Treat upper managers with the same courtesy that you would treat partners or customers - don't be disrespectful.

While it is important to avoid "kissing up" to upper management, it is just as important to avoid the opposite reaction. A surprising number of middle managers -- even in HR - spend hours "trashing" the company and its executives or making destructive comments about other co-workers. 

The item, "avoids destructive comments about the company or co-workers" regularly scores in the "bottom 10" on co-workers satisfaction with peers. 

Before speaking it is generally good to ask four questions:

* Will this comment help our company?

* Will this comment help our customers?

* Will this comment help the person who I am talking to?

* Will this comment help the person who I am talking about?

If the answers are no, no, no and no -- don't say it! There is a big difference between total honesty and dysfunctional disclosure. As we discussed earlier, it is always important to "challenge up" on integrity issues. It is often inappropriate to "trash down" when making personal attacks.

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* Support the final decision of the team -- don't say, "They made me tell you" to direct reports.

Assuming that the final decision of the team is not immoral, illegal or unethical -- go out and try to make it work! Managers who consistently say, "They told me to tell you ... " to co-workers are seen as "messengers" not leaders. 

Even worse, don't say, "Those fools told me to tell you ... ." By demonstrating our lack of commitment to the final decision we may sabotage the chances for effective execution.

A simple guideline for communicating difficult decisions is to ask, "How would I want someone to communicate to their people if they were passing down my final decision and they disagreed with me?" Treat your manager in the same way that you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed. 

* Make a positive difference -- don't just try to "win" or "be right".

We can easily become more focused on what others are doing wrong, than how we can make things better. An important guideline in influencing up is to always remember your goal -- make a positive difference for the organizations.

HR leaders spending time on concepts that have no chance of implementation is worse than useless. It is a waste of the stockholders' money and a distraction from serving customers.

When I was interviewed in the Harvard Business Review, I was asked, "What is the most common 'area for improvement' for the executives that you meet?" My answer was, "winning too much." Focus on making a difference. The more other people can "be right" or "win" with your idea, the more likely your idea is to be successfully executed. 

* Focus on the future -- "let go" of the past.

Successful people love getting ideas aimed at helping them achieve their goals for the future. They dislike being "proven wrong" because of our mistakes in the past. 

By focusing on the future you can concentrate on what can be achieved tomorrow, as opposed to what was not achieved yesterday. This future orientation may dramatically increase your odds on effectively influencing up. It will also help you build better long-term relationships with people at all levels of your organization.

In summary, think of the years that you have spent "perfecting your craft" as an HR professional. Think of all of the knowledge that you have accumulated. Think about how your knowledge can potentially benefit your organization. 

How much energy have you invested in acquiring all of this knowledge? How much energy have you invested in learning to present this knowledge -- so that you can make a real difference? 

My hope that by making a small investment in learning to influence up, you can make a large, positive difference for the future of your organization!

Marshall Goldsmith is one of corporate America's preeminent executive coaches. His Ph.D. is from UCLA and he is on the faculty of the executive-education programs at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. Named one of the five most-respected executive coaches by Forbes and a top-10 executive educator by the Wall Street Journal, Marshall has worked with some of the most influential leaders in Fortune 500 companies. The American Management Association recently named him one of 50 great thinkers and business leaders who have impacted the field of management and BusinessWeek named him one of the influential practitioners in the history of leadership development.

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