Leading change: who to influence and how

Financial Times | IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance hosted the latest of its Masterclass Series for HR specialists on 8 May 2018 in Barcelona.
David Wells
May 16, 2018

Led by Corporate Learning Alliance educator Dr Robert Rosenfeld, the audience consisted of HR, learning & development and talent management professionals from major companies involved in international banking, insurance, retail, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, food and fashion.

In a highly interactive session involving open discussions and teamwork, participants debated the changing role of HR professionals and how they need to respond to the current business environment. According to Dr Rosenfeld, in this new business environment – referenced with the acronym VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) – complex problems can no longer be dealt in the traditional management hierarchy of the CEO-to-middle-management.

Business issues, argued Rosenfeld, need to be analysed and solved by different groups in an organisation. In this context, the HR role needs to evolve, changing away from the current service-providing department. HR must become more like a consultant’s role: proactive and open to change and innovation. In this way, HR professionals become business partners who will help promote and lead change within the company.

New skills for HR

The modern HR professional needs a new set of skills to drive change effectively. In a rapidly-changing world, companies need agile professionals who can respond quickly to swift changes. In an previous Masterclass held in Madrid in February 2018, Dr Rosenfeld grouped HR business partners into three classes depending on their core competences:

  • Strategic Positioner
  • Paradox Navigator
  • Credible Activist

In addition, Rosenfeld explained that HR business partners should be expected not only to lead change, but also to excel in managing internal conflict and creating a working environment built on trust and mutual respect.

Within this new set of competencies, Rosenfeld pointed out what, to him, seems like one of the most common and crucial challenges for HR professionals: ‘how to influence without authority.’ On most of occasions, HR professionals need to exert an influence among executives who are on the same leadership level. This requires the HR role to create the right environment to get people on-board: persuasive rather than exerting power. According to Rosenfeld, this collaborative way of influence is more effective than exerting authority.

Dr Rosenfeld explained that influence is give-and-take – rather like a currency exchange. Everyone is a potential ally if needs and expectations are identified. Once goals and priorities are clear, and other people’s circumstances are understood, HR is in a position to decide what can be offered to gain their support. From sharing resources to helping implement new projects, to supporting personal development and offering emotional support.

Influence is give-and-take – rather like a currency exchange. Everyone is a potential ally if needs and expectations are identified.



Persuasive techniques

There is a series of techniques that can be adopted when aiming to obtain support without exerting undue authority:

  • Reciprocity: if we do something for someone, that person will most likely return the favour.
  • Commitment: this is the same principle as the ‘foot in the door’ – if we get people to agree on a small issue, we can then build a larger commitment or support.
  • Social proof: we tend to give authority to people with many followers (either on social media or in society).
  • Liking: brands use celebrities as role models to position themselves. It works the same way within organisations: we need to spot role models in our company and get them on our side.
  • Authority: some people’s opinions are perceived as determinant or important, either based on their professional goals in life, their experience or their knowledge. We need to identify whose opinions are heard in our company.
  • Scarcity: creating a sense of urgency (‘we must take on this project now or we will miss the chance’) can help mobilise people.

Before applying these techniques and principles, it is necessary to have a well-defined map of stakeholders based on their level of influence and their interest in the project:

  • Keep satisfied group: Stakeholders with high power but are less interested in the project. We should engage or consult in areas of interest and try to increase their level of commitment.
  • Key player group: Stakeholders with high power and high interest in a project. We need to focus all our efforts to maintain the support of this segment, involving them in governance, engaging and consulting with them regularly.
  • Monitor group: Stakeholders with less power and little interest in the project. We should keep them informed via general communications: newsletters, websites, blogs.
  • Keep informed group: Stakeholders with little power but interested in a project. We can make use of their interest through involvement in low-risk areas, identifying goodwill ambassadors. This group should also be kept informed and consulted regularly.

HR, L&D and talent management professionals need to define people’s motivations and interests thoroughly, how and when they want to receive information, what their opinion of the project is, and who can influence their opinions.

The world has brought profound changes to companies. Innovation is no longer the responsibility of the marketing or business development departments. HR departments need to be positively disruptive as well. Working in a similar way to consultants that look outside their business to identify changes that could affect their company, HR business partners have to ask themselves whether their HR business model is viable; if, as HR professionals, they are capable of creating the climate of trust necessary to lead change.

David Wells

Writer and communications consultant