A provocative question that can become more and more novel with individuals who rise up the organizational chart.  This statement is not a negative one, but a reality that can take place as individuals in senior positions are pulled in many different directions.  Another organizational reality, there are individuals who are influencing and shaping your organization who can not be found on the hierarchy of the organogram!   They are the Unidentified Influencers (UI’s), and I’d bet money on the majority of the people who work in the organization outside of the senior leadership know who the UI’s are on their team, department, etc.  One fundamental human factor drives this reality,  every person desires relevancy.  A major pitfall can take place if one of the UI’s  in your organization or team feel they’ve been relegated to a position of irrelevance.  UI’s feel this desire for relevancy strongly, and they will seek to be relevant by means available to them.  

THE GOOD NEWS!!  There are steps that can be taken to find out who the UI’s on your team are; and most importantly, invite them to help influence the culture in the direction necessary to achieve success. The challenge, UI’s are sharp, have strong opinions, and have experienced or perceived some aspect of the business, organization, or decisions made to be contrary to their beliefs.  Some UI’s may have even attempted to provide input or voice an opinion, only to be shut down.  Before venturing down this path in your organization, commit yourself to being a humble leader, open to feedback, and recognize your dealing with a powerful 3 letter word, EGO!  In my experience, I’ve seen UI’s become the strongest advocates for a cultural transformation or business performance turnaround being a part of the solution, not the problem!

I hope the question above and the case presented, provokes thought and reflection!  Whether your reaction is a rebuttal or acknowledgement, reflecting upon yourself and your organization will derive benefit!  

In every organization I’ve joined, I study the organizational charts to help in learning the organization’s formal structure.  I also use the organizational chart to set up my schedule of getting to know the people.  “Getting to know” does include gaining insights of individuals’ professional careers and ambitions, but I always want to know what gets people excited away from work.  Depending on the individual, some place more priority on their vocation, while others prioritize their avocations.  I set up one-on-one discussions in their work areas, scheduling the time to send a message of their importance to you and the value of their time.  I don’t want individuals coming to me for these meetings.  I want to get out into the business to where they work, which further accentuates their value to you.  Through these discussions with individuals up and down the organizational chart, I seek from individuals their assessment of co-workers’ contributions, as well as their own.  I pay close attention to the words used, level of impact made on the business, and what their body language and tone communicate to me about them and their co-workers (if they introduce assessments or opinions of others).  Of course, these are conversations, so I always ensure I reciprocate in sharing the same information about myself.  Through the conversation, if we haven’t gotten to the point of talking about the team, I’ll ask the following question:  “Who are the Unidentified Influencers in our organization?”.  Not always, but in the majority of these conversations, some names will come up!  

Key triggers I seek,  UI’s  identified as troublemakers, tough to manage, or worse, individuals who pull against the direction you want to lead the organization.  If I get one of these triggers, I seek to understand the person’s opinion or knowledge of why they believe the UI is negatively influencing the organization?  At this point in discovering who the UI’s in your organization are, you must be conscious of not giving your opinion or view, if you have one.  You are in full data gathering and feedback mode!  Lastly, your discovery process will include many one-on-one conversations across the organization.  Ultimately, the true UI’s will intersect in every conversation, and you will have formed a picture of the background of the UI.  These preparatory steps are critical for the upcoming one-on-one with UI’s.

I’ve used many approaches to gaining an open and honest discussion with UI’s over the years.  There is no exact recipe for timing or approach, except for the preparation of gaining insights from others.  Typically, UI’s will be significantly in tune with their radar of potentially being cornered.  One of my favorite approaches is to get UI’s to react in a Town Hall or Team Meeting setting.  UI’s tend to be the individuals who gain intrinsic value from challenging the boss in these forums.  Again, you have to manage such interactions carefully.  Balancing between not accepting a contradictory position the UI may present and ensuring your reaction and response opens the door for a one-on-one conversation.

At this point, seeking time with the UI, following the same guidelines above of going to them sends a strong message of their value in your view.  Take the same approach to understand their career path, aspirations, and importantly, what gets them excited outside of work.  Then you can flip the conversation to what gets them excited about the work they do and their contributions to the mission of the business.  Typically, this point is the conversation strengthens the barrier the UI’s like to put up around management, but recognize you do have the steering wheel of the conversation in your hand.  A barrier buster question is, “Can you tell me three things we can change about our business or culture that would improve our performance or the work environment?”  

Now, you’ve set the stage to invite them to be an advocate for the changes or transformation you want to achieve.  As most UI’s feel they have been burned in the past, you’ll have to move slowly and there will likely be some concessions you will have to make.  You’ll also receive challenge from others in the business regarding your engaging and inviting the UI to “have a seat at the table!”.  The reality, they already have a seat at the table, but they are working against change!  In the majority of these situations that I’ve worked through in many different cultures, turning the UI into an advocate for change gets noticed and has more impact than most steps you can take during a transformation..  

Just imagine the discussion at the cafeteria table when others realize “CAN YOU BELIEVE Unidentified Influencer IS DRINKING THE KOOL AID?”.  The belief a leader has to take, you have to truly believe the people are the solution, not the problem!  Regardless of the challenges I’ve faced over the decades of my career, I’ve never encountered a situation that could not be positively overcome with the collective input from the people in the organization!  The UI’s who have jumped on board to be advocates for the transformation of our business and culture become the most pivotal assets to the success of the business!  Of course, the time invested and engagement with all the organizations (particularly the advocates) is ongoing.  Follow up often and be consistent!