It’s a provocative question that can become more and more novel as individuals rise up the organizational charts. But the question “Do you know who’s really influencing your organization?” is not a negative one. In fact, it underscores a reality that can take place as individuals in senior positions are pulled in many different directions. They become too busy and distracted to influence the organization in the way they should, and others — up, down and across the organization — step in to get things done, with or without recognition or approval for their efforts.

Those stand-in doers, leaders and influencers represent another organizational reality … there are individuals who are influencing and shaping your organization who cannot be found on the hierarchy of the organogram! They are what I call the Unidentified Influencers (UIs)! And I’d bet money that the majority of the people who work within your organization know who the UIs are on their team, within their department, etc. They know who they are because, in reality, these individuals have more power than you may initially believe (which can have positive or negative impact on the culture you seek, depending upon how you influence them).

One fundamental human factor drives this reality: Every person desires relevancy, no matter their position. A major pitfall can take place if one of the UIs in your organization or team feels he or she has been relegated to a position of irrelevance. No one likes feeling this way, but if a UI feels this way, it could have a large impact on your organization or team and not for the good. UIs feel this desire for relevancy strongly, and they will seek to be relevant by whatever means are available to them. Especially when they feel relevancy slipping away.

In light of this information, there is GOOD NEWS! Within any organization, steps can be taken to find out who the UIs on your team are and, most importantly, you can invite them to help influence the culture in the direction necessary to achieve success.

The challenge to keep in mind is that the UIs 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 UIs 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 to being a humble leader, open to feedback and recognize you’re dealing with a powerful 3 letter word: EGO! In my experience, I’ve seen UIs become the strongest advocates for a cultural transformation or business performance turnaround by becoming a part of the solution, not the problem!

Do you know who’s really influencing your organization? This may be a question that provokes thought and reflection, as it should be. Whether your reaction to this question is a rebuttal or acknowledgment, reflecting upon yourself and your organization will derive benefit.

In organization after organization that I’ve joined, I study the organizational charts to help learn the organization’s formal structure. I also use the organization chart to set up my schedule of getting to know the people in the organization. Getting to know the team members goes deeper than identifying their names … it requires gaining insights about each individual’s professional career and ambitions. You should also seek to find out what gets them excited away from work. Depending on the individual, some people place more priority on their vocation, while others prioritize their avocations.

Discovering Who the Organizational Unidentified Influencers Are

To accomplish this, I suggest setting up one-on-one discussions in employees’ work areas; scheduling the time with them sends a message of their importance to you. It’s important to set up these meetings in their work areas. This action gets you out into the business and to the place where they work, accentuating their value to you.

As you tackle these discussions with individuals up and down the organizational chart, make sure to learn about their individual assessments of co-workers’ contributions, as well as their own. When I coordinate these meetings, I pay close attention to the words employees use, level of impact made on the business, and what their body language and tone communicate about them and their co-workers (if they introduce assessments or opinions of others on their own). 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?” While it doesn’t happen every time, in the majority of these conversations, some names arise.

Key triggers to look for … are UIs 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 UIs in the organization are, be conscious of not giving your opinion or view, if you have one. Remember that, during this conversation, you are in full data-gathering and feedback mode, not judgment mode.

Lastly, this discovery process includes many one-on-one conversations across the organization. Ultimately, the true UIs will intersect in every conversation, and during this process, you will have formed a picture of the background of the UI. These preparatory steps are critical for the upcoming one-on-ones with UIs.

Influencing the Unidentified Influencers

I’ve used many approaches to gain open and honest discussions with UIs over the years and have learned that there is no exact recipe for timing or approach, except for the preparation of gaining insights from others.

Typically, UIs will be significantly in tune with their radar of potentially being cornered. One of my favorite approaches is to get UIs to react in a town hall or team meeting setting. UIs tend to be the individuals who gain intrinsic value from challenging the boss in these forums. It’s critically important that these interactions are managed 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 is a delicate act, but an important one.

At this point, seek time with the UI by scheduling a meeting in their area of work, so that you are sending a strong message of their value from your perspective. Take time to genuinely care and understand their career path, aspirations and, importantly, what gets them excited outside of work. Then flip the conversation to what gets them excited about the work they do and their contributions to the mission of the business. This is the point in the conversation that strengthens the barrier the UIs like to put up around management, but recognize that you 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?”

Look at what you’ve done! You have now set the stage to invite them to be an advocate for the changes or transformation you want to achieve. Remember that most UIs feel they have been burned in the past, so you will have to move slowly and there will likely be some concessions you will have to make. You’ll also receive challenges from others in the business regarding your engaging and inviting the UI to “have a seat at the table!” In reality, they already had a seat at the table but they may have been working against change! Now you are shifting that mindset.

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. Just imagine, the discussion at the cafeteria table when others realize “CAN YOU BELIEVE UI IS DRINKING THE KOOL-AID?”

When you approach your organization and your team by embracing the Unidentified Influencers, you have to truly believe that leaders in your organization can not always be identified by their title or position! 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.


Interested in reading more about the lessons learned from real-life leadership experiences? Buy the book, Bosses Are Hired…Leadership Is Earned today.