Learning how to influence

by 04 Mar 2008

Attempts to influence stakeholders purely through expertise is no longer a viable option within the HR realm, and there are some critical influencing skills which HR people need to develop to help balance their transactional and strategic roles. Sarah O Carroll reports

There are a number of steps which can be taken to develop HR’s influencing skills, but firstly you must ask yourself the question: how influential actually are you within the organisation? Steve Arthurson, HR director of Visy, suggests one simple way of determining this: going directly to the line managers and asking them.

“Ask them ‘how do you perceive the way we work with you? Are we collaborative or are we directive?’ A really blunt conversation like that I think is really useful,” Arthurson says. “I think a lot of HR people will get the message back that actually ‘you’re quite directive and a lot of what you say doesn’t add value in my part of the business’.”

According to Peter Zarris, CEO of OPIC, HR is actually going backwards in terms of influencing and this can be seen in the services they provide within the company. A good way to determine where you sit within the company, both strategically and influentially, is to look at the things that you get the most phone calls about. If the business is not coming to the HR department when real issues arise, then this shows the department’s lack of influence.

“HR needs to do the following health check: ‘when there’s an important business issue, am I getting called and asked my opinion, or am I only getting calls about leave entitlements, payroll etc,” Zarris says. “Managers often go straight to external consultants to solve staff issues rather than consulting the HR department. That’s an influencing rather than a capability issue, because they don’t influence as well as they should.”

Swamped in administration

There are two main reasons why HR struggle to have a voice at executive level, according to Zarris. Firstly, this is because they are drowned in administrative activities, and secondly, due to their lack of influencing skills.

While the administrative duties of the HR department are fundamental to the running of any organisation, being bogged down with these duties is something Arthurson has experienced in his HR departments, hindering development in other areas.

“Getting all of those efficiency and effectiveness tools, processes and systems sorted is a really time-consuming thing, but you need to get that done so you can then have conversations about other things,” says Arthurson. “That’s one of the struggles I certainly had at Foster’s [Group], and we’re going to have [similar problems] here at Visy as well because the technology platforms can be difficult.”

However there are ways that HR departments can devise to balance their time between these transactional responsibilities and developing the critical influencing skills needed to move to a strategic role. Dividing the HR department into two separate areas may be a realistic solution to this.

“They’re different beasts and they’re both incredibly valuable. It’s not to say that the conceptual is more valuable than the transactional. The transactional is the bread and butter,” says Arthurson.

“I think you need to divide HR up into a number of areas and you need someone focusing on the efficiency and the effectiveness processes,” he says. “But then you also need other people looking at the talent management issue, capability development, creating a high-performance culture and they can be different people.”

Arthurson believes that when these two roles are intertwined, and when one HR person is trying to juggle both jobs, both areas will suffer and HR will not be able to grow in influence.

“While there’s a bunch of noise in the system about those transaction issues, it’s really difficult to have conversations about cultural change or leadership development. So it needs to be on the table that those sorts of things are all being addressed at the same time,” he says.

Collaboration and conflict

Another key step for HR in developing their influencing skills is through collaboration. According to Arthurson, HR departments often tend to rely on influencing through their HR expertise and this is no longer enough. The expert will give you a potential solution but the ability to collaborate and get agreement on something is the real key of influence. The ability to engage is much more important than just ‘being the expert’.

“Expertise as an influencing technique is not enough. They actually need to understand the impact of the people issues on the business from a special perspective, or from a line manager’s perspective, and then collaborate on those HR outcomes. So collaboration skills I think are just fundamental to this whole notion of influence,” he says.

A creative dialogue between HR and line managers is the most important element of collaboration. Only through this will HR be able to influence by convincing line managers of the added value of their suggestions and decisions.

“The ability of the HR person to have a HR solution but also try and seek out what will work and what won’t work in this particular instance, and then have a really good collaborative discussion about it,” says Arthurson. “Here’s the problem, here’s a potential solution, what do you think? What will work? What won’t work for you? What if we did it differently? What if we did something else?”

“If you go through that collaborative process then you’ll really get a solution that the line managers will see will add value. So you’re not going to create the conflict that can be created when you come in as the expert and say ‘here’s the way you have to do it’.”

Conflict is another area where HR needs to develop their influencing skills. When it comes to a business division such as HR, there are unique challenges to overcome. Because a lot of what HR does is service-oriented and collaborative in nature, there is a tendency to shy away from conflict at the risk of making the customer unhappy.

“The biggest danger is we give our customers what they want, not what they need,” says Zarris. “The long-term strategic influence is developed by giving them what they need and sometimes that means challenging what they want.”

HR can begin upping their influence straight away within the organisation but first they have to understand the business, says Arthurson.

“I think the easiest way to gain influence, if they do it well, is in this whole area of talent management, succession planning, talent acquisition, that capability area. I think if HR had a really good understanding of the capability that’s required in the business then they apply their expertise to getting really good insight into the capability that’s on offer,” says Arthurson.

“So they do all the behavioural interviewing, the psychometric testing, the abilities testing, so they get really good insight. Then I think they’ve got a real opportunity to influence that greatly in the business.”

How to build influence

Build stakeholder networks. Identify all the people - both inside and outside your organisation - who impact on your area of business and who are important to your success. For example, a general manager's network would include the CEO, the board, their direct team, their opposite number in other divisions, customers, suppliers and people in the community on whom the business impacts.

Engage with stakeholders. Once you know who is important to you, actively initiate meetings in order to understand what your stakeholders do and the challenges they face. Also allow a willingness to engage in conversations outside your expertise. These meetings will provide you with an insight into where you could potentially collaborate or share resources. It is not good enough to simply meet on one occasion. Networking with people needs to be an ongoing activity.

Collaborate with stakeholders. Simply including your stakeholders in your decision making is not enough. You need to find out what their ideas or views are first. Taking a consultative and collaborative approach will lead to a result far superior to the one you originally devised.

Manage conflict. Deal with conflict directly. It is a normal part of collaboration, but most people avoid it at all costs. As a result, we leave the 'undiscussables' undiscussed. We are not prepared to talk about the elephant in the corner. Good influencers do not avoid conflict - they seek out any areas of disagreement and discuss these openly, in a positive and constructive way.

Source: OPIC