Building A Network Of Influence:

A Key Leadership Skill To Get Things Done

By: Raymond P. Harrison, Ph.D. & Edward H. Betof, Ed.D

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“Leaders by definition need followers. We often think of leadership in heroic terms, but the truth is that a large part of leadership includes pure political savvy. Political savvy entails reassuring followers that you share similar interests with them, then getting them to see other interests and opportunities which will lead them to new kinds of actions. Business leadership in particular increasingly requires political skill as relationships among workers have become more complex in the convoluted structures of organizations in the nineties.”

Guess who said this: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about, in any way, the social and political equality of the white and black races…1 am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarrying with white people; and 1 will say, in addition to this, there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I  believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of political and social equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior; and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Perhaps you guessed the head of the Ku Klux Klan, or the President of the Aryan Nation. But the surprising answer is Abraham Lincoln. As noted Lincoln biographer Gary Wills has observed, Lincoln first had to be elected before he could lead the populace away from the practice of slavery. He did this by a shrewd analysis of his constituency: first getting their support and then forging a coalition of voters who had some misgivings about slavery, then convincing them that it was in their own best interest not to let the problem fester.

Lincoln’s enduring legacy of leadership attests to the principle that in order to get important but controversial things done one must build support for one’s goals. If this seems a bit political and duplicitous, it must be remembered that idealists may be intellectual leaders, but they are rarely leaders of people. Leaders who aspire to have followers who will act on behalf of their goals, need to be pragmatists.

There are many routes to gaining support from others. Being charismatic helps, being an eloquent speaker can help, having an imminent crisis can sometimes foster support. But the common denominator which cuts across all these situations is that effective leadership requires the development of effective stakeholder relationships.

Stakeholder development has always been important, but in the new organizational structures of the nineties it is particularly critical. Today’s flattened, reengineered, team-based, outsourced, organizations engender complex and constantly shifting relationships between workers, not unlike the constantly shifting political arena. It is common today to have more than one boss. And these multiple bosses may not always agree on your goals and objectives. It is also common for managers to have wider spans of control, often supervising workers who are quite independent and who work in ways which may be hard to monitor or tightly control. While these complex structures present new and particularly daunting challenges to managing effectively, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Many organizational experts such as John Kotter have observed that corporations who are leaders in their industries tend to be full of diversity, interdependence and conflict, often by explicit design.

Over the past three decades, from a variety of disciplines, there has emerged a body of knowledge about key elements of solid, cooperative and collaborative relationships with others. In our discussion we will call this stakeholder analysis and development, but many of the concepts have been described before by such diverse writers as Gary Wills, John Kotter, Dale Carnegie and Machiavelli.

Key Elements of Stakeholder Analysis

Identifying Your Goals. A first step, before any analysis of stakeholders can begin, is to identify what are the critical few objectives (CFOs) you want to accomplish. These may be externally imposed or they may spring from a personal vision, but in any case they will be few in number and of critical importance. For any job it is a useful exercise to ask yourself, “What are the two or three things that, if I do them well, will yield much forgiveness for the other ninety-nine things done only O.K?” Focusing on these CFOs is an early key to success in most jobs. But ultimately not just to survive, but to thrive, one has to identify personally inspired goals and persuade others to also adopt them as their own. Every successful senior executive with whom we have worked has ultimately had a small number of “legacy accomplishments,” i.e., significant accomplishments that had their personal stamp on them. The problem is that legacy accomplishments almost always require the commitment or at least compliance of many others. That is why careful analysis of the stakeholder resources and constraints is mandatory.

Analyzing Stakeholders. The typical way of looking at work relationships (Superiors, Peers and Subordinates) will not suffice. Undoubtedly some of the individuals in these groups may have goals in common, but it is just as likely that some from these groups will also have competing goals. Two bosses may have competing goals; peers may feel that for you to win means that they lose; and subordinates can’t necessarily be counted on to have the same goals as you.

The useful place to start is to identify those individuals who have an immediate common stake in the success of your project. These are the people who have already asked, “what’s in it for me?’ and found the answer as obvious. When you win, they win. Your efforts with these individuals may revolve more around dividing up the work effort and achieving maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

In Lincoln’s case he immediately inherited a dedicated group of abolitionists, but this was clearly insufficient to win the cause. He had to begin focusing on expanding his stakeholder group beyond this initial constituency. He had to ask, what could be in it for at least some of the larger population who were uninterested and unmoved by the slavery issue. Eventually he was able to build a critical mass of individuals who saw that it was in their own best interest to resolve the slavery issue. As Gary Wills has noted, he told them they could not afford to let the problem fester any longer; they could not afford to take the “hands-off approach his opponent Stephen Douglas advocated. In essence Lincoln raised the anxiety of most Americans, at least in the North, that this issue would ultimately affect them.

In workplace settings it is often useful to engage a variation of a technique called “mind mapping.” In traditional mind mapping a circle is typically drawn, and inside it a particular task is entered. Lines are then drawn from the circle indicating sub-projects, people to be involved, time lines and often subordinate lines are drawn from the major ones to indicate intermediate tasks which must be accomplished in support of the ultimate goal. (See Figure 1-1.)

In the stakeholder analysis variation of mind mapping, the task is still entered in the circle, but increased emphasis is placed on outlining key individuals whose aid must be enlisted. In addition, each line has a positive or negative valence attached to it to indicate the degree of commitment an individual may have to the task. (See Figure 1-2.)

The relevant questions to ask in this analysis are:

  • Whose commitment do I need to accomplish the task? (+)
  • Whose cooperation do I need to accomplish the task? (+)
  • Whose compliance do I need to accomplish the task? (+)
  • Who may be in competition with my goals? (-)
  • Who may be in outright conflict with my goals? (-)
  • How can I resolve these conflicts to get the job done?

Techniques of Developing Stakeholder Relationships

The basic questions to be asked in developing effective stakeholder relationships are:

  • Do I need to create a relationship?
  • Do I need to build a relationship?
  • Do I need to repair a relationship?
  • Do I need to redefine a relationship?

Over the last forty years the discipline of anthropology has yielded some interesting insights about how universal some psychological traits really are. Many observed phenomena that were once thought to be ingrained aspects of human functioning, we now know are largely cultural artifacts. But at least one phenomenon that appears to be a feature of every culture is reciprocity, the basic assumption that a favor given is a favor owed.

So a simple strategy is to look for opportunities to do others a favor, particularly those who might be key stake- holders for your effort.

Another set of strategies has been suggested by psychologist Gene Boccialetti. They revolve around looking at the development of stakeholders through specific initiatives aimed at distance, deference and divergence. The beauty of these concepts is that they provide simple, yet powerful guidance for actions to be taken to build cooperative, collaborative stakeholder relationships.

Distance refers to the amount of familiarity and frequency of contact between two individuals. Many problems in organizations can be solved just by greater frequency of contact. Simple acts such as requesting a meeting to go over issues, inviting a co-worker to lunch, showing interest in another’s project or inviting a potential stakeholder to a key team meeting can create powerful, reciprocal obligations and set the stage for better future cooperation.

Deference refers to the degree of proper respect one displays to others. As more and more organizations become truly international, this is a particularly complex and culturally laden issue. But if a relationship is strained, it is useful to ask whether one has been sufficiently deferential to the other party. Challenging a boss or co-worker in a meeting, trashing the work of a predecessor, forgetting to get input from all concerned parties, etc., are all areas which can lead to troubled relationships.

Divergence is in some ways the most substantive area of stakeholder difficulties. It occurs when there is a basic disagreement on business goals. Even when distance and deference issues have been adequately handled, legitimate differences of opinion can occur around issues of business strategy, tactics and goals. It is beyond the scope of this article to document all of the techniques available for resolving legitimate differences, but the important point to be made is that unless issues of reciprocity, distance and deference are adequately dealt with first, other techniques such as accommodation or compromise are not likely to be effective. In some cultures this is even more true than in American businesses.

A Special Note on International Business

All of the above comments provide a framework for analyzing and building stakeholder relationships. These analyses become increasingly complex, and perhaps even more important when played out in an international arena. Numerous authors over the last forty years have observed that although there are considerable individual variations, there are also discernible cultural differences in assumptions about social relations. The distance factor, for instance, is a critical variable in France where important business relationships are almost always formed over time, often over dinner and usually some accommodation has to be made to attempt to speak the language. The deference factor is paramount in Korea. A Korean worker will never tell his boss “no” directly even when he knows a task is impossible or simply the wrong thing. A Belgian team meeting is not typically a participative interaction. To openly voice a divergent viewpoint in public would be a serious affront. In Japan, inviting a colleague home for dinner would normally be an intimacy bestowed only after years of collaboration while in Italy this would often be standard operating procedure.


In short, there is no one set of recommendations that will work in every situation. But looking at the key elements of stakeholder relationships and applying thoughtful, systematic effort to improving them is a critical task of leadership.

For Further Reading:

  • Kotter,John. Power and Influence. New York: The Free Press, 1995.
  • Bellman, Geoffrey. Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1992.
  • Bocialletti, Gene. It Takes Two. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass, 1995.
  • Brake, Terence; Walker, Danielle; & Walker, Thomas.