GrowCFO sat down with experienced CFO and professional mentor Susana Serrano-Davey to discuss key elements of leadership: building consensus and influencing others.
What does it mean to build consensus?
To me, building consensus is about getting people on board before you put yourself in a position where you are likely to experience strong resistance. For instance, imagine that you are presenting during a big meeting and halfway through the meeting people start asking really difficult questions about what you are proposing. It is often at this stage that you suddenly realize you haven’t properly done your homework by getting people on board before the meeting.
It took me a long time to recognize that these meetings should be the formality at the end of a process, rather than the initial interaction at the beginning of a new idea. Think about those people in the workplace who are great at office politics, sometimes referred to as the smooth operators. Those people are good at building consensus with the right people at the right time.
Being a smooth operator is an interesting phrase. What does this mean?
I believe that a smooth operator is someone who has the emotional intelligence to know who they need to get on board, rather than someone that perhaps has the best argument. In organizations, there are always many people who have something to say and have passionate views on certain topics. However, the smooth operators are those individuals who take time to consider the bigger picture and develop a plan to overcome the likely barriers or concerns that other people will have. This requires you to identify those people who may be impacted by decisions, are likely to build resistance towards them, or who may be the biggest influencer of others.
Most people are naturally resistant to change. How can finance leaders get other people on board and avoid any unwanted surprises?
Most people hate surprises! Especially when they first discover them within a meeting scenario or during a wider communication. Even your biggest supporters are likely to react defensively if you put them in that awkward situation where they must express an opinion on something that you haven’t previously consulted them on.
By eliminating unwanted surprises, you create opportunities to gain their perspectives, manage their reactions and address their concerns. This significantly increases your chances of getting your proposals across the line. For example: getting a pay rise, hiring a new person into your team, or changing a system.
Which people should you consult with to help you build consensus?
It’s essential to properly understand your stakeholder landscape. You need to map your stakeholders into your scenario to identify who you should consult and what will be their likely reactions. By opening your lens a little bit wider, some people may appear on your map who were not immediately obvious from the outset. Many of these people will be outside your leadership team and some may not be on your stakeholder map.
Once you have identified each person, you must determine the best way to engage them. For example, during a meeting, phone call, or coffee machine conversation. You may need to vary your approach for each individual concerned. Similarly, you might have to spend more time with some people than others, depending upon their level of influence and concern.
How important is it to get the most influential people on your side?
It’s not always obvious who the people are with the most influence. There are always individuals in an organization who have a voice that is probably louder than their apparent ranking would indicate. These people could be a key stakeholder, their direct reports, a personal assistant, or somebody in a totally different team. They’re the people that you’d always want to get on your side and act as an ambassador for whatever you’re doing because they bring the crowd with them. Otherwise, you risk them derailing your objectives behind the scenes without you even knowing about it. Working out who these people are and how best to engage with them needs to be a key part of your success strategy.
By engaging early on, you can overcome their initial resistance by addressing any concerns, highlighting the benefits of your plan and swinging things in favour of your proposal. You may need to adapt your plans to overcome people’s concerns or to address issues that were not immediately obvious to you.
Many people start their careers wanting to do things their own way, but over time they learn that it’s sometimes better to implement something that works as a compromise for all concerned. Even if your suggested approach is the best one, it is unlikely to work if it’s too painful for the organization. A pragmatic success is much better than an unpopular failure!
And what about consulting with your own team members?
It’s vital to involve your own team from the very beginning. It can be very easy to get carried away with obtaining stakeholder support across the organization before getting your team fully on board. You must show them that you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say and that you are open-minded within your red lines.
It’s important to find that balance between adapting your approach versus staying faithful to what you’re trying to achieve. For example, you may be trying to address a set of risks or generate a significant cost saving. Whilst you want everybody on board, your final plan needs to fulfil your initial objectives.
Do you have any final thoughts on this vital subject?
In general, 90% of leadership is about obtaining people’s buy-in and taking them on the journey with you, which helps remove barriers along the way. This requires you to manage people’s expectations and preconceptions. You are unlikely to learn this during finance exams, hence you need to invest hard in developing these soft skills to deal with people effectively and deliver your desired outcomes.
Think about how great you will feel when presenting your plans during a key meeting if you have already obtained proper buy-in from each person concerned. It’s very satisfying to know that the key people are on your side and to hear them contribute positive reactions towards your proposition. You will feel much more relaxed and are far more likely to enjoy the meeting!