Senior consultant scarlettabbott
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Who are the cultural influencers of your organisation?

Contrary to received wisdom, those with the most influence in your organisation may not necessarily be the core leadership team. Your organisation’s culture defines who wields the most influence among your workforce, so is yours a fire, earth, water or air culture?

17th Aug 2020
Senior consultant scarlettabbott
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If the word ‘influencer’ makes you think of airbrushed Instagrammers and their equally airbrushed lives, who can blame you? They’ve certainly hijacked the term. Strip away the filters, however, and we get back to the real meaning: people with clout. Harnessing their power can help with the heavy lifting of culture change in your organisation – but how do you find them? How do you get them on board?

For starters, they’re not always who you think.

Your organisational culture will affect who your influencers are. Some cultures need security and will look to tried and tested ways of reassurance and direction. Others value growth and innovation.

Leaders, by virtue of their role, are influential. Look beyond the top floor, however, and you’ll find them at every level of the business – the individuals people look to for opinions, reactions or ideas. They may not know each other, but they’re united in carrying significant sway in their groups. These are the people who are instrumental in your culture. These are the people you need to connect with when you want to drive change, cascade messages and find allies.

Influence and uncertainty

In times of uncertainty, landing change initiatives can be harder than ever. People look to the familiar, turning to the reassuring voices in the business. Much as we’d like these to be the leaders, these beacons of solace are often unexpected.

It could be their length of service, their specialist knowledge, their role or their personality. The challenge is establishing who they are, and how to support and optimise them. Understanding your culture is your first step.

Start by understanding the DNA of your culture

Through my work with global clients of all sizes, I’ve developed a model for understanding the dominant culture in an organisation. It’s interesting at any time, but watching the dynamics of the four main cultures play out during the current crisis has been fascinating.

Your organisational culture will affect who your influencers are. Some cultures need security and will look to tried and tested ways of reassurance and direction. Others value growth and innovation – here, the experts will be the catalysts for change.

Culture Pioneers link

Understand your culture and your influencers will emerge

A culture audit takes an in-depth look at a wide range of relevant issues, including what you think the culture is, whether there’s a mismatch between your view and what your workforce thinks, and how to change or leverage the way your business works.

It’s impossible to sum it up in a few lines but here’s a top-level, simplistic guide, to get you started. Is your culture fire, earth, water or air?

FIRE: the one at the top

Dynamic fire cultures are risk-taking and entrepreneurial. Often led by firebrands themselves, these organisations look to their leader for direction in a crisis. The CEO is key and carries significantly more weight than the rest of the leadership team.

How to help them influence: when it comes to the big stuff, don’t abdicate responsibility to a cascade in this culture. Put your charismatic CEO in front of as many people, via as many channels, as possible. Stay close to the leader and make sure they have the tools and support to continue to be a positive influence.

EARTH: the most senior and longest serving

Logical, methodical and rule-based, earth cultures’ influencers extend far beyond the CEO. These companies are often big, inflexible corporates, driven by process and sometimes slow to innovate. Here, the extended leadership team are key, together with those who’ve been there longest. Colleagues look to the people (not person) in charge, with the experience, know-how, an understanding to navigate the politics of a structured, corporate landscape.

How to help them influence: if this sounds like your organisation, take the pressure off your CEO. Provide your people with structure, security and clear direction by elevating those who’ve served the longest and by amplifying the voices of a strong leadership team, standing side by side.

WATER: skilled problem-solvers

Flexible water cultures move at pace. Unlike earth, they feel that rules and processes slow people down. They’re focused on the customer – and thrive on a competitive spirit and challenging themselves. These teams are used to flexing, so make sure the right people are working together to deliver the best outcome. Sometimes just a pocket of an organisation will be a water or air (see below) culture, perhaps where innovation and delivery for the customer is paramount. Here, people will look to the person with the best skill-set, leaning on their expertise to come up with the best solution.

How to help them influence: find ways to put these people front and centre and encourage them to network, transfer learning and develop other experts. Build them a platform – and amplify it. They’re your influencers because they’re the people that others aspire to be.

AIR: the experts

Independent collections of individuals with deep specialisms, air cultures are driven by purpose and very self-motivated. There’s very little hierarchy – the deep expertise itself is enough. In many situations, the smartest person with the strongest skills will know the best way to navigate uncertainty, but here, it’s a no-brainer.

How to help them influence: the solution here is similar to the water culture (above). Support your experts to share their knowledge – they may need help doing that in a way that others will easily engage with. Colleagues will appreciate access to their expertise and continue to respect and follow them.

Influencing the influencers

Of course, not all influencers are good influences. If you’ve found your allies, however, whether they’re your charismatic CEO and their close team, inspirational subject matter experts, experienced old hands, or dynamic young upstarts, nurture them. Listen to them, discuss issues with them, support them and give them a platform, tools and skill set to be the best possible influencers.

Your business can only benefit from this. If you’ve got your change initiatives right, they’ll carry them far and wide. Influence runs two ways, however. By paying attention to those vital voices, you’ll be better able to shape your ideas and messages to create a better world of work.

Interested in this topic? Read Unlocking the wider potential of employee advocacy.

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