A study from the Corporate Leadership Council (CLC) sharpens the focus on influence for effective global leadership development.2 The CLC conducted a survey of 11,500 leaders in 35 companies across a variety of industries and geographies. Influence emerged as the top-ranked competency of high performing global leaders – it was more strongly correlated with successful global leadership performance than capabilities traditionally seen as key elements of a leader’s job such as vision, decision-making, delegation, creativity, resource allocation, or holding employees accountable. The CLC observes,
“As soon as a leader transitions from single country to multi-country responsibility, the ability to influence becomes the critical differentiator. Influence is the fundamental competency that leaders must have to effectively assume global roles.”
The CLC also identified a significant business impact: great global leaders, characterized by their strong influencing skills, headed up business units that performed on average almost 30% better than the comparable units headed up by “global laggards” in the leaders’ peer group. Moreover, skillful influencers had significantly lower rates of employee turnover and higher rates of discretionary effort in their organizations.
It is rare in the field of talent development to find such compelling evidence of business impact, which makes the topic of influence even more vital for companies seeking to accelerate the growth of future leaders.
As with many areas, it is important to ensure that there is a shared understanding of the meaning of key terms. What does influence really mean for global leaders? Frequently, it means getting things done across organizational and geographic boundaries even without direct reporting relationships in complex and fast-moving business environments. Having said this, there is a danger that many companies will leap to the conclusion, “Aha, we already have a program on influencing skills – let’s roll that out worldwide!” The result may be the imposition of a model of influence grounded in a particular cultural paradigm that is not relevant or effective elsewhere.
Influence techniques and culture
One approach to influence is to see it as a set of techniques, used either independently or in various combinations.
These techniques can include forms of “explaining” (e.g., logical persuasion), “asking” (e.g., appealing to relationship), or “inspiring” (e.g., appealing to values). There are also negative influencing techniques that most of us experience from childhood, such as intimidation and manipulation.
This view of influence becomes more complicated when the techniques favored in different cultural settings are compared. People from Israel and Greece, for example, are more likely to assert desired outcomes directly, in contrast to Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, or Japan where people are more reluctant to employ this strategy.
In a similar vein, a preferred form of influence in China is to craft mutual exchanges to address the needs of different parties, whereas this method of persuasion is relatively less frequent in Scandinavia. Appeals to values, a staple of much of the leadership theory from North America, are predictably most prevalent in the U.S., while this mode of persuasion is not as common in northern and eastern Europe.3
Although the data indicates that respondents in most countries do share a preference for certain influence techniques such as logical persuasion and socializing, it is even plausible to assert that the more finely grained rules for these universally favored activities vary across cultures: Will a presentation that appears “logical” in Japan be regarded in the same way in France? Are dinner customs in Brazil likely to carry over to the toasting etiquette at a Chinese banquet?
Recommendations for influencing across borders
So, how should a global leader develop his or her influencing skills, and how can organizations cultivate this mission-critical capability? Our own research indicates that influence is best understood as the outcome of a broader repertoire of knowledge and skills rather than as a discrete set of techniques.
The ten behaviors of successful global leaders outlined in the book, What is Global Leadership?, culminate in those that we call Influence Across Boundaries and Third Way Solutions. Here is the model, in which each behavior helps to support those at the next stage, along with a brief sample illustration of the impact of the first four behaviors on the ability to influence.