We're at a time of year where many account leaders are set new targets and develop an account plan to achieve them. But more than ever, targets are frighteningly ambitious, compounded by an unfamiliar landscape. For instance, needing to sell more complex and multi-product offerings which require sophisticated value-conversations with out-of-reach stakeholders with whom we have no existing relationship, in unexplored areas of the account. Coupled with self-induced pressure of feeling ill-equipped - it can seem impossible.

For the executive setting the ambitious targets and demanding ‘expand’ with every ‘land’, they know that to be successful, their account leaders need to practice three, very different disciplines in unison:

First, a strategic, deliberate and efficient navigation to the most important value-conversations with the right stakeholders as quickly as possible.  

Second, great influence skill to have the required impact when you ‘get’ to those stakeholders; to accelerate trust, landing the right question at exactly the right moment to change their understanding of the real cause of their problem.  

Third, great management and leadership to pull in the same direction across the team, leveraging all interactions with account stakeholders to best effect.

In our language, these three disciplines are called: influence strategy, influence skill, and influence campaign management.

The executive may know of outliers who can be highly successful (perhaps through natural ability, developed instincts, or accumulated experience) but are not successful repeatably enough. The executive are sometimes capable in these three disciplines themselves. But, they struggle to explain how to do it - and that’s because practicing each of the disciplines deliberately is really, really difficult. To do them together, it’s so difficult it took ten, intense years of intelligence operations in Afghanistan and a very different P&L to gain expertise rich enough to be codified into a repeatable framework.

Elite influence is the bridge between ambitious sales outcomes and a series of realisable steps we can implement with confidence. 

It was borne from life-and-death sales results, a level of complexity across the account landscape incomprehensible to most, and stakeholders who were astute, skilful, and did not like being ‘sold’ to. That environment might look very different to yours (we hope), but the influence challenges are the same. If you don’t believe us – read on.

This series lifts-the-lid on the three disciplines and how you can apply them to accelerate the growth that’s been demanded of you. We start below with More Aiming, Less Shooting - or how to build an effective influence strategy.

We use real stories from our work supporting clients' ambitious growth told through the story of Leon, a fictional account leader who feels the impossible has been asked of him. He has been told what to do by his executive, but not equipped with how to do it. 

Meet Leon...

He has always met annual targets but has never achieved them with confidence it was his deliberate actions that got him there. He feels like he’s constantly firefighting to meet short-term targets and support delivery issues. He tries to create opportunities by approaching new stakeholders 'cold' and asking for introductions where he has connections. He knows his actions are generally reactive and tactical. 

Then, Leon learns how to build, execute and manage an elite influence campaign…

Discipline 1: More Aiming, Less Shooting – or how to build an effective Influence Strategy

Leon has two main issues with existing revenue streams: 1) contracts are dis-jointed and silo’d – he knows there is huge potential value to his account if he can join-up services more strategically; 2) the breadth of services provided in each contract is limited – he knows each contract has potential to be richer.  

The industry is facing several headwinds which Leon thinks will compound the already ambitious targets: regulatory change, threats from industry disruptors, and increasingly leaner organisations meaning fewer potential leads and constrained budgets.

What is it we need to influence and what is affecting my stakeholders' decisions?

Each of his team ‘sees’ the account from a different angle, so he needs their perspectives. Together, they flush out the important factors affecting decision-making at multiple levels and across a spectrum of issues; global, strategic, political factors to personal concerns around promotion, power and potential criticism.  

Their analysis reveals important deductions:

  • The 'headwinds' he thought of as obstacles actually create an opportunity to be more strategically valuable.
  • One of his team reveals a long-time champion in the account is soon to be taking early retirement. This stakeholder is mid-level but has strong informal networks of influence and has been a reliable advocate fighting Leon’s corner in budget decisions and contract negotiations. This is an unforeseen constraint – and they need to minimise the impact.

Leon knows some of his explicit tasks already: to have strategic value-conversations and to be talking to the ‘right’ people higher up. He works out what the hidden tasks are from that, including:

  • Support needed from senior execs in his own organisation, plus aligning two other business units behind his strategy if he is to seize the identified opportunity.
  • The value-conversations will not happen just by asking for introductions to more senior people. He will need a broad coalition of stakeholders at the right level and in the right places, and he knows he needs to help those stakeholders navigate some of their own challenges.

He has a realisation; he previously viewed the account becoming leaner as an obstacle due to the tighter networks and constrained budgets. Indeed, his approach of attempting to connect with unfamiliar stakeholders for tactical opportunities burnt through leads quickly. He now he has an advantage; tighter networks with defined budget control can be quicker and easier to navigate – as long as you have a common operating picture...

Who do we need to influence and in what way?

One reason for Leon’s tactical actions to date was a lack of visibility of his team's activity across the account. He had no cohesive picture of how they interface in the account and where, and what opportunities they were seeing and importantly, not seeing.

The team have generally great relationships with good client satisfaction. But these stakeholders are not the people they need to influence if they are to seize the more strategic opportunity.

Together they identify new stakeholders they know are relevant – but realise they have existing relationships with few. They’ve also identified ‘known unknowns’ – roles they know exist and are relevant, but no knowledge of the person in the role.

They use influence mapping to identify 1) the stakeholders’ impact on the opportunity, 2) how much influence they have with each, and 3) the relationships between the stakeholders. They know to look beyond the obvious and realise they have strong connections with a strategy consultancy engaged in the account as well as a vendor-partner with long-standing relationships to the senior stakeholders Leon needs.

They work out the influence effects (how you want a stakeholder to think, feel and act) needed to drive the required decisions and behaviour in each stakeholder. Some need to be excited about what Leon’s solution would mean for them. Others need reassurance that a strategic relationship would empower their business units and not constrain them. Leon’s own executives need reassurance that a short-term impact on the account P&L is needed to achieve a strategic impact, and that this will support their own long-term goals.

Now the common operating picture is assembled and kept ‘live’ at weekly stand-ups, Leon can empower his team with confidence and increased visibility.

How do we sequence this and who is best placed? 

Leon’s previous approach was highly susceptible to forces outside his control (luck) such as what mood a target was in when they read his email.

The process has so far revealed several paths to the stakeholders he needs to influence, identified his 'influence agents' to influence on his behalf, and where he needs to build a coalition of support. This removes his reliance on luck and volume. 

He can now have one conversation with the ‘right’ person to achieve support in a key area, not ten with irrelevant stakeholders.

They establish the sequencing of interactions with their target stakeholders and work out who in the team is best placed to have which. Leon has previously taken on most of this himself, but a clear action plan gives confidence to maintain a broader overview while others deliver the influence effects. This increases his capacity to focus on the most important things while still controlling the overall campaign.  

With a clear and shared influence strategy, every member of the team can drive it forward every single day.

But, he knows you don’t just need a brilliant influence strategy, you need to practice influence skills too. Otherwise, you can navigate to the right stakeholders but can’t influence their thinking and decisions. Next week...

Discipline 2: Plan For The Personal Agenda – or how to influence with skill and precision