The one with influencing chess

There is a lot of talk both on and offline about influencing CEOs with regard to the talent agenda. Whether that be the (so called) War for Talent, the need to invest and retain, developing better leaders etc, etc

What’s interesting to me (at least) is the focus is always influencing the CEO and I must confess that given the number of things the average CEO has to think about the idea that the focus is influencing them and not about even getting a meeting with them….

Earlier in my career, my influencing style was described (in a performance review) as that of a petulant 5 year old cheating at draughts. It’s quite a ballsy comment but I had a good relationship with my boss which allowed conversations of this direct nature but good relationships aside even I coloured a little at this comparison.

If you think of the rules of draughts, every piece carries equal value, has a limited ability to move and until a king is formed can only move forwards.

What she went on to describe was my influencing style as go into a conversation/meeting present at a given (or taken) opportunity my idea/solution and wait for everyone else to agree with me. When they didn’t I would metaphorically (or in one case literally) pout, take my toys and retreat to my private sand pit to sulk and think of mean names to call those involved.

Returning to drafts she likened it to the 5 year picking up one piece, moving it straight down the middle of the board and shouting “King me!” When a King was refused, moving the piece back and refusing to play anymore.

What she described to me was that building influence within an organisation was more akin to playing chess. You needed to build your position through thoughtful positioning with people in different parts of the organisation who could influence those at the top of the business who ultimately made decisions.

If you think of the rules of chess, it is by nature far more strategic, different pieces have different abilities and perceived value are more or less useful in building to an eventual checkmate.

She then coached me through a process in attempting to land a major change we were both working on. Both of us knew we would have little support from the certain teams (who were effected most by the change, let’s call them operations), finance would be behind us as it saved money, but the commercial and marketing leads could go either way.

Working up to a crunch meeting I worked with a senior member of the finance team to ensure the case was attractive and airtight. I worked with senior players in both commercial and marketing to build cases for its attractiveness to our customers and was even given the opportunity to speak to a couple of them. I worked with senior members of the (mythical of course) Operations team who, as it turned out, were grudgingly supportive of the outcome if not the process but I better understood their objections and could craft rebuttals and work arounds for most of them.

4 weeks later the crunch meeting came, I delivered the slide deck (including all my supporting evidence), took the questions, offered the rebuttals and sat waiting for the jury to deliver its verdict. 5 minutes of chatter, beard stroking, calculator pounding and conjecture followed but without input from the CEO who had sat watchful at the other end of the table. I must confess I feared the worst until in minute 6 the CEO uttered a phrase that made my day, week, month and bonus “Well….we’re going to do it, right?”

I was a converted Chess player from then on and although it has taken me some time (and on occasion I still fail) to control the rush of blood to the head when the objections fly, I think that conversation in that performance review probably had more of an impact on my career than most others.

So to bring this back to where it started, maybe people need to stop asking how to influence the CEO but rather ask how to influence the people who influence the CEO and how to influence those the CEO turns to when they want to validate something.

In the meantime, bishop to queen’s rook 7

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The one with influencing chess

  1. As always an interesting and thoughtful blog. It reminds me of my first sales training where the mantra was to know and understand everything about the product and service to enable you to pre-handle objections and influence the buyer positively when the objection came up.

  2. Like the post and the story Rob! The sentiment is very much about influencing upwards towards the CEO – totally valid and important. There’s also a flip-side to that dynamic…

    How as a CEO can you make great decision making as swift and as effective as possible? How can you ensure upward influence is balanced rather than partisan? How can you create an environment for innovation to percolate upwards, naturally? If you have influence with the CEO perhaps these are useful areas to influence!

  3. Pingback: The one with two candles | Masters or Bust

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