When you get home at the end of the day, you don't say 'geez it was a tough day today. I couldn't get the numbers to add up.', it's more like 'geez it was a tough day today. I had a big conversation with someone in my team and it really took it out of me.' Equally, you don't start the day saying, 'Today's going to be big. It's the day I get to review the numbers.' It's more like, 'Today's going to be big. I'm having my 1:1 with my boss and I want to tell him I'm not loving things right now. But I have to do this without the risk of this reflecting badly on my commitment or performance'
Conversations are at the heart of what we do. If we get these wrong, it doesn't matter what the numbers say. Heads will roll. Conversely, think about a time when the numbers weren't great - how important were the conversations then??
So...how good are you at having influential conversations? Most leaders are one hit wonders when it comes to influence. They use one approach in every situation. Often it's the approach that's 'always worked for me in the past' and even more often (unconsciously) they influence the way they are influenced themselves. Which makes no sense because we're not trying to influence ourselves, we need to influence 'others'.
Here's the kicker for women in finance
More often than not, we're influencing men or groups that are primarily comprised of men. So we need to balance our own preference for communicating and more specifically, influence, with that of the men in the room. And it's easy to get this wrong. We do 1 of 2 things: 1: go really female on them or 2: get really dominant and aggressive. Neither of those 2 approaches are helpful for you and in the long run they won't work. So you need to be clear on your approach to maximise your ability to influence the outcome you want.
The 7 conversations...
If you can nail the below conversations, you can start to build 'influence flexibility' in a practical way...immediately after you finish reading this article!
1. ...with your team
We need the team on the bus, on board, aligned to our purpose and effective in delivery. It's pretty straightforward. To maximise our influence and get the doing what we need, we must be clear on our vision. Now vision is a word that rarely comes up in Finance conversations (we focus on delivery), and this is a mistake. Because if we haven't got our team bought into our vision, they don't understand where we're going. They don't understand 'the why'. And delivery suffers. However, if they are bought into 'the why', they will work the extra hours at year-end, they will redo the document without complaint. Delivery will improve.
But we can't get fluffy. Remember, Finance people aren't used to thinking this way. So figure out what your team members' why's are (choose one male in the room to ask if you don't know) and link that to the vision that you are creating for your team. Make the vision tangible and identify the actions and outcomes you expect and link it to a measurement of performance that is meaningful to them.
2. ...with your peers
Being part of a leadership team is great, but it's hard as well. You're all leaders in your own right (have your own teams, lead specific projects, etc), but in your leadership team you are a team member. And individually you probably all 'rank' yourselves in an imaginary heirarchy. You also have differing priorities based on your area of expertise and this is where push can come to shove when you need to have a real 'prioritisation' conversation. One where one of you will either have to stop working on your project, so that you can focus on another, or (and this happens all the time) you have to give up resources to another project led by your peer. This is the conversation where you all need to stake your claim as to why your project is the most important.
Here, open up your heart to the conversation. Be a bit vulnerable and say the unsaid: 'look everyone, I know we all want our project to get up, but there's simply not enough resources. What I need is [insert the outcome of your project], and I'd love to know how you think I could achieve this and still provide you an extra resource to complete yours. How could I approach this differently - I'd love your input. I want to be open to the solution and am happy to be flexible about how we get this done. What do you think?' If you have the courage to lead this conversation, it could be the game changer you're all looking for. You might even get a better outcome!
But...don't let them think you're going to rollover. Be very clear on your desired outcome and why that is important to the overall success for the team. Stay strong in the outcome, and facilitate a conversation about the options to get there. And go first.
3. ...with cross functional groups
The funny thing is that we are part of so many cross functional groups and if there hasn't been any purposeful work done to create a 'team', then it's simply a group. Diverse interests, goals, priorities. So...be the one to create a feeling of alignment by bringing out the common ground. What is the thing - the bond - that's bringing us, and can keep us, together. Find out about the individuals' shared values and experiences. What can you use as a lever to influence the group to move something forward? Do you all have a life outside work that is important to us? If so, then use that and say, 'guys, we all want to get out of here on time. Can we find a way to cut through this noise and agree on a way forward?'
These groups are tricky to navigate because there's often quite a bit of muscling around given a group of highly educated professionals. So I would be specific here. It takes courage to call out individuals, so I would identify a particular person who has a need the whole group has and say, 'James, you want to be home for dinner tonight, don't you? Me too. How can we make that happen?'
4. ...with your boss
We know our boss has a hard role. On one hand, they are a representative of the organisation and need to toe the organisation-wide policies. On the other, they are your champion, your sponsor, and you need them to be on your side to increase your fulfilment at work. So we need to recognise that if we want him or her to do something for us, we need to appeal to their sense of commitment to you and their internal drivers. In doing this, you need to be vulnerable and encourage them to open up to you as well. That way, you can uncover what really matters to them and then appeal to that to help them move things alone. Are they motivated by ego? Tell them how you helping you can make them look good. Are they motivated by competition? Tell them that helping you is a challenge that perhaps isn't possible. Give a little, so you can get a little and identify how to influence the outcome. That's the key.
You could even use this opportunity to build the women in finance activity in your team. If you organisation has a gender diversity agenda, explain to your boss how enabling you to do this could be helpful for other women in the organisation because you can mentor them, teach them the capability, or open up doors for them. Be the one to help your boss and organisation bring the diversity agenda to life.
5. ...with the Board
The Board is time poor, they want facts. You have 20 minutes on your topic so you need to make them count. Give them the facts, the data, wow them with your analyses. Demonstrate that you are the authority and that what you are saying makes sense. And...here's the trick. Sprinkle it with some 'right brain' dust. Insert some swift metaphors or stories that they will remember. This is what will bring your information to life for them, and as a result, they will more readily engage and therefore support any action you propose.
You've got an advantage here. Boards are listening intently to women these days, so make this time with them count. Make sure your stories are relevant and useful...so they are remembered because they articulate the point, not because a female said it.
6. ...with an underperforming team member
This happens so often. Whether it's a chronic underperformer or a usually high performer, feedback that helps not hinders can be hard. But you must go with your gut here. Beating around the bush and not giving feedback, or giving the old 'feedback sandwich' won't change anything. To successfully have this conversation, you need to clearly tell them what we don't like about their performance and what we would have expected. Share with them means of how you are going to help them do this easily. This is not about throwing down the gauntlet, it's about having the conversation that's going to influence a change in behaviour and performance, not a conversation where you sort of tell them that it didn't go well, but there's no clear improvement pathway. That would be a waste of time.
7. ...when the conversation is going pear shaped
Run for the hills!! Just kidding. It is important that you know when to hold them and when to fold them. If a conversation is going that badly and is getting too emotional that it's detracted from the purpose of the meeting, then it's time to call it. You suggest, 'This conversation has taken a turn and it's not helping us achieve our outcome. I know where so passionate about delivering, so why don't we pause here and regroup again later today.' You'll reduce the risk that you can be accused of female histrionics and by calling it out, you will be seen as the real leader in the room. They'll thank you for it.
Your next step
Now that you know the 7 conversation you need to master, open up your calendar. Are you meeting with any of the above people? If so, take a moment to apply what you've just read and prepare for that meeting now. That is learning in action and that is how you will improve your ability to influence the right outcome.
PS. To help you, I've included a link here so you can download our free influencing planning tool.