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How to Build Influence in Organizations

In Why Being Connected to the Right Power Base Wins Every Deal we introduced Power Bases as one of the Nine Buying Decision Influences. In our experience it is one of the least understood, many in sales don’t even know they exist. At the same time it is the most powerful influence and not understanding it means a sales cycle lacks any control by default.

The term Power Base was coined 30 years ago by Jim Holden in his seminal book Power Base Selling - Secrets of an Ivy League Street Fighter and we provide a review for quick reference here. Today we look at why Power Bases exist and how they emerge in more detail.

Power Bases as a Result of Networking

In How Leaders Create and Use Networks Herminia Ibarra and Mark Lee Hunter describe three forms of networking:

Source: Herminia Ibarra and Mark Lee Hunter, HBR Magazine January 2007

Sales people easily detect the operational networks of their customers as these become directly and visibly involved in the buying process. In contrast, Power Bases are the result of strategic networking and it is not always clear - actually we’d even say it is mostly completely unclear - who is part of these.

To be successful, business leaders need to consider the "big picture" and collaborate with others outside their department. Strategic networks provide them with information, support, and resources to achieve their goals. Whereas managers focus on functional tasks, leaders build relationships to influence and persuade others. This can be challenging, but effective leaders develop their network strategically by cultivating relationships with people who can provide  assistance.

“Aspiring leaders must learn to build and use strategic networks that cross organizational and functional boundaries, and then link them up in novel and innovative ways. It is a challenge to make the leap from a lifetime of functional contributions and hands-on control to the ambiguous process of building and working through networks.” Herminia Ibarra and Mark Lee Hunter in Harvard Business Review Magazine January 2007

In Stop Avoiding Office Politics Linda Hill & Kent Lineback provide guidance for building strategic networks to gain and exert influence on decisions as follows:

  • Keep your efforts clearly and obviously focused on the ultimate good of the enterprise.

  • Work with others for mutual advantage, not just your own.

  • Don’t make disagreements personal or let them become personal. Well-intentioned people can disagree and still respect each other.

  • Conduct yourself according to a set of standards important to you — honesty, forthrightness, openness, dependability, integrity — no matter what others do.

  • Build ongoing, productive relationships with everyone you need to do your work, as well as those who need you, not just those you like.

  • Always remember, these are professional relationships, not personal friendships. You don’t have to like them or they you; you just have to work productively with each other.

(Source: Linda Hill & Kent Lineback in Harvard Business Review Magazine November 2011)

In Playing Office Politics Without Selling Your Soul Robert B. (Rob) Kaiser, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, and Derek Lusk break down political skills into:

  • Social astuteness: the ability to read other people and the self-awareness to understand how they see you. Most people think of self-awareness as introspection, but its essence is actually other-awareness; that is, knowing how other people see you and how your behavior impacts them.

  • Interpersonal influence: a convincing ability to affect how and what other people think. This involves, first, understanding them and their preferences and agendas, and then personalizing your message to appeal to their cause.

  • Networking ability: the capacity to form mutually beneficial relationships with a wide range of diverse people. Cynics might say that there is only a one-letter difference between networking and not-working, but having a significant influence often requires a coalition of support. And as the old saying goes, “contacts mean contracts.”

  • Apparent sincerity: seeming to be honest, open, and forthright. It is not enough to just be honest; sincerity is in the eye of the beholder. How honest you think you are is far less important than how honest other people think you are.

(Source: Robert B. (Rob) Kaiser, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, and Derek Lusk in Harvard Business Review Magazine November 2011)

Power Bases’ Influence on Buying Decisions

Power Bases’ influence in buying decisions rises with the Value Stage the decision is playing on.

Up to Product level the operational network dominates and hence understanding and influencing it is sufficient. Sales cycles for Solutions are already heavily influenced by strategic networks and especially Strategic Alliances are decided by the top Power Bases of an organization, sometimes even against the operational networks involved in them.

Ramifications for Sales

Sales people trying to influence buying decisions where Power Bases are involved must engage in strategic networking or they will be just a reactive player. And even though they are external resources from the perspective of the Economic Buyer, they must apply the same networking principles as internal players described above.

A salesperson savvy in strategic networking will be adopted by a Power Base just as an internal player is. So to sell to the top, they must apply the same rules as if they were a member of the customer organization.

In other words: The salesperson selling to the top of the customer organization thinks, looks, and behaves like an executive.

Engage in strategic networking. Or stay on the lower Value Stages for the rest of your career.

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