You Have Enough Influence to Match Your Ambitions

Need to find experts within your company? Just ask.

Ask fellow employees what they would change about their group, and you will get wide-ranging opinions—not just about their branch—but about the operations of the whole company:

  • “Our website is clunky; at least five years out of date.”
  • “We need a new delivery truck, and we don’t have enough now!”
  • “What exactly is our growth strategy?”
  • “Why doesn’t the sales team take a whack at the truck dealers in our city?”

Someone should really do something. But whom?

Harry Kraemer, professor of strategy at Northwestern’s Kellogg Business School, thinks he has found the answer.

“There’s some magical group of people in every group called ‘those guys,’ who are men and women for whom we have to wait to act,” Kraemer says.

But the better path, he says, is to ignore the shroud of magic around this group and simply become part of it. “The people who are really the leaders—the real, true leaders—are the people who literally say, “Well wait a minute. I am one of ‘those guys.’”

Great! Now what needs to get done to get you (this is a very personal charge) into the sacred circle of ‘guys who run the place’?

Lead from where you are. If you care about your company, no matter your role, you already have all the clout you need to begin leading, Kraemer says. “When I bring up this topic, very often younger people will say, ‘I really want to be a leader, but I’ve got this one slight problem: I don’t have anybody reporting to me.'”

But leadership doesn’t require direct reports or a long tenure. You are equally capable of leading whether you’ve got 500 people reporting to you or nobody.

Start offering solutions. See some problems? Go ahead! Take them to your boss. But make it a point to offer one or two solutions as well. If you come to the boss and say, “here’s an issue or an opportunity” without coming up with at least one solution, there is not much reward. But if you bring at least one or two potential solutions, you are leading.

You may be well aware of the fact that your boss has fifteen years of experience, where you may only have fifteen weeks. The company may decide to do something very different in the end, but you’re not watching the movie. You are in the movie.”

Do your research. Learn everything you can about your organization, even if—especially if—it appears to have little or nothing to do with your own position or everyday responsibilities.

Nobody wants an uninformed back seat driver. Any suggestion that starts with “why don’t we just…” is an indictment of those trying to fix the problem. Stay attuned to information you may not ordinarily be privy to. What programs or special task forces might be operating that you don’t even know about?

Build your network. As part of your research, make a point to get to know two or three people in every function or business unit of your organization. What are your colleagues in IT up to? What about your colleagues in other branches? The idea, according to Kraemer, is to create a “tremendous network across all areas of the organization.”

This takes time, especially when you are also conducting your daily business. Volunteering for special projects is often a good starting point. Don’t worry about whom you are helping or how high up they are in the organizational hierarchy.

Don’t think ‘What do I get out of it?’” Instead, simply reach out to whomever you think you can help and learn what you can about the market in the process.

Encourage future leaders. As you practice active leadership, do your best to inspire others to do the same. Wherever you sit, encourage those around you to speak up, offer solutions, and take on special projects that will expand their own networks and understanding.

Of course, empowering your colleagues to lead is an act of leadership in its own right. But it also works to cement your position as an integral hub in your organization. If each of your connections is encouraged to have three or four connections of her own, fairly soon you will have access to a highly robust network, and the contribution to the company is incalculable.

Ultimately the breadth of your connections—and your willingness to use them to get things done—may finally give you enough influence to match your ambitions.

Bill Wade is a partner at Wade & Partners and a heavy-duty aftermarket veteran. He is the author of Aftermarket Innovations. He can be reached at bwade@wade-partners.com.

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