BLG Leadership Insights

Leadership and Influence: Leadership Means Getting Them On Your Side

Ed Whitacre will become GM’s new CEO after 17 years at AT&T. Mr. Whitacre’s experience at AT&T, another company regulated by the government, will prove invaluable since GM will now be in the care of Washington. Mr. Whitacre is honest and says he doesn’t know about cars but he promises to learn and turn GM around. For Mr. Whitacre to become a successful leader he will need to change and influence GM’s debilitating corporate culture.

Ask any leader today what leadership means and you will likely get a speech about varied responsibilities that’s dressed up with business platitudes. The truth is: leadership is the act of getting people on your side and influencing people in order to achieve goals, whether they are winning over customers or increasing productivity. It’s not about attracting attention and respect using charisma and power ties–it’s about getting the results you want.

Last week we talked about GM’s management and their corporate culture’s stagnation and routine failure. Ed Whitacre needs to change GM’s deleterious corporate culture right away. It would seem like the natural thing to do but there are many new leaders who don’t think it’s their job to shift rooted corporate habits. Instead, new leaders will spend the bulk of their time searching for the best products, or getting the biggest clients while they fail to realize that the success of their sweeping goals depends on the behavior of the entire organization.  A good leader will spend the bulk of his or her time influencing the behavior of her subordinates so they can collectively push through an agenda. Not to put too fine a point on it, but an organization’s fortune will depend on the attitude of it’s employees and it’s a leaders job to make sure everyone has the right attitude.

Oftentimes leaders will ask their upper management to change corporate policy for them but it won’t work since upper management lacks proven legitimacy and the power to effect long-term behavioral change. Instead, leaders need to spend the majority of their time ensuring that people get behind their projects and that corporate behavior is productive and not wasted. Driving change and getting results (no matter what they are) are the sole objectives of a leader–time spent chasing other objectives is wasted and is likely someone else’s job.

Talking about change is not the same thing as actually influencing change. A power-point presentation and a well-defined mission statement won’t influence anyone–it requires more work and care. It might seem obvious but leaders need to understand that there is no quick way to influence people. It takes a rational survey of the political terrain, the ability to create a coalition, and the strength to make things happen. We will talk more about influencing people and getting them on your side in this blog later on.

Ed Whitacre is a professional leader who knows his way around organizations so let’s hope he will focus on influencing GM’s management so they can sell cars, be innovative, and reshape their policy environment so it drives business and placates Washington.