Ask any business leader who or what has influenced them most during their career and you will probably get several answers. They may allude to a person, a company or an organisation. But what all will have in common is that they have had an impact and left a meaningful and lasting impression.
Historically, an influencer has loosely been grouped in the same category as a mentor. So when we recently asked a number of business leaders to define influencers within their organisation, we were not after who influenced them so much as who they felt they could rely on to positively influence their team.
Not surprisingly, most managers had not given this a great deal of thought. As a rule of thumb, management still does not actively try to identify or encourage influencers. In fact, the recognition of the potentially vital role played by an influencer is still in its infancy. Yet harnessing an influencer's 'power' is poised to become a trend into which savvy organisations will be tapping.
One of the key reasons is the current economic climate. Managers are having to deal with a challenging marketplace as well as coming to terms with increasing levels of uncertainty and complexity within their own organisations. Corporate re-alignment is necessary not just because of the prevailing economic conditions, but also because of the radical transformation of industry, society and culture.
Whilst it is essential that managers maintain a focus on potential opportunities for growth and the exploitation of those opportunities, they are also having to spend an ever increasing amount of time providing their teams with the support and encouragement they require. This tends to erode their own creativity and energy and leads to a vicious circle which, ultimately, affects everyone.
As social media becomes an integrated form of communication, we are experiencing a rise in awareness of influencers that is unequalled at any time in our history. Influencers on social media are individuals who are generally passionate about what they do, who produce and share content that is relevant and appealing to the community within which they operate; influencers within organisations share many of these traits. They are also individuals towards whom others gravitate, who engender trust and who, as a consequence, can easily engage and motivate others.
Seth Godin, author and marketing guru, is the perfect example of an influencer who uses social media as his vehicle of choice. There was a time, prior to his becoming a 'household name' within marketing circles, when he used his natural influencing skills within an organisation.
The fact is that whilst influencers have always been in existence, it is only now that they are starting to earn some credit for what they do naturally. Our current economic climate is the perfect test bed for managers to learn how to collaborate with their internal 'champions' and to nurture them.
Identifying influencers and establishing how best to sustain them does not require enormous internal re-adjustments. Shifting to a non-hierarchical structure where accountability and responsibility are more equally divided is not the sole solution - and in many organisations, this is neither practical nor desirable.
Instead, determining what drives internal champions and creating an environment which empowers them to grow to their full potential is key. It is about structuring an informal pool of physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual strength that drives personal achievement and, in turn, inspires others to follow.
Making influencers aware of their strengths and their value within an organisation and ensuring their collaboration is supported will also motivate them to encourage others and spread the 'positive attitude'.
Another parallel with social media influencers is that internal influencers positively amplify messages across a wider group of people and reduce any potential ambiguity or possible damage to motivation that may arise when management orders come directly from above. Certainly it helps to have less hierarchy, but it's not critical.
In some cases, these internal influencers are easy to identify because they stand out as people towards whom others openly gravitate, both professionally and socially. Equally, there are other influencers who don't stand out quite as well, often because they are not seen as being exceptional candidates for a managerial role.
Generally, these influencers may simply be one of the rank and file, but they tend to be passionate about their jobs, mix well with, and are respected by, their fellow workers. They also tend to be good team players often shying away from office politics.
However, there is a fine line between popularity and influence. You will find that some people are popular but they don't have the ability to influence others. The Rolling Stones were popular, but The Beatles were influencers.
The success in identifying internal influencers depends to a large extent on the experience and attitudes of management. Given that the majority of managers today are from the Baby Boomer generation, they may communicate in a way which their younger subordinates misinterpret. Particularly when managing under fire, their approach to their staff can be perceived as aggressive, manipulative and self-serving. It is essential, therefore, that managers adopt a language style that allows them to effectively communicate with their subordinates.
As influencers within the social media sphere develop at a fast pace, it is worth taking a leaf out of their virtual book on how best to use the 'pull' of connection with corporate teams as opposed to the traditional 'push' of control. Social media has clearly demonstrated the trust consumers put in peer recommendation. The same engagement with influencers can play a positive role within companies, supporting management as they navigate the company through complexity and uncertainty.