After just four months in her new job at Van Lear Foods, Irina Petrenko was deeply frustrated by the bureaucratic maneuvering going on at the corporate-headquarters level.…"Where's the support?" she wondered. An accomplished sales and marketing professional, Irina had risen through the country-management ranks of Van Lear, a leading international food company, to become the firm's managing director (also known as "country manager") in her native Ukraine. She was a hard-driving, results-oriented executive who had overseen dramatic growth in her territory.
The Corporate Diplomacy Challenge Irina Petrenko's dilemma is a fairly common one for line leaders who move into positions where getting things done suddenly depends more on influence (your ability to build coalitions of support) rather than authority (your place in the hierarchy). The essential challenge is the same whether your new role involves navigating within a "matrix" organization (as was the case for Irina); negotiating with powerful external parties, such as government agencies; or leading a critical support function, such as HR or IT, but having other functions control critical budgets. If you want to achieve your objectives, you need to learn how to practice corporate diplomacy—effectively leveraging organizational alliances, networks, and other business relationships in order to get things done.
Failure to master this critical skill can lead to trouble: it's easy for leaders who are used to wielding authority (and making decisions with their place in the hierarchy in mind) to get frustrated and attempt to impel people to do what they want. Instead of overcoming resistance, these leaders end up catalyzing reactive coalition building; they prompt potential opponents to build alliances—and reflexively close the ranks, as Irina's former colleagues did.
Indeed, the new leader can get caught in a deeply debilitating cycle in which her overreliance on authority yields increasing opposition, which then prompts even more inflexibility from the leader, and so on. Left unchecked, the result can be a series of increasingly polarizing conflicts between the new leader and important players in the organization. The new leader is particularly vulnerable in these battles; she still doesn't understand how the organization works and hasn't yet established alliances of her own, so these are fights she is unlikely to win.
Becoming an Effective Diplomat What does it mean to be an effective corporate diplomat? Great diplomats proceed from the assumption that supportive alliances must be built in order to get anything serious done in organizations.
They understand that opposition to change is likely, so they anticipate and develop strategies for surmounting it. They don't expect to win over everyone; instead they focus on creating a critical mass of support. Most important, they devote as much energy to figuring out how to do things as they do to understanding what should be done. The starting point is to understand the importance of laying the foundation for alliances and defining key influence objectives.
Laying the Foundations for Alliances Early on, transitioning leaders put a lot of effort into cultivating relationships in their new organizations, believing that these connections will pay off when it comes time to get things done—which is true. It's wise for new leaders to build new relationships in anticipation of future needs. After all, you'd never want to be meeting your neighbors for the first time in the middle of the night while your house is burning down. But this operating philosophy underemphasizes an important point about organizational politics—namely, that there is a difference between building relationships and building alliances.
In a nutshell, alliances are explicit or implicit agreements between two or more parties to jointly pursue specific agendas. By contrast, relationships comprise a broader class of social interactions, including personal friendships, which may or may not involve agreements to pursue specific goals.
If relationships don't necessarily imply alliances, the reverse also is true: effective corporate diplomats often build alliances with people with whom they have no significant ongoing relationships.
Some alliances are founded on long-term shared interests that provide the basis for ongoing, supportive interactions; others are short-term arrangements that push specific agendas and then disband. Indeed, you may find yourself cooperating with people you usually disagree with—except, perhaps, when it comes to achieving a narrow goal involving a tiny slice of the business.
Leaders who, like Irina, are transitioning into positions where influence matters more than authority therefore need to focus as much on understanding others' agendas and identifying potential alignments as they do on diagnosing business situations and defining solutions. As someone who was used to managing operations over which she had a lot of control, Irina naturally focused on the "technical" side of learning. She sought to understand the business, identify key issues, and propose solutions. Her experience, and perhaps her temperament, didn't prepare her to focus on political learning. Your insights about how others' agendas do (and do not) align with your own can be an essential point of departure for effective corporate diplomacy.…
Defining Your Influence Objectives When viewed through the lens of corporate diplomacy, Irina's challenge is a lot like that facing diplomats charged with negotiating a major treaty between, say, the United States and the European Union: the current status quo reflects a long-standing compromise between the two sides. It may be a flawed pact, but it's more or less stable—until something or someone comes along seeking to create a new and different equilibrium.
So besides knowing how and why to build alliances and relationships—and understanding the difference between the two—it's also essential for new leaders to be clear about their influence objectives: what do they hope to achieve?
Irina's goal should be to try to fashion a grand bargain between her new (direct) and old (indirect) bosses and their respective organizations over how important product formulation and packaging decisions will be made. The corporate marketing and R&D organizations will naturally favor more centralization. The managing directors in the EMEA region will jump at opportunities for more decentralization. An agreement, if it can be found at all, will consist of a package of trades that both sides can support.
To secure such an agreement, Irina will have to orchestrate and facilitate a complex set of synchronized negotiations—both between and within the two opposing sides. It's unlikely she'll be able to achieve complete unanimity because some people will have far too much invested in the status quo. So she should focus instead on winning a critical mass of support for agreement on both sides.
Had Irina understood this from the start, she might have focused her initial efforts differently—not just on diagnosing problems and proposing rational solutions but also on understanding how her agenda fit into the broader political landscape on both sides of the Atlantic. She would not have just assumed that the strength of her case would carry the day; nor would she have felt compelled to win over every single stakeholder. A better way to begin would have been for her to identify the specific alliances she needed to build and how she could leverage existing networks of influencers in the organization. This process of mapping the influence landscape also might have helped her identify any potential restraining forces: What or who might stand in the way of people moving in her direction? How could she get those in opposition to finally say yes?
Mapping the Influence Landscape Armed with a deeper understanding of how alliances and relationships really work and the kinds of changes you'd eventually like to implement in the organization, you're ready for the next step: finding the chief influencers and determining what you need them to do and when you need them to do it.…
A critical question to ask yourself is which players on either side of the situation are essential for building a winning alliance—a set of players who collectively have the influence necessary to shift the status quo.…
Conversely, it also pays to think hard about potential blocking alliances—those who seek to preserve the status quo and have the influence to do it. (After all, any significant change is likely to create winners and losers.) Which influencers might band together to try to block progress, and why? Are there particular influential individuals on each side who are likely to be opposed? How might they organize and seek to impede the process? If you have a good sense of where opposing groups might spring up, you can blunt their strategies—or even prevent them from coalescing in the first place.
Mapping Influence Networks To gain insight into potential winning and blocking alliances, it helps to look for patterns of influence (both formal and informal) across an organization—specifically, who defers to whom on a given set of issues, particularly on the issues of concern to you. These influence networks can play a huge role in determining whether change ultimately happens or not. They exist because formal authority is by no means the only source of power in organizations, and because people tend to defer to others' opinions when it comes to important issues and decisions….
Ultimately Irina was unsuccessful in achieving the desired shifts in decision making. By the time she shifted her focus away from problem solving and toward political management, too much polarization had occurred. Seeing that the gap between the EMEA and headquarters had become unbridgeable, she wisely retreated and focused on working effectively within the existing framework. While disappointing, this was not fatal, and she learned a host of valuable lessons that made her much more effective in dealing with other cross-organizational challenges.
Go to Harvard Business.org to learn more about Michael Watkins and his work.