You Need the ‘Informal Leaders’ to Get Things Done

Everyone is familiar with the term C-suite. The C-suite is populated with the Chief Executive Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer… The list goes on and on. The people who inhabit the C-suite are the formal leaders of the organization. They are the ones whose pictures you see in the company’s annual report.

I am going to let you in on a little secret. While the C-suite definitely has the power to prohibit something from getting done (e.g., they can refuse to fund a project), just because the C-suite wants to get something done does not mean that it will ever get done. Witness the following quote from a long ago K-Mart annual report: “Looking good and selling merchandise shoppers can trust create K-Mart’s quality commitment which is enhanced by customer-first service.” Some CEO signed his name to that annual report. His statement indicated a clear intention of providing an excellent shopping experience for his customers, but do any of us really believe that K-Mart provides (or, now, provided) “customer-first service?”

Truly successful companies rely on their ”informal leaders” to help lead the way and get things done — especially with efforts that involve significant organizational change. Informal leaders are typically mid-level and customer-facing employees who see the opportunity inherent in the situation. These informal leaders help energize the skeptics and build a consensus for change.

Identifying the influencers

So how do you identify these folks? Unfortunately, these people are not walking around the office wearing a sign that says “Informal Leader.” Life is not that simple. Perhaps the best way to identify them is take a slight variation on a tagline that Federal Express used in its early commercials. Ask yourself, “When something absolutely, positively has to get done, who is my ‘go to’ person?”

It is important to note that informal leaders come in all shapes and sizes. I was once privileged to work with a client that had two informal leaders in different areas of the company. One was a somewhat large and gruff man in his late 40s who gave you the impression that he had drunk 10 cups of coffee before getting to work that morning. The other was a petite and rather quiet lady who rarely, if ever, raised her voice. Both were equally successful.

The key point about an informal leader is their mindset. More than anything else, this is what sets them apart. Their one distinguishing characteristic is that they think in terms of results, and never offer excuses.

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Four types

This raises one last point. There is no unique leadership style for being a successful informal leader. Rather, these individuals create a consensus for change and get the job done in a number of different ways depending on their individual orientation and personal skill set. We have identified four different approaches, but recognize that there could well be more that we have just not seen. The four that we have seen are:

  1. Some informal leaders are able to effect change by helping their colleagues see “what’s in it for them” if the program is successful. This helps reduce the skepticism and nay-saying that can stifle any change initiative before it even gets off the ground.
  2. Others are simply great consensus builders. They will sit down with their colleagues and explain why the success of the initiative is so important to the long-term health of the company. They will encourage their colleagues to speak up and share any concerns or challenges they see with the new direction that senior management wishes to pursue. This airing of grievances eventually results in a strong consensus and commitment at the line level to the success of the new strategy.
  3. We have seen informal leaders who win you over by their enthusiasm and high degree of commitment to the success of the initiative. These leaders are typically very well-respected among their peers and they leverage this respect to broaden the level of dedication among their colleagues to the program’s success.
  4. Some informal leaders take this one step further and beat you into submission and wear you down with their enthusiasm and commitment to the change program. I know of one informal leader who entered a store manager’s office at a client of mine that is a big-box retailer and told him “I will not let you out of this office until you agree with me and that you will support our program.”

Change is a dominant factor in business today and, if anything, the pace of change is only accelerating. While it is necessary that a CEO be able to articulate a clear and compelling vision for change, this is not a sufficient condition for success. In my work with a broad series of clients in industries as diverse as pharmaceuticals, medical devices and office supplies, I have found that recruiting and identifying an organization’s informal leaders and energizing them in support of this vision for change will significantly increase the likelihood of success.

John A. Larson

John Larson is the senior partner at John Larson & Company, a pioneer in the field of customer loyalty and the co-author of Capturing Loyalty along with Bennett McClellan. Prior to starting his own firm, John held positions at McKinsey & Co., Monitor Company, Lieberman Research Worldwide, and J.D. Power and Associates, specializing in the areas of strategic analysis, organizational effectiveness, and customer satisfaction and loyalty. John uses survey research techniques to help clients develop a better understanding of the needs of their customers, assess how well these are currently being met in the marketplace, and then target opportunities to create long term competitive advantage. He has worked with clients to address the specific organizational barriers that can impede effective implementation.