How to Lead a Strategic Influence Campaign

Aaliyah is the Chief Sustainability Officer of a Fortune 500 company. Months into her job, however, she realizes that a better description of her role would be “cat herder.” She has no positional authority over the very senior stakeholders she needs to influence—and they all have different interests. In short, Aaliyah must embark on a strategic influence campaign. 

If, like Aaliyah, your work requires a high level of influence over an important group of stakeholders, you need to be both planful and patient. Follow these seven key steps, and you’ll stand a greater chance of success. 

(1) Map your stakeholders. To wield influence, you must first know who you intend to influence. That includes your core stakeholder groups, but it also means knowing who has influence over them. To make this clear, create a stakeholder map, a visual depiction of key decision makers and the network of others close to them. Put your most critical stakeholders at the center of the page, and draw a circle around them. Then, in their orbit, write the names of others who they listen to. Put highest-influence stakeholders close to the center of your map, and lower influence people more at the periphery. 

For Aaliyah, this means putting the CEO and leadership team at the center with a circle around them. Orbiting around that nucleus, at varying distances, there are big customers, regulators, investors, and middle managers who influence the leadership team’s decisions.

(2) Know your audience—and connect with them. Get intelligence about your audience—their goals, concerns, communication styles, and motivations. If you are to wield influence, you need to understand all the levers of influence you might employ. And remember, different levers work for different audiences. As one author put it, persuasion depends mostly on the audience.

Case in point: I once coached a team preparing to speak before a regulatory body. I showed them a video clip of a speaker who I thought was quite compelling. Afterwards, they ripped the speaker apart. Why? The speaker was emotional, but they were all about the science. They preferred a speaker I thought was less effective, because that speaker got the data right.

To know your audience, ask questions and listen with everything you’ve got. Conduct a listening tour. Ask about their goals, concerns, and what they are working on. This is not the time to drive your agenda; it’s the time to understand theirs. These initial conversations are investments in relationships, creating good will for later on. If your audience is unavailable, talk to people who know them. But never forget, your goal is not only gathering information, but building relationships. Trust is the lifeblood of influence.

(3) Define your goals in writing. The idea “Begin with the end in mind” applies to influence campaigns. What do you want your stakeholders to do, feel or think as a result of your efforts? Are you influencing a decision? A perception or attitude?

Alliya’s campaign goals include: “To increase the company’s public commitments to specific sustainability targets, in ways that also fuel business growth,” “To create a shared language and understanding about what sustainability is,” and “To banish the belief that sustainability and profitability are at odds.” The more clear and specific the outcomes are, the better.

(4) Engage allies. Once you are clear about your audience and goals, it’s time to consider who can assist you. Never influence alone. Instead, consider who else shares your interests. It may be helpful to draw another stakeholder map just of your allies. Or, indicate your allies on the original stakeholder map with a highlighter.

Slow down on this step, because some of your best allies may reside in unexpected places. For Aaliya, the Chief Revenue Officer is an unexpected ally, since one of Aaliya’s targets is to drive both sustainability and growth (see  Paul Polman’s work at Unilever).

(5) Generate your key messages and narrative. What message will be most persuasive? Brainstorm potential key messages, writing them as bullet points. Then, prioritize them, picking the best ones and honing the language. You may have different key messages for different stakeholders.

Knit these into a narrative by adding real world examples, stories, data, and metaphors that will engage your audience’s hearts and minds. Personal stories are especially powerful. An analysis of the 500 most popular TED talks found that stories made up 65% of the speaker’s time on average.

Put all this into a document or slide deck, and use it as the repository you go back to as you roll out your plan.

(6) Establish communication channels and timeline. If you only need to influence one major decision maker, your communication channels might just be emails and one-on-one conversations. To influence a whole organization, use every tool at your disposal: broadcast emails, Slack channels, social media, all hands meetings, external media, etc.

Create a spreadsheet that lists communication channels down the left column, and dates across the top. Fill in the details of when each communication will happen. For larger campaigns, partner with your comms team. For a more focused effort, this can be as simple as deciding who you will talk to first, second, etc. Be deliberate, and realistic about your available time.

(7) Prepare in advance for the most crucial communications. There’s a rule of thumb for high-stakes communication: the more important the communication, the more time you should spend preparing for it. This applies especially to presentations, Q&A sessions, and meetings. Rehearse out loud with a partner who can provide feedback. At a minimum, practice by yourself. You may be surprised at how something that seemed perfectly reasonable in your head, sounds like a jumbled mess when it comes out of your mouth the first time. So make sure that “first time” happens privately, in advance of your actual engagement.

Once your plan is in place, it’s all about execution. Put weekly or monthly check points in your calendar where you ask yourself, “How is this going?” That will remind you that this is a high priority, and will provide a structured way to assess and pivot.

Finally, remember that influence campaigns are often a grind. If your stakeholder or company was already primed to move in the direction you have in mind, it would be easy! A campaign wouldn’t be needed. By definition, you’re going to feel like you’re rolling a boulder uphill. Don’t be discouraged. I’ve seen influence campaigns waged over years that make a powerful difference—for good—in the direction of a company.