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Influencing Powerful People
by Dirk Schlimm


How do you engage a powerhouse leader in a way that produces the best possible outcome while remaining true to yourself?

The ability to influence powerful people is a critical skill. It is needed in business, the military, academia, politics, not-for-profit organization and pretty much every other arena. In the context of a global economy with its complex assortment of cultures, personalities and management styles it has become indispensable.

The reason is simple: Despite a deluge of literature extolling the virtue of emotional intelligence, participatory management and similar (valuable) concepts, people, and especially those in power, are by and large difficult to deal with. And even with more enlightened bosses it will pay huge dividends if you take active responsibility for building the relationship and making things work.

Just consider three scenarios: (1) You have a strong-willed, demanding boss who has a bit of a temper and a short attention span. This may be your larger-than-life leader, mid-level manager or small business owner.  (2) You work in a “matrix” organization with counterparts in various parts of the company. They work in different departments (everything from finance, to human resources, sales, R&D, and operations) and they have different priorities; and yet you need their cooperation to get your project off the ground and to completion. Telling them what to do surely won’t get you there. (3) You have landed that important client but plenty of competitors would like to snatch her away from you. Technical expertise, and even brilliance, will rarely be enough to keep and grow a critical account – especially when hitting a rough patch. You must build a durable relationship.

In all three instances it will be your influencing skills that will enable you to build rapport, get cooperation and graduate from a supplier to a trusted advisor.

Those who have worked with larger than life leaders can teach us much about how to influence powerful people. People like Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, Norman Schwarzkopf or Margaret Thatcher deserve admiration for their accomplishments; but they need people behind the scenes who know how to handle them. You can and must learn from them even if your boss, counterpart or client is of a more modest profile – because he or she may be just as powerful in your circumstance. And let’s not forget that quite a few of those working with controversial leaders have suffered shipwreck and we must learn from them as well.

Here are the 10 most critical rules that will help you to build your influencing skills:

  1. Manage (first) impressions. Powerful people make up their minds quickly and draw conclusions from things that others might consider trivial. Ignacio Lopez created a powerful first impression during his job interview with Volkswagen chief Ferdinand Piëch by making it about his counterpart, not himself. Especially when in a confined space – such as a corporate aircraft – pay close attention and manage your appearance. Keep that champagne chilled for later.

  2. Know what you are doing. Only an idiot or an imposter would intentionally take an assignment which they cannot perform. But it is still good to remember Peter Drucker’s advice that people perform from strength. Know yours and use them. Don’t be pushed into situations or even a whole career where you are a fish out of water.

  3. Save energy for when it counts. Powerful people have plenty of energy and thrive on conflict. We are told that CBS chairman Bill Paley “played by his own rules which he kept changing”. Consider carefully which battles you want to fight. Also, assembling a team of people who are able to interface directly with the powerful boss is a huge energy (and sanity) saver.

  4. Practice humility. Margaret Thatcher once told her chancellor of the exchequer in a cabinet meeting to get a haircut. One could get all flustered at such a humiliating demand. Or, especially if it not a denigration of character or personality, simply take it in stride and go to the barber.

  5. Show appreciation. Like anyone else, powerful people crave appreciation. Therefore, it is important to show it. Once the client knows that you understand what really matters to him or her they will gain confidence in you. And a boss given to micro management will be less likely to interfere. But it is up to you to let them know!

  6. Sidestep power with diplomacy. A public showdown rarely gets results. Cable executive John Tory once “coached” Canadian telecommunication icon Ted Rogers about his temper. He took the boss aside and explained to him that his temper was pulling him down in the eyes of junior people who admired him. A masterpiece of assertive diplomacy performed in the right place, at the right time and in the right way!

  7. Cover their weaknesses. Complementing a powerful person can be a very rewarding assignment. Apple’s Tim Cook’s performance as an operator in complementing Steve Job’s vision and genius is a prime example. Just make sure that what you do is appreciated – otherwise you will be miserable.

  8. Facilitate the impact of raw power. Desert Storm hero Norman Schwarzkopf was notorious for striking fear into his lieutenants. But veteran general Cal Waller knew how to keep the commander focused on the issues, divert tangents, and occasionally rescue an unsuspecting soul that had raised the chief’s ire.

  9. Advise those who like to act. Understanding the issue, communicating with clarity and finding a better way to further the client’s agenda will be sure way to gain their confidence. Then trial consultant Phil McGraw provided an insightful perspective when advising Oprah during the Amarillo beef trial (“this is about freedom of speech, not science”) and became a fixture in her media empire henceforth known as Dr. Phil. Now how is that working for you!

  10. Guard you independence. It should come as no surprise that powerful people have tremendous charm and influence of their own. As a result, your desire to make things happen for them can easily lead you to doing things that you may regret later. Decide on what you will and will not do ahead of time and with a clear head. Don’t leave these decisions to the dynamics of the moment.

Finally, let’s not forget that sometimes we are the ones who have power and may be quite a bit. Whether or not you use it well (and avoid “being managed”) is up to you. Let your people know what you are trying to accomplish, where your hot buttons are, and how you want the job done. Don’t keep them guessing. Encourage debate to get options and finding a mechanism to get honest feedback are other good practices. Most importantly, however, remember one last critical rule:  “Powerful people need people who don’t need them!”   


The Author

Dirk SchlimmInfluencing Powerful People

Dirk Schlimm is an internationally recognized expert on power, politics and collaboration in organizations and the author of Influencing Powerful People (McGraw-Hill, New York 2011). He is a corporate director, executive coach and principal of Jenoir Management Consultants. Dirk’s clients include FMC Technologies, the TD Bank Group, Torys LLP and Husky Injection Molding Systems. He can be reached at Visit for additional information.

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Copyright 2011 by Dirk Schlimm. All rights reserved.

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