The Importance of Informal Leaders

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In today’s continually evolving markets, rapid change has become a fact of life. Unfortunately, at many companies, senior management fails to realize how threatening change can be for middle management and line employees, the key personnel who are ultimately tasked with implementing the dictations and vision of top management. Middle management and line employees have built up ways of getting work done, and change often makes their tried and true management styles, approaches, and methods no longer relevant. In some cases, their tried and true approaches may actually become counterproductive.

What often happens in these cases is that middle management and line employees push back or slow walk senior management’s directions. The end result is either sub-optimal implementation of senior management’s change initiative or, at best, the eventual implementation of senior management’s vision at a substantially later date than originally anticipated. In a worst-case scenario, the vision is never realized, as middle management and line employee inertia grinds the initiative to a halt.

For example, a number of years ago, I worked for a large big-box retailer whose service model was described as “read the need.” This meant that when a customer entered the store, no employee should greet them or acknowledge them in any way. To do so was considered pushy, and our client did not want to be pushy. After surveying several thousand of their customers, we informed senior management that, counter to their long-held belief, customers wanted to be greeted and offered assistance when they entered the store.

Can you imagine the change initiative necessary tell the company’s 60,000 customer-facing employees the game had completely changed? After five years of instructing their employees to leave customers alone, senior management was now telling them to do the direct opposite. The pushback on this from employees was strong. Many of them were not particularly outgoing people and felt uncomfortable proactively reaching out to customers. Several responded to this new initiative by voting with their feet and seeking employment elsewhere.

The important point here is a simple fact of life that is often ignored in practice: Just because senior management wants to get something done does not mean it will ever get done.

In light of this fact, many successful companies rely on their “informal leaders” to help lead the way. While the C-suite may be the formal leaders within an organization, the informal leaders are typically mid-level and customer-facing employees who see the opportunity inherent in a given situation. These informal leaders help energize the skeptics and build a consensus for change.

There is no unique formula for being a successful informal leader. Rather, these individuals create this consensus in a number of different ways, depending on their orientations and personal skill sets. We have identified four different approaches, but recognize that there could well be more. The four we have seen are:

  1. Some informal leaders are able to effect change by helping their colleagues see what is 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 others over through enthusiasm and a 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 strengthen the level of dedication among their colleagues to the program’s success.
  4. Some informal leaders take this one step further and practically beat employees into submission with their enthusiasm and commitment to the change program. I know of one informal leader who entered a store manager’s office at the big-box retailer we previously discussed and told him, “I will not let you out of this office until you agree with me that you will support our program.”

Having worked with companies for more than 25 years to improve customer loyalty in businesses ranging from restaurants and retailers to the most respected hospitals in the world, I consistently find that what differentiates successful organizations is not the quality of my analyses or the degree of senior management commitment to our program. Rather, what differentiates the winners from the losers in the customer loyalty game is the ability of the former to recognize the importance of their informal leaders and energize and empower them to effect change.

John Larson is senior partner at John Larson & Company and coauthor of Capturing Loyalty with Bennett McClellan.

By John Larson