“He is a negative influence. He may report to you, but his informal influence in the wider group is broader and deeper than yours. And he’s briefing against you.”
As CEO, the first time I heard that from a trusted advisor, I was infuriated, and I felt betrayed. I was the new CEO and this executive was a direct report in a large multinational group. What was his agenda? Why was he resisting my efforts? And how could I neutralize him?
I have found, in four CEO roles over fifteen years, that informal leadership is exponentially more important in delivering results than formal leadership.
Formal leadership is your place on the org. chart, what you are accountable for, who reports to you. As a senior executive, you have followers mostly because they have to follow you, not necessarily because they want to.
Informal leadership is independent of your place on the org chart; it is the influence you have more widely. Informal leadership is how you gather true believers, people who want to follow you, but don’t have to. It is this kind of leadership that creates the culture and behavior in any organization, not your place on the org. chart.
Informal leadership is all about how you, as a senior executive, influence others. It is what you say about the company and its people, and how you say it. It is body language: a raised eyebrow, a frown, a smile, a scowl. It is the meetings you choose to show up to, or not. It is who you choose to promote, or not. It is who you have lunch with, where you park your car. It’s how you spend your time.
Informal leadership reinforces the company culture. So, as CEO, you need it to be as positive as possible. You want influential leaders to visibly and publically support the strategy and the culture.
Negative informal leadership is insidious; it gradually undermines the vision and strategy. Negative informal leadership is when you, as a senior executive, privately disagree with the strategy; when you plant seeds of doubt, when you brief against the CEO; when you say you agree with the changes, but in reality resist them. Negative informal leaders wreck the culture, and with it, performance.
As CEO, I needed to see behind the curtain of formal leadership. I needed to know who the influencers were, and mostly, who were the negative leaders drilling cracks in our culture.
I had my own opinions about senior staff. And I asked opinions of two or three trusted internal colleagues. And some of what I heard was helpful. But, that was insufficient. The only way to be objective about it was to invite an outsider in to uncover it and tell me.
This is the most delicate and sensitive of roles. First, this person has to live and breathe the culture, understand our ways, get to know the personalities. Second, she has to be trusted by everyone, not just by me. Third, any tools she uses must be perceived as being objective and fair.
I have found the best way of doing this is to identify a wider brief relating to leadership development or team effectiveness. The advisor works to this instruction, with an explicit understanding that an evaluation of informal leadership is required.
Of course, since I brought him in, inevitably the advisor was known as the “CEOs guy.” That was never an issue. By keeping confidences and staying true to his word, the advisor had the trust of everyone. He never told me how he knew something, or who told him. He just gave me opinions about the informal leadership in my company.
The most important criteria for me in deciding the trustworthiness of a colleague is moral authority—integrity. Are you honorable, fair, sincere? My advisor made accurate judgments about this for my leadership groups.
I learned that there were one or two who were poisoning the atmosphere, and there were a handful that thought they could defeat the strategy (and, therefore, me). Of the two poisoners, I removed one immediately and put the second on probation. Of the handful of resisters, I spent considerable time bringing them on side.