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Are you an 'influencer'? Employers want to meet you

Tony Chapman, CEO of Capital C in Toronto.

Yvonne Berg/yvonne berg The Globe and Mail

The executive partners at marketing agency Capital C aren't big on bossing, or titles for that matter. So when the firm hires new talent it places a premium on candidates with the elusive quality of being able to influence without authority.

Anyone coming in wanting "to manage" won't get very far, said chief executive officer Tony Chapman, described on Capital C's website as "our fearless leader, redefining scruffy chic."

There's a kinetic energy to the Toronto-based shop, where a student with a brilliant concept is just as welcome to hold the floor as a 20-year veteran.

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When a successful campaign goes to market, everyone has "as much right to sign the canvas as anyone else," because everyone played a role, said Mr. Chapman, the public face of the agency. (The firm has created campaigns for such diverse products as Nissan Cube cars, Becel margarine, Dove body products, the Bank of Nova Scotia's iTrade online investment service, plus "a cool little Twitter campaign" for Ben & Jerry's ice cream.)

In May, competing against some of North America's top agencies, Capital C was chosen by Sun Life Financial as its agency of record. "The place just exploded" with pride and delight, Mr. Chapman said in an interview. "The entire agency contributed to winning this business," he said. "Everybody came together, everybody did their part, nobody tried to grandstand for a bigger part."

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And this, Mr. Chapman believes, is what differentiates his mid-sized firm in an industry more often known for its brashness and oversized egos. Employees are far more likely to devise campaigns with intelligence and insight when they work in collaborative environments that respect their contributions.

Mr. Chapman said the autonomy with which his employees conduct themselves also frees him to do what he loves best: "I spend 90 per cent of my time practising my craft, not managing."

Industrial psychologist Guy Beaudin, Toronto-based managing director of the Canadian operations of RHR International, said helping people learn how to influence others forms a critical component of his firm's coaching practice.

Flat organizational structures require different managing skills, and "people who enter into these situations thinking that authority is only wielded by making demands and giving orders are not going to succeed," Dr. Beaudin said.

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"The first thing people need to have is a very different mindset. The starting point is really one of collaboration, and that means that, whatever you are trying to influence, you really need to find some measure of give and take," he said.

"The second thing that people need to work on is the quality of their relationships. And that's probably the most difficult component for people to be successful at, because people really neglect their relationships in the workplace."

Negotiating skills are critical, Dr. Beaudin said. "If you are trying to make yourself look good at the expense of others, people will smell that right away."

It is not unusual for people to find themselves on cross-departmental teams or special projects - responsible for producing results, but with no particular authority over their colleagues. This is a situation "where you can easily come across as being political and manipulative … and find that's the main trap that people can fall into in these situations," Dr. Beaudin said.

Executive recruiter Mark Palmer of Toronto-based Palmer and Co. said flexibility, adaptability, influencing skills and relationship-building skills are typically the qualities most sought by employers when they are filling senior positions.

There is also a growing recognition that good employees will leave organizations where they are not involved in meaningful, engaging work.

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Nothing kills passion faster than managers with a tight grip, Mr. Chapman said. "I won't be going in as the CEO, who they have to seek approval from," he stressed. "I will be contributing to the meeting, collaborating."

CEOs who recognize that thought leadership isn't top-down but can be bottom-up - particularly those that offer professional or creative services - will gain a competitive edge.

"Thought leadership is their intellectual property," Mr. Palmer said.

"If it's an environment where ideas are suffocated, you are not going to get the creative thinking that a client like Sun Life is looking for in an agency like Capital C."

Mr. Chapman said there are a lot of prima donnas in his industry.

"If you come here, I can promise you three things - head, heart and hands. If you come in here and are willing to work collaboratively, you're going to get intellectual stimulation, you are going to get an emotional reward . . . and you are going to get to practice your craft at a level you might not have before, because - in your previous existence - chances are, no matter what you did, it had to be approved upstairs."

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