Empathy and the magic of influence

Some people may be blessed with natural charm, but the skill of effectively influencing decision-makers can be acquired through training and can make a dramatic difference to marketers’ success in the boardroom.

As anyone who has ever had to persuade the board to implement a brave new brand strategy knows, getting others to do what you want is not always easy.


All marketers will incorporate the need to influence others in their daily working life, whether it’s when they present a budget or ask their executive committee to buy into their annual strategy and plan.

But can leaders be trained to be influencers, or is it a natural talent? James Butcher, marketing manager at Microsoft, Bing and MSN, believes it is a bit of both. “Influencing is mostly something that people can learn throughout their career,” he says.

However, he adds: “Some people are brilliant at it and I usually find that they are the ones who can effectively tell a story and take the relevant decision-makers on the journey with them.”

At its core, effective leadership involves building and using influence.

Budget airline easyJet runs 550 routes across Europe and the Middle East. Its chief executive, Carolyn McCall, was previously in charge at Guardian Media Group (GMG). Navigating brands such as easyJet and The Guardian successfully through turbulent times naturally relies on the ability to positively influence decisions.

McCall says: “The key thing is to understand the business, to listen well, to have a good internal network and to be good with people. You have to be respected by your peers and management to influence key decision-makers.”


McCall’s influential thinking has resulted in an ongoing strategy at GMG of keeping access to internet content free of charge, even though rivals have imposed a paywall. At easyJet, she has spearheaded a greater focus on business travel. Winning friends and influencing people has been a crucial part of that journey.

Marketers at the beginning of their careers will do well to invest in developing the sort of influencer skills that have enabled McCall to take charge of two major businesses. Charlotte Greenaway, mobile merchandising and campaign manager at O2 UK, is a scholar of the 2011/12 Marketing Academy – a coaching and training programme sponsored by Marketing Week.

Greenaway says meeting other successful marketers has enabled her to learn by example. “Through this programme, I’ve seen some brilliant examples of leadership from some very successful people with very different personalities.

“Three things they all have in common are self-awareness, authenticity and the ability to communicate effectively – qualities I believe are keys to great leadership and success as a whole.”

When you know who you are and what you stand for, and can communicate this to people around you, “it doesn’t matter if you’re quietly spoken or the life and soul of the office”, she adds.

“People know what to expect from you, and if you live up to what you’ve said, then trust will follow.”

These influencer skills have been used by Andrew Morley, vice-president for marketing EMERA at Motorola, in key moments during his career. These include the period when, as sales and marketing director at Sky TV, he was part of a revolutionary initiative. “We were launching digital and redefining TV delivery in the UK and Ireland,” he recalls.

“That same drive for innovation is present in my role at Motorola today, where we are bringing products to market that fuse innovative technology with human insights, creating experiences that connect and enrich people’s lives.”

Within larger organisations, particularly multinationals, the need to be an effective influencer has arguably become more important than ever. But while Morley describes himself as an “off-the-scale extrovert”, not everyone has natural influencer skills.

It’s not just about having an outgoing personality type, however. Richard Jolly, adjunct associate professor of organisational behaviour at the London Business School, says marketers who are keen to influence decisions must learn to speak the language of business.

“It is not simply about going on a course to learn how financial accounting works,” he says. “The point is to know how senior managers make business decisions and how to frame the vital contribution marketing departments can make in a way that is going to make them more influential.”

Emotional intelligence (also known as EQ), particularly the principle of empathy, is increasingly relevant to marketing careers. Creating an environment where people will be prepared to change their opinion, or be willing to hear what you are saying, is a key part of influencing.

Molly Harvey, author of Outstanding Leadership, says global entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson is the ultimate influencer. The poster child of emotional intelligence has built up his personal brand so that he has become somebody who people trust. He has famously used his EQ as much as his IQ to lead Virgin, which owns more than 400 companies around the world.

“Leadership is all about presence and impact – and how you show up every moment of the day,” adds Harvey.

“When a lot of people are busy doing something else, outstanding leaders live by the concept of ‘being there’,” she says.

You have to influence the three Cs – the consumer, the customer and the C Suite – in marketing to be able to successfully bring about change in business, says Dee Dutta, chief marketing officer at online betting firm Bodog Europe.

“Modern marketing means you can’t do one well and ignore the other two,” he says. “You can’t be good at distribution and forget the consumer, and when you want your plans sold through you have to influence the C Suite.”

Being able to influence those three touchstones is essential to get products to market on time and ensure good results.

Dutta adds: “I learned those influencer skills – I wasn’t born with them and I have had to work hard to acquire them.
“I think my period in FMCG, working for companies such as Quaker Oats, provided valuable training in skills such as being a good listener.”

Amanda Mackenzie, Aviva’s chief marketing and communications officer, adds: “Being a good listener means you can create the space where others will hear you and you can create whatever you need to together.

“But if you bulldoze into a relationship then people will not want to listen and there is no space created for them to move in. What you will create is intransigence, not persuasion.”

A coach admired by Mackenzie is Steve Radcliffe, who works with the ‘Future, Engage, Deliver’ (FED) approach. FED is founded on the belief that everyone is a leader when they are in touch with what they care about.

“At the heart of it is the idea of engaging,” says Mackenzie. “That is influencing because if you are engaging, you can have a decent conversation about it and then you can go on to deliver.”

Mackenzie started her career as an advertising account manager, where she gained a good grounding in influencing skills. She puts most stock in the power of empathy. Courses or training initiatives that help you put yourself in the shoes of others are invaluable, she believes, and are the foundation of many top business-people’s success.

“Watch great role models, see what they do, see how they do it and then see how it makes you feel. Empathy is crucial,” she says.

“As [the writer] Maya Angelou famously said: ‘I might forget what you say but I’ll never forget how it makes me feel.’”

Professor Richard Jolly’s
Six ways to influence people

  1. Reciprocity. If you do something for someone else, the goodwill will last for ever. Do you know someone at work who you could connect with another contact in a way that suits both parties?
  2. Scarcity. You can use language to influence in this area. For example, one part of scarcity is ‘loss framing’. It’s more powerful to say “if you don’t implement these guidelines, you’ll lose £1 a day” than “if you implement these guidelines, you can save £1 a day”.
  3. Authority. Pay attention to how you speak, dress and so on.
  4. Commitment. Get commitment from people for your actions.
  5. Consensus. Social approval garners acceptance, which is why the average person laughs 80% more at comedy material when it is accompanied by canned laughter than when it isn’t.
  6. Liking. We like people to focus on the areas where we agree with them, not where we disagree.

Q&A Kallo

Patrick Cairns
Chief executive
Kallo Foods


Marketing Week (MW)/ Why is being an influencer important within marketing?
Patrick Cairns (PC):
The basic role and function of a marketer is to be influential. At base level, what you are trying to achieve with the brand is to move opinion. The construct of a brand is how a marketer does that through building up trust over time in a product and through influencer behaviour.

What marketers need to do within an organisation is quite similar because the role – particularly at lower levels in a business – entails acting like a mini managing director. They are trying to co-ordinate different parts of an organisation to achieve something in the market. This includes influencing people who they don’t have direct authority over.

MW: Is influencing an innate skillor can it be learned?
It is a mixture of both. Some people are better at it than others. Maybe some people are naturally inclined in that direction. Marketing is a team sport and being able to play, and being able to influence up and across the organisation, are very important. I have seen people who have become better and better at it throughout their career.

But it is a fine art. Influencing in an inappropriate way becomes quite political. If you do it inappropriately, it can be seen as political manoeuvering, which is when it backfires and when people are likely to resent it. What you learn through experience, and probably through a few mistakes, is how to do it in an open way, rather than an underhand one.

MW: Are you at a disadvantage if you don’t have these skills naturally?
It depends on the type of organisation. Within marketing-led organisations, marketing is expected to take a leading role. You need that ability to be able to persuade stakeholders across the business of the veracity of your intentions. If you can’t do that, it limits your effectiveness.

MW: Do you have any ‘influencer’ examples from your own career?
I was working on [men’s toiletry brand] Lynx in the late 1990s, when it developed, not just for consumers, but also became a very robust internal brand. It was when the people working on Lynx became strong brand ambassadors and that changed the agenda of marketing at Unilever. It set an example and showed that even big companies can go into the market and defy convention. We were able to take a very positive influencing role through the work we were doing.

MW: How do you nurture influencers?
I talk to my team about collaboration a great deal. Influencing can only be done if you develop a shared agenda. We talk about how you develop influence by creating teams and a sense of a something shared. It’s not so much about getting people on your side of the table as about getting them around the table.



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