April 1, 2017

Lessons from Brexit letter, for insight leaders’ influencing

By Paul Laughlin

Brexit influencingYou might be sick of wall-to-wall Brexit coverage on the news, but I think there are lessons to learn from Theresa May’s letter to Donald Tusk. Lessons for analytics leaders needing to influence their senior stakeholders.

Both my own experience in that role, and work with our clients, has taught me that analytics leaders need to be able to communicate in more than just impressive Powerpoint decks. Despite the emphasis on data visualisation & storytelling in analysis ‘decks’, influencing business leaders requires a wider palette.

To be clear from the outset, I’m not expecting analytics leaders to need to write as long a letter as our PM sent Donald Tusk. However, shorter business communications can be just as political.

An example of influencing, through a political letter

If you have not already read the full text of this historic letter, this version is well presented. In this Politico article, Ryan Heath & James Randerson highlight what they see as the key phrases in the letter:

Brexit letter annotated – what Theresa May wrote and what she meant

This is the letter that formally begins the U.K.’s departure from the European Union – the stuff of Brexiteers’ wildest dreams and Remainers’ worst nightmares. It is both a formality but also, the U.K. government believes, an important opportunity to set the tone for negotiations with the EU27.

Now, I don’t propose to decipher the implied options in navigating European politics, nor provide a textual analysis of the above. Rather, I thought I’d share a few points that resonated with me. These are what reminded me of the skills & tactics needed by analytics leaders when communicating to influence their key stakeholders.

Think win-win

Ever since Stephen Covey emphasised the importance of that principle in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, leaders have been taught this mantra. However, my experience is that the behaviour, rather than the words, of modern corporate life often displays the opposite. Too many leaders feel they are entering a competitive (win-lose) jungle when they enter the office each morning.

For that very reason, when coaching leaders, I encourage them to spend time thinking about how things look from the other’s perspective. What does the other leader need, what do they value, what could threaten their success & how could you help them?

Given the amount of competitive language used in businesses, it is often worth being as explicit as our PM’s: “On the contrary, the United Kingdom wants the European Union to succeed and prosper”. State that a ‘win-win’ solution is what you seek & mean it.

Lay down boundaries

Whilst demonstrating the cooperation of seeking mutual benefit, leaders may also need to demonstrate that they will not be a ‘doormat’.  If analytics leaders are less visible in the political dance happening in most organisations, they could be perceived as naive or easily manipulated. Depending on the negotiation style of the other leader, it can be worthwhile to allay that misconception early on.

Avoiding provocative language where possible, whatever has been stated by the other leader, it can be helpful to layout the limits of what you require & could accept. As for those dabbling in poker, it does require a willingness to walk away from the table if the other side is unwilling to compromise. But, there can be a situation (for example if analytics is routinely being ignored in key decision-making) where “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

Here too, though, there can be common cause. When handled skilfully, a leader can build on the expression of ‘win-win mindset’ by starting with boundaries that are agreed by both sides. Consider PM’s use of: “We also understand that there will be consequences for the UK of leaving the EU” and “we should aim to strike an early agreement about their rights” (EU nationals living in Britain), before she moves on to more controversial boundaries:

  • Inclusion of Security, as well as economic partnership, in negotiations
  • Agreeing trade deal in parallel with terms of divorce & future partnership

Repeat key principles

It is important to ensure, especially as conversations are likely to quickly get down to specifics (that may even involve certain data, reports, budget or roles), that common principles remain clear. Keep the big picture in view throughout your conversation.

In the same way as PM’s letter is peppered by references to a continued “special partnership” with the EU and cooperation for mutual interest, analytics leaders should stress common goals. Is there a clear statement of need to be more customer focussed in business strategy? Has data & analytics been agreed as a potential source of competitive advantage? Are there agreed financial/commercial targets where analytics can help & which should be prioritised?

Just like ‘broken record’ style negotiating, it can be worth finding a phrase that sums up what matters most to you both, to be repeated. Practice saying it more often than you think is needed.

Bring theories to life through real people’s lives

In my experience, one of the biggest weapons that an insight leaders at their disposal is customer verbatims or vox pops. Being able to take an issue and bring it to life through the example of one person’s life (where possible in their own words), can be very powerful. Insight leaders, even more than others, should know that most business decisions are emotional & so make use of ‘pulling on the heart-strings’ for the greater good.

In PM’s letter, I was struck by the example of Northern Island. Yes, this is a practical issue (as Britain’s only land border with the EU), but it is also an evocative personal story. So, this principle is absolutely being used in PM’s references to:

  • “the importance of the peace process in Northern Ireland”
  • “We want to avoid a return to a hard border between our two countries”
  • “We also have an important responsibility to make sure that nothing is done to jeopardise the peace process”

Highlight threats if you can’t reach an agreement

This is dangerous territory, but can sometime be needed. A ‘burning platform’ can be a powerful story to share, especially with leaders or management teams in danger of complacency. Making clear the potential for financial ruin & job cuts or regulatory breaches, can help focus the minds of all involved.

Theresa May also risks going there with her thinly veiled threats to include security cooperation in these negotiations. Here it can be helpful to read beyond the polite words of: “In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened. In this kind of scenario, both the United Kingdom and the European Union would of course cope with the change, but it is not the outcome that either side should seek. We must therefore work hard to avoid that outcome.”

Although some of this is too terrible to want to imagine, I was amused by the alternative version of this letter that the FT also published. The subtitle sums up this point (“Friends do not threaten; but screw us on trade and you’ll all be eating borscht”). But this version of the letter is also a hilarious read:

Article 50: You hold all the cards but we can kick over the table

Dear President Tusk, This is the hardest letter I have ever had to have someone write for me. Last year the people of the UK voted to leave the EU. Let me stress that this was no rejection of the values we share nor do we wish to do harm to the EU.

Praise what you value in the other

Without sinking into flattery & sycophancy, if you sense a defensive response from your stakeholders, it can be worth also making use of praise. To bring to life why you want their agreement & why you can genuinely seek a ‘win-win solution’, it can help to highlight what you value and admire about their position or approach.

This is demonstrated in PM’s Article 50 triggering letter by phrases like:
Perhaps now more than ever, the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe. We want to play our part to ensure that Europe remains strong and prosperous and able to lead in the world, projecting its values and defending itself from security threats.”

To help your senior stakeholder appreciate that you do see value in their perspective, you may need to offer slightly more praise than you might wish.

Evidence listening & willingness to work this out together

Building on that last point, effective influencing within business requires strong listening skills. You cannot go into a negotiation, or conversation that is seeking to build influence, just waiting for your chance to speak and get your points across. Curb your enthusiasm a little & make sure that when they are speaking you are actually listening — as they may also suggest approaches that would work better.

A key element of this approach can be to intentionally replay to this stakeholder points they have emphasised in the past. it is human nature that we all want to be fully heard, even though most of us spend most of our lives without that satisfaction. So, making a point of stating a key principle or priority that they have emphasised in the past can be very effective, especially if you then show that your suggestion builds upon accepting that boundary or approach.

Here, again, PM’s national “Dear John” letter gives us a couple of examples of this negotiation tactic:

  • “We understand and respect your position that the four freedoms of the single market are indivisible and there can be no “cherry picking”
  • “We also understand that there will be consequences for the UK of leaving the EU: we know that we will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy. We also know that UK companies will, as they trade within the EU, have to align with rules agreed by institutions of which we are no longer a part.”

In both examples, our PM is deliberately restating these points in the same language as used by the other party.

Next steps, how will you go about influencing?

I hope that was an interesting perspective on our dominant news story at present. What about your leadership role? How are you improving your influencing to increase the influence of analytics & insight evidence on key decisions and action taken by your organisation?

Two final thoughts, on this topic, to leave you with:

  • Consider a wider palette of communication media. Is a PowerPoint presentation the best means? Would a one-to-one face-to-face chat work best, or snippets in key meetings, or an email, or a call, or even a chat over a coffee? Choose your media as well as your message.
  • Have confidence in your need to do this. Analytics & Insight leaders can sometimes feel they simply lead service functions, there to provide what the rest of the business (especially the executive) require. However, this is far too small a role for such an important capability. Today’s businesses need to be increasingly evidence base in decisions & closer to their customers, so Analytics & Insight leaders need to approach their negation with the confidence of equal partners. Other leaders need them, as much as they need the demand.

Have a great week & I hope your insight negotiations go more smoothly that I expect Brexit negotiations to pan out!