How to lead people who are not “just like me”

There are many high potential finance professionals, all striving to work for the most successful companies and organisations. To achieve an advantage or ‘upper hand’, you must focus on leadership abilities you won’t always find down the traditional routes – Like how to influence, motivate and mobilise other people.  Especially people who are not just like you.

Mastering this ability allows a finance leader to energise and galvanise not just their own team, but also become influential and powerful across the entire organisation.

Those who can’t engage, influence, and mobilise beyond the limits of their formal authority usually get stuck in their careers.  Finance leaders wield significant power by virtue of their position, but this alone is insufficient to get their agenda and strategies across the line. Especially when resistance comes from powerful quarters outside finance.  Even within finance, using positional authority to demand compliance from a direct report may yield begrudging acquiescence, but hardly creates the conditions for releasing the full energy, engagement, and commitment of those you rely on to bring their best.

The Motivational Problem

Of course, leadership is much easier with people with whom we share similar interests, values or world views.  When we use the same language, they just get what we’re saying.  When we set a goal, they already understand why it matters.  We know intuitively what they care about and what might motivate them to act. We are naturally simpatico

People who aren’t like us, well, they’re a different story.  We don’t instinctively get their point of view, share their interests, or even understand what makes them tick. They may come from a different department or profession, use a different set of mental models and frameworks to make sense of things, and may even speak a different sort of language i.e. non finance or accounting.  We might not even like spending time with them, preferring to instead socialise with our own tribe. 

Which lies at the heart of what I call the “motivational problem”.  How can you influence or inspire people that you just don’t understand?

Motivations We All Share

The good news is that underneath these differences, there are common needs and motivations shared by all of those we seek to lead. Understanding and appealing to these common drivers of human action and behaviour is essential for effective leadership.

Self Determination Theory, the most validated body of research on human motivation, has found adults experience optimal motivation and engagement when three fundamental needs are met; autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Autonomy needs involve the freedom to choose and not be overly controlled. Competence concerns our drive to master and influence the world around us.   Relatedness implicates our need to find our place amongst others.  When these three needs are satisfied, we are engaged and energised.  When any of these needs are thwarted, we’re disengaged and resistant. 

I’ve observed countless times how unsuccessful attempts to motivate and mobilise people often result from inattention to these three human needs.  Having met apathy or resistance, a leader might prefer to blame the stubbornness or stupidity of the other party rather than examine the role of their own leadership actions. There are two ways that a leader can remedy this, and achieve much better results.

Influential Leadership

General Dwight Eisenhower, former US President, believed that leadership is influencing others “to do what needs to be done because they want to do it”.  Communicating to the other person how their positive action will deliver benefits in terms of choice, mastery or belonging, can torque the odds in your favour of enlisting their engagement with your agenda.  For those times when tough decisions may be required, and there’s little upside for the other person, it may be a case of articulating how loss of choice, influence or connection can be minimised by supporting your plan or solution. 

The second technique is adopting behaviours in your interactions that naturally meet the other person’s autonomy, mastery and relatedness needs. Leading in a way that is interpersonally warm, involving, and empowering will typically lead to higher levels of engagement. Unfortunately, I’ve observed many smart, driven finance professionals show up as aloof, arrogant, or autocratic yet wonder why they’re unable to engage the support of others.

Remember, you can’t lead people from where you are.  You must first connect with them where they are. View the world from their perspective, understand what compels them forward, and what holds them back.  Then use that insight to influence them to move where they are needed.  This is the art of leadership. 

About the Author

Gerard Penna is a leadership advisor and coach to CEOs, CFOs, Boards & billionaires. He has worked extensively with finance leaders, including ASX listed CFOs, in diverse settings from desert mining camps to hi tech start ups and sky-scraping boardrooms.  He is the author of Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership, host of the Xtraordinary Leaders Podcast, and CEO and Founder of Xtraordinary Leaders; a training company deeply committed to lifting the bar on leadership and leadership development.