Talent management, professional development and mentoring programs often focus on spotting potential leaders and developing their talent. While having a pipeline of leadership candidates is beneficial, these programs often overlook the importance of influencers.

While good leaders are influencers, not all influencers are or want to be leaders. Yet their talents can have a positive and significant impact on all levels of the organization. It is time to start nurturing and rewarding the talents of influencers within the organization.

Six of one ...

Influencers can be both positive and negative. Those who are positive contributors have naturally earned their colleagues' trust via their work product, work ethic, communication and or team-building skills. They are "go-to" employees who can influence their peers and co-workers outside their teams and those in more senior positions.

Often their people skills allow them to get work through the system or bring and keep a group together. While these are necessary skills for leaders, not all influencers want to be leaders.

This should not be held against them by withholding training, mentoring or opportunities to contribute. Instead, the skills these employees possess should be recognized for their organizational value. Since positive influencers are normally known for their work-related expertise and respected for their interpersonal skills, their contributions can be formally acknowledged and developed in three ways.

  • Enhancing and sharing institutional or specialized knowledge
  • Encouraging and soliciting insight into critical processes or projects
  • Supporting and developing their natural interpersonal skills

Pulse of the organization

First, influencers are often more than willing to share their knowledge. Yet organizations often fail to tap into that willingness.

Instead, leaders should acknowledge the value of the influencer's expertise and actively engage them in determining the best way to share that knowledge. Formally acknowledge and support what the influencer does naturally to benefit the organization, then recognize and reward the impact it has.

Second, from new product rollouts to emergency response, influencers know directly or indirectly the how and why of system failures. Bringing them into the discussion. Tapping their in-depth understanding and ability to garner information not only reinforces their status as a key player on the ground, but it also helps employees within their sphere of influence continue to open up, share and listen.

Third, that power to sway colleagues is a critical skill at any level in any organization. The quicker leadership realizes the influential figures — positive or negative within the culture, the better suited they are to collaborate.

Influencers can provide valuable insight before rollouts and critical feedback after an initiative is launched. In general, they are in tune with the pulse of the organization in a way that someone in a leadership role cannot always be. Recognize and foster that power and those relationships.

Bottom line

Leadership roles entail learning other aspects of the business, employee supervision and increased management of projects or budgets, but making that transition is not for everyone. Yet, while influencers may not have a formal leadership role and enjoy the benefits of the impact that can have, they are still important figures within the organization. They should be recognized and developed just as leaders for the role they play in aligning employees with organization objectives.

It is a strategic advantage for any successful leader to know who these influencers are, appreciate them and tap their skills during critical phases of the business.