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How to Build Influence as a Strategic Adviser: A Q&A with Kellie Garrett

Kellie Garrett, ABC, 2006-07
Kellie Garrett, ABC, 2006-07

Communication World Senior Editor Jessica Burnette-Lemon asked Kellie Garrett, ABC, IABC Fellow, to shed light on how communication professionals can expand their knowledge and build their influence to become strategic advisers to top leadership.

Garrett is a speaker, executive coach and consultant on leadership, employee engagement, high performance and internal culture change. She coaches individuals and teams on improving communication, engaging in constructive conflict and linking behaviors to business strategy. As a senior executive at Farm Credit Canada, working alongside a visionary CEO, Garrett and her HR peer were instrumental in shifting FCC’s culture from one of command-and-control to one that fostered high employee engagement, ultimately landing FCC as number 5 on Canada’s Top 50 Employers.

Jessica Burnette-Lemon: What skills or attributes do you think are crucial for being an effective strategic communication adviser?

Kellie Garrett: It isn’t a skill or attribute, per se, but I think that understanding the business and the industry you’re in is the foundation. That should go without saying, but I’m still surprised at how many communication professionals aren’t clear on the financial model and business strategy that is driving their organization’s success.

Once you’ve gained that foundational understanding (and assuming that you’re proficient as a communication expert), then you can think of being an effective strategic communication adviser.

The key is understanding what will help and hinder the realization of the business strategy and linking your advice to that. If you demonstrate that you are thinking like a businessperson, rather than “just” a professional communicator, then you will gain more credibility. Credibility gives you licence to share your opinions and gives you a better chance of influencing others, which is a critical skill to being an effective adviser.

JBL: What advice can you give to those who want to become strategic advisers? What are some ways they can acquire the type of experience necessary?

KG: Observe who serves as a strategic adviser in your organization, no matter what their profession. Who does the CEO listen to? Why? How did that adviser gain credibility and what is his or her typical approach?

Ask your boss for ideas on how to acquire the experience required to ramp up your game with respect to strategic advising. Also ask for “dos and don’ts.”

Test out strategic advice you’d like to give with teammates and colleagues from other areas. For example, if you need to provide counsel to the finance group, forge a connection with one or two peers in that area and get to know the issues they’re grappling with and the strategies they’re pursuing. If you have advice for the CFO, bounce your ideas off your finance colleagues first.

JBL: What are some techniques communication professionals can use to influence senior leaders?

KG: Where possible, use quantitative information. Are there studies that support your advice? What have others in the industry done in this area?

Share the cons as well as the pros. The more open you are about what might not work, the more likely senior leaders will believe that what you say is a plus really is.

Listen to criticism with curiosity and don’t defend. Ask questions to discern what you’ve missed or why the advice you’re providing isn’t hitting the mark. Defensiveness marks you as someone who is wedded to your own ideas, which damages credibility and your ability to have influence in the future.

Find out what is preoccupying your senior leaders and link your advice to how it will help to solve something they care about.

JBL: What do you think is the ultimate goal of the role of senior adviser?

KG: I think the ultimate goal is to add value to the organization with thoughtful and strategic counsel that allows risk to be avoided or mitigated, and opportunities to be pursued. Lots of talented people may add value, but their views aren’t valued because perception is reality. The senior executives at your organization need to perceive that you, as a senior adviser, are credible and have valuable insight to contribute. That insight should serve as input to business decisions. Input doesn’t mean that your counsel will be followed at all times or to the letter. It does mean that your insights are seriously considered. No matter what one’s profession, that is a great place to be.

Jessica Burnette-Lemon

Jessica Burnette-Lemon is the senior content manager for IABC.

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