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Brain Circuits

How to build powerful alliances

Published 4 August 2022 in Brain Circuits • 3 min read

To be influential in complex organizations, you must be able to navigate stakeholder environments and build alliances in support of your objectives. There are key strategies involved in becoming an expert at building alliances; it is a skill all leaders should aspire to master.

First, understand the players.

Analyze the full set of stakeholders and break them down into the following five categories:

  • Allies are often taken for granted but can be crucial so identify them, confirm their alignment, and reinforce your similarities to strengthen connection.
  • Confederates are aligned with your objectives, but not with you, and respond to “commitment and consistency” tactics expressed through making active commitments.
  • Opposers are those with whom you have a good relationship but who are not aligned with your views, so be clear and unambiguous, listen to their concerns and ideas, and, if all else fails, agree to disagree.
  • Adversaries expect to see you highlight unique benefits and want to receive exclusive information. If you have a serious relationship and alignment issue with them, consider your role in that and make adjustments. Alternatively, you may just have to let them go.
  • Fence-sitters are those who have not yet expressed where they stand. Here you need to define the quality of the relationship, the level of alignment, and what their concerns are, and perhaps express frustration at their neutrality. You could use your allies to influence them. Finally, be genuine, obtain commitment in public, and remember that persuasion is about being patient and taking the necessary time to build alignment and commitment.

Building alliances

Adapting your strategy to the type of negotiation is essential. Mastering persuasion and exerting influence requires:

  • Frame how key people see “the problem” or “the opportunity”, and “the options” by using logic (logos), principle (ethos), and emotion (pathos).
  • Control the process and move quickly to solidify support, anticipating the moves of others and seeking to neutralize opposition.
  • Decide the best sequence in which to interact with other players and whether to meet with them 1:1 or together.
  • Bring people along from “A” to “B” incrementally by progressively establishing new baselines, public commitments, and irreversible steps.
  • Establish deadlines and other “action-forcing events” to move the process forward and break through indecisiveness or foot-dragging.

Master negotiators do not just influence decision-making, they analyze who else will influence how decisions will be made. They also build effective networks of broad and short-term temporary alliances.


Michael Watkins - IMD Professor

Michael D. Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

Michael D Watkins is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD, and author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Predictable Surprises, and 12 other books on leadership and negotiation. His book, The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking, explores how executives can learn to think strategically and lead their organizations into the future. A Thinkers 50-ranked management influencer and recognized expert in his field, his work features in HBR Guides and HBR’s 10 Must Reads on leadership, teams, strategic initiatives, and new managers. Over the past 20 years, he has used his First 90 Days® methodology to help leaders make successful transitions, both in his teaching at IMD, INSEAD, and Harvard Business School, where he gained his PhD in decision sciences, as well as through his private consultancy practice Genesis Advisers. At IMD, he directs the First 90 Days open program for leaders taking on challenging new roles and co-directs the Transition to Business Leadership (TBL) executive program for future enterprise leaders.


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