The Boss’s Next Demand: Make Lots of Friends

The Boss’s Next Demand: Make Lots of Friends

Companies Harness the Clout of Their Influential Employees


Feb. 11, 2014 7:06 p.m. ET

Making friends at the office has never been more rewarding.

Armed with reams of new data, companies including giants Procter & Gamble Co.PG +1.04% and Cisco Systems Inc. CSCO -0.53% are seeking out “influencers,” or those among their employees who are particularly well-connected and trusted by their peers.

Once found, the firms are harnessing these workers’ clout to come up with new products, get workers on board with big changes like mergers, or spread information throughout the organization.

Years ago, such employees often went unnoticed, lost in organizational charts. But the rise of social media has highlighted the importance of networks, and companies are determined to capitalize on the power players lurking in their workforces. The influencers reap benefits, too: more money, promotions and opportunities to rub shoulders with top executives.

Influencer Traits

Outgoing: Extroverted and exuberant but also good self-monitors.

Empathetic: Approachable and able to sympathize.

Accessible: Fully present and welcoming.

Energizing: Fellow employees feel invigorated by them.

Optimistic: They focus on solutions, not what can’t work.

Sources: Management professors Adam Kleinbaum and Robert Cross

To find these people, some companies conduct surveys, asking questions like, “Who do you go to when you’re having a bad day at work?” or “Who do you go to when you have a question that seems obvious?” They may also tap into email and calendar data, often stripped of content to preserve privacy, or internal messagingsites.

The result is often mapped out as a spider web of connections. Executives say the influencers are sometimes already in jobs that reflect their skills—such as a project manager who works with several departments—but they say they have also been surprised to discover, for example, an IT worker holding together a tenuous connection between offices on two continents.

Business-software company Inc. CRM +0.31% plumbs its Chatter product, a sort of corporate Facebook, to identify its influencers, says Peter Coffee, the company’s vice president for strategic research. Using algorithms, the company is continually analyzing the data: how many followers each employee has, how often they post about their work, and whether those posts generate responses. All Chatter accounts—Mr. Coffee says the company’s 12,800 employees are all on the platform—are assigned an influence rank that charts where they fall in comparison with others.

The top 20 “chatterati,” Salesforce’s term for its highest influencers, are invited to attend the company’s global senior management meeting, which occurs twice a year and was formerly open only to Salesforce’s top 600 leaders. Some managers also take employees’ Chatter scores into account when determining promotions and compensation, though the company declined to provide specifics.

“What this does is say, ‘You are more than the node that takes your inbox and turns it into your outbox,'” Mr. Coffee says.

Indeed, many companies say they are identifying a previously invisible layer of talent, key players who may not be posting top results on their own but are boosting performance across the organization.

“There’s this whole underground world,” says Kristin Kassis, a managing partner at WorkWise LLC, a consulting firm that has helped Fortune 500 firms identify influencers and often focuses on how to retain them.

But some academics caution that a data-driven emphasis on what has traditionally been a subjective trait could ultimately lead executives astray.

Jerry Davis, a management professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, says companies could be “rewarding the wrong thing” if they put too much stock in the hubs in their social networks.

“When it comes to promotions or layoffs, that’s when it starts to get hairy,” he adds. “Wait a minute, I thought I was doing my work really well, and because I didn’t spend my time networking, I’m going to be fired?” he imagines an employee saying.

HealthFitness Corp., a Minneapolis company that provides corporate health services, called on Syndio Social, a Chicago firm that helps companies map their networks, to identify staff members who could help ease the shift to a major new technology platform last year.

HealthFitness had a lot on the line, including $30 million and high client expectations. The company flew 30 influencers to its Lake Forest, Ill., offices and gave them communication training and extra insight into the project so they could field co-workers’ questions and build positive buzz.

The influencers helped bring their colleagues on board, Chief Executive Paul Lotharius recalls. But he had to remind himself that clout was only one way to assess employees so other qualities, such as technical expertise and leadership skills, wouldn’t get lost in the process.

“We almost fell into a trap of getting overexcited with Syndio,” he says. “You just start thinking, ‘Wow, I can use this for everything.”

Less cautious is Sonny Garg, an executive at energy firm Exelon Corp. EXC +0.24%When the Chicago-based firm merged with Constellation Energy in 2012, managers and employees in information technology selected a group of well-connected workers to act as liaisons between anxious staffers and leadership during the “upheaval,” Mr. Garg says.

He adds that the initiative didn’t cost any money and may have kept employees from leaving after the merger. Influencer Kathy Bresnahan, an IT analyst with the company, says it helped ease angst in the departments.

The company is now starting to use survey data to help pinpoint its top influencers and is launching a program that would give them leadership training. Influencers, Mr. Garg says, “can either help you or really hurt you.”

For their part, influencers are thrilled to be rewarded for their networking skills. Andrea Bredow, a manager in HealthFitness’s marketing department, describes herself as an “extrovert through and through” who likes to stop by co-workers’ desks and plan group outings.

“This is just my personality,” says Ms. Bredow, who was recognized as an influencer last year. “I’m glad that I’ve found a company that sees that as a positive.”


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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