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LEADERS CAN’T GO IT ALONE: 6 Steps to Building a Coalition

By Samuel B. Bacharach

While there is perpetual discussion about what leadership is all about, in the final analysis, leadership is about getting things done. If you cannot move your agenda, you are not a leader. Moreover, an agenda mover knows that he or she cannot do it alone. 

As a leader, if you attempt to rely solely on your own own skills, knowledge, and intelligence, you will lose out on some of the vitally important resources necessary to move your agenda forward. You miss out on the skills, knowledge, and intelligence of others. To succeed as an “agenda mover,” you need to harness what others have to offer. This means that you need to conduct a coalition-building campaign to get others in your corner and keep them there. 

Building a coalition gives you the opportunity to exchange ideas with others and to fine-tune your plan, both initially and as you go forward. Having a coalition also lends legitimacy to your agenda, and it enhances your capacity to meet challenges from your opponents and to stand up to detractors and critics. It is harder to derail an agenda that has a firm foundation of collective support.

How you go about conducting a campaign to gain support will determine whether you are a leader who can move agendas forward or simply a dreamer. To be leader who is an agenda mover, you need political skills to build a coalition as well as the managerial skills required to sustain forward movement.

Here are six important steps for building a coalition:

Anticipate the reactions of others 

You must know whom you’re dealing with. To determine what kind of effect your action will have, it’s crucial to understand the dynamics of turf and power. Are new ideas welcomed by your organization, institution, or group? Or are new ideas greeted with suspicion? Think about your idea in the context of the power dynamics of your organization. Are key stakeholders threatened by your idea? Why? Do they like your idea? Why?

Identify who has power

You need to ask yourself several straightforward questions: Who has the power? One individual? Several? A group? More than one group? Who wields sufficient power to make a difference in helping you move your change effort or implement your innovation? Agenda movers need to identify the power holders who can help them. This isn’t Machiavellian. This is the simple fact of organizational life.

Focus your message

Focusing your message means making sure your message is clear, unambiguous, and suited to your audience. If you want to mobilize others, make sure you’re introducing your idea at the right time, in the right way, and to the right people.

An idea can be stymied after the initial proposal because the person initiating it fails to tailor the message to the other party. If you’re not getting your message across, you might not be talking on the same level as the person whose support you are seeking. Your vocabulary—and your promises—may be too grand. Or your vocabulary may be so concrete and specific that the other party misses the nuances of your proposal. In either case, the consequence is that the situation becomes one of talking past each other.

Time your message

It is critical to make sure your idea is fully thought through before you say anything. Once you make the announcement, there is no backing down. Don’t bring your ideas to the table until they are cooked. A surefire way to ruin your credibility is to be labeled as someone who doesn’t follow through. At the same time, don’t wait too long before announcing your idea, or you may miss a crucial window of opportunity.

Justify Your Agenda

There are four ways to justify your agenda. You can argue that – the numbers are on our side; others are doing it; outside pressures are forcing our hand, or there is a moral case for taking action. The challenge for an agenda mover, in trying to get initial support, is to wisely balance the four arguments to counter different forms of opposition and appeal to different members of your audience. With experience, agenda movers become adept at incorporating the four types of arguments to strengthen the case for change.

Establish Credibility

Convincing others that there is a need to take action is not enough. As an agenda mover, you must be credible. Others have to believe that you can get the job done. You can’t just say, “Hey, I’m the person for the job.” You have to establish your expertise, show that the opportunity for action is available, lean on your positional authority, and demonstrate your integrity. If you fire on these four cylinders, others will have no problem believing that you can deliver.

Whether you are trying to centralize IT, get funding for a start-up, change the compensation system, relocate your offices, or put in a new human resources information system, the rules of the game are the same. You can’t act alone. You have to build a coalition by campaigning for innovation and change – and by following the steps outlined above, you can draw people onto your team.

Samuel B. Bacharach is the author of THE AGENDA MOVER: When Your Good Idea Is Not Enough (Cornell University Press, 2016). He is also co-founder of the Bacharach Leadership Group, which focuses on training leaders in the skills of the Agenda Mover, and is the McKelvey-Grant Professor at Cornell University. 

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