No matter who we are, or what we do, we often have to tap into the power of influence to make change happen. Becoming a high-powered influencer can help us get things done at work (for example, ensuring the quality-improvement program we’ve been charged with actually yields improvements), and in our personal lives (for example, convincing our neighbor to prevent their vicious dog from breaking out and running wild in our backyard).

In a multiunit retail enterprise*, district managers are the bridge between corporate headquarters and individual units. They implement corporate initiatives, monitor store performance, and help individual stores tackle operational problems either by intervening locally or working with staff at headquarters. In this capacity, what district managers do on a regular basis is inherently tricky: convince others to commit their time and effort to working on things that often aren’t their top priority.

Because they lack the autonomy and decision-making authority that a traditional manager has, district managers often have to rely on their influence power and their interpersonal skills to convince store managers to follow policies and procedures, implement new initiatives, and adopt the schedules, priorities, and best practices established by corporate headquarters.

Here are 3 lessons I’ve learned from interacting with district managers as part of the team building CoEFFICIENT®, a software platform that improves store performance across multi-unit retail enterprises through increased transparency and collaboration:

1. Take the time to build relationships before trying to lead change.

Less talented district managers overemphasize their auditing function. They zero in on minor infractions such as an incorrect product display, and don’t spend time developing relationships with managers and staff at the stores they supervise. High performing district managers, on the other hand, know developing the right rapport with their charges may take more time and effort on their part, but yields much better long-term results than simply trying to rely on direction and control.

Lesson learned:

When you’re facing obstacles creating change, make sure you’ve identified those who need to be added to the change effort, and take the time to get to know them and develop good rapport before you try to enlist their help.

Erica Bruno, Fixed Operations Manager, Nissan North America, sets the example:

I always work to meet every staff member at every dealership—not just the management team. Knowing the culture and the people at each store helps me help them reach their goals. This is a people business and I’ve got to connect with them and show them that I’m a person too. From day one, I employ open communication with everyone I work with and I believe this is what has helped me create great relationships with my region.

 

2. Put the needs of the other person ahead of your own needs and interests.

When you talk to store-level managers who trust and listen to their district manager, the first thing they’ll say is that their district manager is “there for them.”

High-performing district managers know that by establishing themselves as generous, servant leaders, they increase their sphere of influence. Those district managers help stores tackle operational problems either by intervening locally or by working with staff at headquarters. They connect store managers to people who can fix a problem immediately, or bring the issue to the attention of senior executives, and follow up until resolution. Then, when they need to reinforce corporate priorities, launch a new initiative, or fix local problems that are sapping productivity, driving away customers, or swallowing profits, they have a much easier time getting buy-in from their charges.

Lesson learned:

To be an effective influencer, do like star district managers and avoid building an ego-centered, management-by-me leadership style. Show that you care about your peers and subordinates, and that their goals are as valuable as your own. As a result, these people will be moved to work voluntarily with you to accomplish your initiatives.

A bit of advice from Nissan FOM, Patrick Smith: “Listen more than you talk.”

 

3. Shrink the change.

When you talk to store managers in a multiunit enterprise, you often hear how unrealistic they think corporate headquarters can be with priority setting.  Many multiunit enterprises overwhelm their field organizations with a constant stream of new initiatives, causing frontline managers to feel overwhelmed and respond with inaction by convincing themselves that soon the priority will change again.

Great district managers know having too many priorities means you have none.

To help store-level managers move in the direction they need to go to improve store performance, they narrow down the number of initiatives from headquarters that each store needs to focus on, and shorten store managers’ activity lists by setting a few priorities. As stated by Erica Bruno, “You’ve got to go into the dealers and show them real situations, real life stuff that will change their business today not a month from now. Once you make changes they can see, then you can start talking about the future.”

Lesson learned:

As the old saying goes, “the journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step”. When trying to implement a broadly framed policy or initiative, it’s much more effective to break down the journey into bite size chunks so the challenge is perceived as less daunting. And if the change you’re trying to lead will affect different groups, it may make sense to customize the plan and the targets to reflect each group’s individual needs and improve the odds of a successful implementation.

As Patrick Smith told us: “You can’t eat an elephant in one bite. You have to learn to pick and choose your battles. Maybe start the battle today, and depending on the day, tread lightly or go in with guns blazing.”

* As described in this HBR article, a multiunit enterprise is “a geographically dispersed organization built from standard units such as branches, service centers, hotels, restaurants, and stores, which are aggregated into larger geographic groupings such as districts, regions, and divisions”.