Informal Leaders — Do You Know Where They Live?

By Larry Reyes, CEO & Founder RewardingCulture, LLC, culture strategist, speaker and contributor to The Culture Book, When Cultures Click

How good is your organization at identifying informal leaders? My guess is it’s not top of mind. Everyone knows who their key leaders are, by their strategic business goals we all adhere to for the year, but somehow there’s always that disconnect or slow ability to act either from them or their ask from us. Why is that? Well, we seem to organically gravitate not to our leaders or managers to seek that clarification, but more times than most, we go to those hidden gurus of workflow or operational knowledge seeking guidance time and time again. Who am I referring?…Informal Leaders.

Formal vs. Informal Leader

So, what’s the difference? Well, let’s define a formal leader vs. informal leader. A formal leader is one that sets the course for the organization and there’s a final hierarchical decision made for all to follow. Think of that person as the “tour guide” on a destination vacation you’re on. As a tourist, you’re led by that person due to their tremendous understanding, experience, tenure, and who will only share a set itinerary (business goals) for the duration of that tour for you to follow. An informal leader is that individual touring from destination to destination solely on their own and controls their direction, their knowledge gained within that destination, and is sought after by others for their ever-changing real-world experiences and perspective.

Informal leaders are not in role of authority, yet they have a tremendous influence among the population within a team, department, or across the company.

It’s always surprising that more supervisors, managers, or executives don’t leverage their informal leaders or even take the time to know who they are and what area of the business they reside. Talk about a missed opportunity. In addition, informal leaders are influencers. So, realize they’re an amazing resource, but that also means that when you call upon them, you need to be aligned to the business cause and be a partner of trust, or they could influence their peers to do the opposite if misled.

Rubber Meets the Road

When we think of informal leaders, they’re in the front-lines pushing the cause forward and experiencing with the workforce the good, the bad, and the ugly as a team. It’s fascinating to see these individuals seeking to understand on such a micro-level and how that rubber meets the road between product, service, and client engagement. The desire to understand not only gives informal leaders optics to certain areas of a business, but they are leveraged with peer to peer situations to help partner or help solve challenges due to their deep understanding.

From my experience, formal leaders will defer to their management teams or even HR for a referred list of informal leaders. I believe this is a mistake.

Executives need to take the time themselves to go and engage with front-line employees and ask who their informal leaders are within the organization and why.

This personal effort gives formal leaders the ability to learn about the business beyond their level, who the key informal leaders are by employee recommendation, and finally together gaining insight on what challenges they face in supporting current executive objectives and goals.

Beyond Trust

Informal leaders have integrity, and this is due to their desire to put in the time and effort to learn a process, understand the business function, and know all involved that make it happen every day. From my experience, it’s impressive to see how informal leaders take on the role as a mentor more than just randomly addressing questions. Instead, informal leaders make it about the person asking the question and helping them to not only find a solution, but to teach them skills and optics to a bigger picture along the way. In addition, informal leaders continue to be a life-line to their peer’s success.

Over time, that informal leader will contribute valuable tribal knowledge and establish a culture of trust that will inspire all employees to pay it forward.

Lastly, informal leaders are more than a tremendous resource for any organization, they make the difference in helping rally your objectives or challenges quickly within a shared mission. At the end of the day, we all want to have purpose in what we do, and sometimes we need informal leaders to provide that color and context to support the cause of the organization.

Larry “SugarBear” Reyes

Larry is CEO & Founder RewardingCulture, LLC, a contributor to The Culture Book, When Cultures Click by Weeva & Culturati, and a culture strategist and speaker. RewardingCulture, LLC helps businesses operationalize their culture to enhance employee/client engagement and generate profit. Larry partners with various professional levels in different industries from small to medium business to global corporations to influence, win business, and function optimally as teams through organizational culture.

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Culturati Team

Culturati Team

Culturati is a community of CEOs, entrepreneurs, investors and other c-suite leaders who practice & study culture building and share our play books.