INFLUENCING WITHOUT AUTHORITY: 10 rules for herding corporate cats

An associate once said it was “like herding cats”. It described exactly what I was trying to do at work, influencing without authority, herding the cats above me to do my bidding.

How can I influence without authority?

How could I influence cats above me to make decisions in a government department of 60,000 people when I could only grab their attention for fleeting moments of time? Surely it should not be so hard when there were only two people between me and the top cat of the department!

My reflections on cat herding took me back to my early life on a sheep station located 90 miles from the nearest sealed road. I herded all kinds of animals in my youth; sheep, cattle, horses, ducks, chooks, geese, dogs and others. Each of them were a bit different to herd, but easy enough once you knew what made them tick. But herding cats? They are so aloof! Give me a predictably stupid animal like the sheep any day! We mustered their massive paddocks and herded them into sheep yards by carefully predicting their stupidity. Thankfully, it was not like this:

I developed 10 rules for herding corporate cats. I first shared them as a key note speaker at an industry conference in New Zealand in 2008. I trust they will help you in your corporate life as much as they have helped me.

Rule 1. Never kick a cat!

Never_Kick_A_Cat-300x226This first rule was easy to come up with. My father once made the mistake of trying to kick a cat that got in his way when he was bleary eyed early one morning. He missed and embedded a splinter from the pine floorboards in his foot, eventually requiring an operation and weeks on crutches.

Always treat corporate cats with dignity and respect the way you want to be treated yourself.

Rule 2. The Corporate Cat has no interest in you

Cats_have_no_interest_in_you-300x223Unlike a dog who would be all over the cute, cuddly lamb in this childhood photo, corporate cats simply don’t care about you or what you do. They are focussed on bigger things. They probably are not even sure right now if they still need you around.

You need to prove continually your worth and add value every day. Some years ago, I told one top cat that I did not care if they outsourced me or the function I managed provided she made an informed decision, and understood my touchpoints to other critical business processes. I told her that once she outsourced my function there was no turning back and that strategically I did not think that was the right decision. Eventually, the top cat agreed and even let me spend the $1.0m I needed.

Rule 3. You only get a cat’s attention for fleeting moments in time

Cats_fleeting_moments-300x249The corporate cat has a very short attention span. You only ever get their attention for fleeting moments in time. You need to be ready to maximise the results achieved. Get this right and you might even get a cat to purr along with your ideas.

Be consistent with your message, take a helicopter view in terms of wider strategy. Be certain the big picture has a place for you and if it doesn’t, don’t flog a dead horse, look for another career then and there.

Rule 4. The cats you herd probably aren’t the top cats

There is a huge difference working for an organisation of a few hundred people and working in a bureaucracy of tens of thousands. As a manager in an organisation with 200 odd employees, any manager knows the top cats and CEO’s on a first name basis. In a large bureaucracy, even if you have dealt with the cats when they were lower down the tree, they are now far too important to talk to you. Starting with your boss cat, you need to use all your influencing powers. Inspire him to take up the cause you champion. One unwritten requirement of any role is to make your boss look good. Don’t waste his time unnecessarily, make sure he understands what you and your team do and why. Ensure he always has the answer to questions he is asked and make sure you tell him you are committed to making him look good. If your boss cat is a true leader, he will tell you when he is only looking good by basking in your glory and start purring along with what you want to achieve.

Rule 5. We have to inspire boss cats to herd the top cats

Conquering this rule takes all of your influencing skills. Once you finally get our boss cat on side and are getting the occasional purr in unison with your cause, you must place your trust in him to champion your cause and ensure that he has the knowledge and defensible arguments to do so. This is the most critical skill in the delicate art of herding cats. You must build a relationship of mutual trust and respect with your boss. If you can’t, fire your boss cat and find another one elsewhere.

Rule 6. They shuffle the cats around

The most important difference between the domestic cat and the corporate cat in my experience is that they shuffle the corporate cats around. You get to a position where you have all your cats lined up like ducks in a row and a restructure, downsizing, merger or some other catastrophe is foisted on them. This affects two things. First, it breaks the extended cat herding links you have built and also reduces those few fleeting moments in time when the top cats put their spotlight on you as they focus on more important things. You must be tenacious and consistent in the messages you send. Have faith that your boss cat will take up your cause again when the time is right.

Rule 7. If you don’t herd your cat’s delicately, Top Cats remain out of reach

top_cat_out_of_reach-167x300Remember, cat herding is a delicate art, but if you don’t learn the rules and engage your closest top cats through our boss cat, the top cats will forever remain out of your reach, perched high above on the corporate ladder. Strong, consistent messages are required to build the required trusting and respectful environment. You must inspire others to take up your cause and do their own cat herding. You can only hope they herd their cats in roughly the direction you chose.

Rule 8. It is easier to outsource than to herd the Cats

It would have been much easier if I had given my top cats the answer they wanted to hear and looked for another job. The easy path was to recommend that the top cats outsource my function. When the data does not support a recommendation, do you take the easy way out? I can’t, it becomes a matter of personal integrity to champion the correct strategic decision. Eventually, your message will be heeded.

Rule 9. Top cats don’t care what happens to you

sleeping_cat-300x195In the dawning of the third industrial era that is defining how corporations respond to disruptive change, the rules have changed. Where once the top cats actually cared about their employees and reflected on what it would mean personally to employees when they drew a line through a position on an org chart, today they don’t. They can’t because the future of their organisation is on the line every day. As a result, they don’t care about what happens to you. You must be perceived to add value every day. If you can’t, reinvent your career elsewhere.

Rule 10. Cats are incapable of linking your non-core business with the critical business processes you support

Corporations have traditionally been silo based where the silos are defined by the physical transactions between each silo. As a result, IP was fragmented, bound closely to each silo. In my PCP/IP Networking model developed in 2006, I predicted that these silos would reduce in number and would be built on a common platform of IP while the transactions were replaced by enterprise wide networks of people and processes.

Whilst my predictions have largely been confirmed, I did not appreciate nine years ago how hard it would be to build the common IP platform. Pushing disruptive change beyond just one silo is very hard work. Most top cats have emerged from the silo based second industrial era. Most top cats are still wearing silo based blinkers. When you see your boss cat not want to champion wide scale innovation in business processes, it is an indicator that your organisation is unlikely to make the transition to the third industrial era that has strong dependence on technology and the Internet.

If you are unable to assist the top cats to see the links you have with other critical business processes in other silos, it is time to further your career elsewhere.


Tell me what you think of these rules and if they can help you in your corporate career. I am not the only one to make the connection between herding cats and managing and influencing people but few have used the analogy to suggest how to herd top cats above you. You might like to explore the finer points of cat herding through further reading below.

Please subscribe to my blog so we can keep in touch as I share further experiences and learnings from business and corporate life.

Managing People is Like Herding Cats – Warren Bennis (1999)
Herding Cats: A Primer for Programmers Who Lead Programmers – Hank Rainwater (2002)
Practical Cats – Harvard Business Review

Remember to keep herding those cats!

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