“You don’t have to be a ‘person of influence’ to be influential. The most influential people in my life are probably not even aware of the things they’ve taught me.“ – Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert
Right before the end of the year I caught up with one of my favorite clients. Brian had been promoted to Vice President, and I asked him what he had learned about leadership after just over a year in the role.
“I learned that you have to infuse the system with energy all the time,” he said. If you disappear even for a few days, or get busy or distracted, people lose their focus. My job is keeping people enthusiastic and focused on what we need to do. It’s tiring, and it really takes up my concentration, but it’s also pretty rewarding.”
Very well said! And a great insight from the front lines of leadership.
“Leadership is an invitation to greatness you extend to others.” – Peter Drucker, leadership pioneer
The Three R’s of Influence
Years and years ago I worked as the Chief of Staff to the Provost of a major university. The Provost is the Chief Academic Officer – the CEO of the academic side of the house. Just before I left to go to business school we conducted a strategic planning process. I remember the Provost saying “We’re going to have to get the faculty to buy-in. I can’t tell them what to do.”
Fast forward to the Monday before Thanksgiving when I met with my client Susan. Susan runs marketing for her company. She reports to the CEO and she and her 7 peers make up the CEO Staff, a monthly meeting that sets direction and aligns the functions. Susan’s beef is that her peer, Gary, who is the president of a division, never follows the marketing guidelines that the entire team – him included! – has agreed to do. She finally went to discuss it with the CEO and she told me about that conversation.
The CEO listened to Susan, they batted the topic around for a bit, then he said:
“I think you’re right. But I can’t tell him what to do.”
So if the Provost can’t tell the professors what to do and the CEO can’t tell his direct reports what to do, then who gets to tell who what to do?
Welcome to the age of influence. As you move up in any company or organization, as you get more formal power, paradoxically influence is even more important. At that level, the issues and problems get more nuanced and complex. They involve direct reports who are more expert than you are in a given topic and who have deeper ties to the people who actually do the work. You also have to deal with peers who are just as smart, just as driven, just as convinced of their point of view as you are. And, like in Susan’s case, the CEO expects you to resolves issues without looking to him or her to referee.
There are two camps when it comes to influence. Some people want to explain what needs to get done, have others agree with their brilliance, then go off and do it. Others have no problem influencing their direct reports but hate trying to influence people who don’t work for them. The farther away they are in the chain of command, the less comfortable they feel.
Here’s the truth: no matter what your level in the company, top to bottom, 1) you must influence – even if you have lots of employees working for you and 2) you can influence – even if you don’t have any employees working for you. You must influence and you can influence.
So if influence is the secret weapon, how do you develop influence?
“Those who appear powerless or insignificant may be stars waiting to rise. Someday, they may become key nodes in your network – and create a huge opportunity for you.” – Tim Sanders, former Chief Solutions Officer, Yahoo.com
Start here with the 3 Rs: Relevance, Rapport, Reciprocity
This is usually known by its close cousin: “what’s in it for me?” My client Susan was trying to influence Gary taking into account what she wanted, and, of course, the importance to the company – from her point of view. She missed entirely the relevance to Gary: what he wanted, what was in it for him, the importance to the company from HIS point of view. Until she got that right, he listed to her like one of the characters in the peanuts cartoons listening to the adults: “wha wha wha wha.”
Susan had tried to get Gary to understand the importance of consistency from a marketing point of view. Absolutely correct, but not interesting to Gary! When she began listening, Susan noticed that Gary got really passionate when the topic of his new sales incentive program came up. When she took the time to tailor her marketing guidelines to his new program, he got very interested. Keeping in mind what he cared about, she focused on showing him that if he adhered to the guidelines he could piggyback on existing material and get more effort from the corporate marketing team. Also, since Gary liked to be seen as a creative type, she brought in one of her team members who gave him some creative ways to package the same material. Gary is quickly becoming an ambassador for Susan’s priorities, and Susan has seen first-hand the value of relevance.
Sometimes people will do things for you because you’re brilliant. More often they will do things for you because they like you. You need to build rapport – affinity and trust with others. The key here is making connections with others early and often – before you have any need to influence.
One key to rapport-building: Look for common ground. It can be hard to know what to talk about with others if you don’t have a specific project together. When you look for common ground, you can build rapport with anyone you see in a meeting for the first time or sit with in the corporate cafeteria. This can be professional – how their job and your job intersect – or personal – one of my clients recently built rapport by talking about her Wii Fit!
All organizations – and indeed all people – function with a kind of barter system. You help them. They help you. People are squeamish about this, preferring politely not to mention it. And yet this exchange is just human nature – how often have you “given in” on the question of where to go to dinner so that you “get to choose” which movie you see?
Of course it’s more complex in your company; the trick is finding out what others value, want and need, and if you can give it to them. The first step is to think about what you have to offer – literally make a list of your “currencies.” You may not have job opportunities or more money to offer. But remember, people also value enthusiasm and encouragement, ability to get something done, recognition, inspiration, collaboration, and even simply a good listener. When you write down what you have to offer your colleagues, both senior, peers and juniors, it’s more likely it will be top of mind and you will be ready to “exchange” when you need to.
Influence is a process, not an event. Influence is one of the most important tools to help you move forward. Start now. Pick one of the R's of influence you want to work on and pick one thing you will do to increase your Relevance, Rapport or Reciprocity. Let me know what you decide to work on and how it goes!