Contributed Column

The Manager’s Corner

by Emily Morrow

The fine art of influencing

What do the following have in common? Jeremy, a partner in a large firm, has been asked to join the firm’s executive committee and is anxious about his ability to advocate effectively at committee meetings with his peers. Karen, a senior manager who reports to the CEO, is trying to get more CEO “face time.” Bill, a mid-level manager, wants to better motivate his direct-reports who do important, but routine, repetitive work.

The situations in which Jeremy, Karen, and Bill find themselves involve the use of influence, and their success will depend on their ability to practice the fine art of influencing. I define influencing as “the ability to lead others outside your control so they make better decisions affecting you and your work.” Influencing, therefore, is a critical leadership competency. The inability to successfully influence those to whom you report, your peers, and/or your subordinates can derail your career faster than your lack of a particular technical skill. Therefore, underestimate the importance of the art of influencing at your peril!

Consider first the exercise of internal influence in a business or organization. What informal networks exist behind the scenes, as opposed to the formal lines of power and authority? Whose advice is sought and followed? Whose opinion causes others to change theirs? Who confides in whom? At whom do people look when they make a recommendation? Identifying these networks, getting feedback from others about how you are seen, and developing relationships with the key players will be critical to your success. Indeed, “personal selling” — selling your views, ideas, and self to others, expanding your network of “allies,” and successfully negotiating with others both within and outside of your immediate work environment — is essential.

Although having a high level of internal influence at your workplace is important, in today’s turbulent business environment, you must also develop external influence and allies. Doing so will enhance your reputation and that of your business, will strengthen your future position, and will provide you with greater insight and objectivity.

Try to develop an entrepreneurial attitude. Set realistic and achievable goals, monitor those regularly, and expand your network of external allies. For example, schedule one networking luncheon weekly; plan to make four presentations to external groups annually; liaise monthly with each member of the board of directors. The cumulative effect of these small but regular actions will be much greater than that of the occasional “big thump” event.

Influencing can be done both formally and informally. Formal influencing is generally done through oral presentations or writing, both of which require well-developed self-presentation skills. Informal influencing depends upon excellent relationship-building skills and the ability to network by connecting people with other people and with new ideas or opportunities.

Some people are naturally gifted with excellent self-presentation skills or networking capabilities. However, with some focus, attention, and practice, such skills can be perfected by anyone.

Think about the differences between exercising authority and the fine art of influencing. The former can be a deceptively effective tool, but is often a very blunt and transient instrument. The latter is subtle, elegant, and can ultimately be more effective and enduring.

When they’re under stress, managers often instinctively use authority to obtain results, even though the use of influence might be more appropriate. Bear this in mind as you work with peers and direct-reports.

I have noticed that those who work in the not-for-profit sector are often highly skilled in the art of influencing. Because they frequently work with volunteers and donors, over whom they have no authority, they must deftly use influence to obtain results, while avoiding being viewed as manipulative.

Perhaps those who work in the business sector can learn much from the nonprofit sector in this regard. You might want to consider this the next time your business is designing a leadership development program or the like for high potentials. What can business leaders learn about influencing while working as volunteers? •

Emily Morrow of Shelburne provides tailored consulting services to business owners, executives, and HR professionals in a wide variety of industry sectors including retail, financial services, Web-based businesses, manufacturing, professional service firms and nonprofit organizations. She can be reached at pelmorrow@mac.com or www.emilymorrow.com.

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