People with influence are often simultaneously admired and disliked. We respect, and can even be envious of, their ability to persuade their colleagues. At the same time, influence can feel like a shameless, slightly sordid power play. Regardless, influence can make a critical difference in your career, and your ability to influence people can help you accomplish truly good, noble things.
What is Influence and How Can You Develop It?
Influence is the ability to impact decision-making in a meaningful way. At the executive levels of an organization, influence is typically established with your peers and your seniors. You don’t generally need to influence those who report to you — but you do need to inspire, motivate, and apply other critical leadership characteristics.
Many people don’t think about influence as a skill set. They think it just happens — some have it, some do not. However, executive coaches know that influence can be fostered. Some of the skills required to develop influence include:
- Presentation skills
- Executive presence
- Relationship building skills
All these skills are coachable — they can be intentionally developed and strengthened. For example, you must demonstrate executive presence because no one will be influenced by someone they don’t respect, or perceive as having the gravitas required to have a point of view worth considering. For more about executive presence, read Arden Coaching’s blog, “The Art of Influence and Executive Presence.”
Strong presentation skills — formal and informal — help you articulate a clear, convincing, and compelling point of view. Consider your communication skills in a typical meeting. Influence is built (or eroded) based on how, to whom, and when we speak up at meetings. If you are disengaged from a meeting and speak up briefly only at the end, you are not communicating well or building influence. If your comments are consistently negative, or personal, or self-centered, you are not communicating well or building influence. If you bring up a great point after the meeting to a colleague, but the CEO doesn’t hear it, you are not communicating well or building influence.
Relationships count too. For example, if you know that the CEO responds well and listens closely to the EVP of Finance, you should have a conversation and develop a relationship with the EVP in order to build influence with your CEO.
Isn’t Deliberately Pursuing Influence a Bit… Sleazy?
Influence is sometimes thought of as scheming and unsavory. But it doesn’t — and shouldn’t — have to be that way! Think about how the word is used in popular culture. Common phrases such as “exerting influence” and “applying influence” suggest force. Even the thesaurus says that another word for “influence” is “coerce.”
The way people think about selling is a good analogy. Sales often triggers a negative reaction. “Oh, sales is tricking people into buying something they don’t need or can’t afford.” But, when we encounter a genuinely good salesperson, they have helped us. They have informed us and clarified our options. Typically, we don’t even think of a good sales experience as “sales” at all.
The critical element that distinguishes authentic and genuine selling from sleazy sales, and authentic and genuine influence from manipulative influence, is intent. Influence, like selling, is a tool. How do you intend to use that tool?
Positive influence motivates your peers and those above you in your company to take the actions needed to move projects forward – and that that’s an important, needed, and good thing! Over time, you’ll be more respected for the authentic, constructive influence you exercise.
Before Your Ask How, First Define Your Intentions and Purpose
So first, do not ask yourself how to build your ability to influence others. Ask yourself what your intention is: what is your purpose in having influence? If you desire influence to feed your ego, obtain more power or control, or simply for personal gain, then influence will indeed feel sleazy for you (and others!). Good, productive influence is intentional and deliberate. If you define a higher purpose, your influence will be genuine and sincere. You’ll understand it as a force for positive accomplishment.
How are you thinking about influence? Take some time and answer the following questions.
- What is it about influence that is important to you? Be specific.
- What would you do with influence if you had it?
- Imagine you have a significant level of influence in your organization. You would use your influence in order to what?…. Then take your answer and repeat… in order to what?
Consider your answers. Revise them and fine tune them as you think them through. Then, when you are ready and your intentions are clear, start your journey to build your ability to influence others.