Early in my corporate career, I was one of those annoying, eager to please, want to make a difference newbies. I still get embarrassed today thinking about the time I went to the VP of Marketing and Sales and offered to help on his new product launch.
I had a lot to offer. I knew from my boss, the CFO, that the VP had not prepared the appropriate project justification and didn’t have executive approval. I was a financial analyst and I knew I could help.
He didn’t know me and I was the low man on the totem pole.
He didn’t even bother to return my call or respond to my email.
I had no influence.
Of course, then my boss, the CFO, told me to go to his office and tell him that he wouldn’t get funding or approval without the analysis and justification.
Again, I had no clue. I bebop down to his office thinking this will be great. When I tell him he can’t move forward until he has the approval, then I can offer to help again. He will surely be grateful.
Instead, he screamed at me.
He said he didn’t know who I was but I had absolutely no authority over him and he would do what he wanted. He would tell my boss in no uncertain terms that I would never go anywhere in this company. I was no one. And who did he (my boss) think he was sending some “no one” kid to discuss this with him?
I had no influence.
Holding back the tears (okay, I didn’t hold them back), I went back up to the CFO’s office and told him I had ruined everything. The VP was furious and was going to get me fired and him in trouble.
A Decade of Mentoring on Influence
Trying not to laugh, my boss sat me down and began what would turn into a decade of mentoring on influence. The first lesson being that without influence, my climb up the ladder would not be easy…I was as high as I was going to get. He told me that without influence, I could not lead. Without leadership, I would be ineffective.
It was a great start to my career and the beginning of many more tears to be shed. However, I learned and I practiced and it was the most valuable mentoring I have ever received….before and since.
It has been 25 years since that day, and here is the cumulative learning I have received on influence:
Personal Influence Is More Powerful in Business.
Personal influence, such as expertise and people skills, is more powerful in business because it creates commitment and buy-in from others.
Many times, someone can have expertise but terrible people skills. They can be wonderful contributors but terrible leaders. People don’t usually follow the super tech person who can’t talk to anyone unless someone with “position” authority makes them.
At the same time, a person with charisma, who motivates and encourages, starts out as a strong leader. They can lose respect quickly if they do not have a strong expertise or substance behind their words. A leader who is all cheerleader will soon lose respect if he can’t understand or help with our challenges and opportunities.
Of course, there are levels on the spectrum of both types and it is probably rare to find a perfect balance of both. But I was young and impressionable and that was what I was striving for.
I will break down for you in my own words how I tried to use each to build influence.
Rock Star Expertise Builds Credibility and Trust
Building my expertise was extremely important:
- I had a currency to exchange. I had something valuable to barter with. People want to help people who help them. Being an expert in finance created an opportunity over years to help marketing gain approval for their projects. At the same time, I was able to make sure the process was followed. If the process proved that a project didn’t make sense, our work together would influence the marketing person du jour to kill the idea themselves.
- Being an expert builds trust. Over the years, people in all departments knew that I knew what I was talking about. I did the work and took the time to make sure it was right. I learned from everyone in the organization so that my expertise could be applied holistically to all areas. Don’t you trust your tax accountant about tax stuff and your lawyer about legal issues? They have influence over you in the areas of their expertise. You listen to them on topics within their expertise.
- Being an expert built my confidence. Not only can others trust you if you have strong technical skills, you can trust yourself. I was much more confident giving advice because I was building up a base of information and experience to back it up. It is important to have confidence in yourself to build trust and confidence of others in you.
- Being an expert provides consistency. When you have information and experience, you will be consistent in your approach, your analysis and your advice. Even today people who worked with me for a long time will almost always be able to predict the input I will provide. Sue would say we need to run the numbers. Sue will say we need to handle conflict proactively. I think it is important for leaders to be consistent in order to increase their influence.
People Skills Exponentially Improves Your Influence
Building people skills is equally important. I was in finance early in my career and moved up into roles such as Controller and CFO. I also had the opportunity to totally shift and be a marketing manager…. and then one day run a division myself. I eventually learned expertise in various areas of business. However, without people skills I would never have built the influence to get the jobs or to pull them off.
The types of people skills that are important are:
- Communication skills. Being able to communicate with a wide variety of people and personalities significantly enhances your ability to become influential.
- Conflict resolution skills. It is important to be able to handle conflict in a proactive, productive manner. Many people avoid conflict or inflame it. Either extreme does not build influence.
- Being a liaison. Being able to unify various people or teams enhances your value to the organization.
- Mentoring others. Helping others to succeed and to thrive builds trust, respect, and loyalty.
- Inspiring others. Helping people see and understand the big picture and vision.
- Teaching others. Being able to communicate to people in a way that they could understand, even if it was regarding a technical area outside of their expertise.
- Caring about and encouraging others. Leadership is about other people. Leaders care about others and truly want them to achieve their goals and succeed.
- Listening skills. Wanting to hear other people’s perspectives and understand their point of view.
- Following up and following through with commitments.
- Taking responsibility for results. Keeping the end in mind as you approach tasks, projects, and roles is always done by people with influence. It is a character trait, not a result of influence.
The VP of Marketing and Sales didn’t get me fired, but he also never embraced me as a resource or person of influence. He didn’t last long at the company fortunately. By the time the next VP came on board, I had matured a lot.
Bartering Expertise To Obtain Mentoring
I became a key resource for the marketing and sales departments which in turn improved the company’s financial results and improved the success of our new projects. A couple of years down the road I finally was asked to officially join the marketing department and had a brand manager helping me to learn the marketing side. We bartered expertise.
Even further down the line I became a VP myself; one of the first VP’s to come up through the ranks.
I couldn’t have done it on my own. I needed my mentor every step of the way. He had influence and he shared with me the importance of working on influence through a combination of expertise and people skills.
Obviously, there is a lot to be said about influence and many books have been written. This probably doesn’t match the books. It is just one person’s experience.
The Most Important Ingredient of Influence
And I believe that each piece is important. However, since leaving this company I became a follower of Jesus. As a Christian, all of these factors build influence, but there is one that stands out as the linchpin to me:
Caring. You can’t fake caring. You can’t even really study it. You have to feel it and show it.
Without caring, without love, you lose your influence.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
1 Corinthians 13:8