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All the World’s a Stage: How to Build Influence

“I’m being asked to work across teams in ways I’ve never done before.”

“Sometimes, I’m leading without direct authority. I feel like I have to spend time getting people on board with me, and it’s difficult.”

Do these challenges sound familiar? We hear from our clients that their organizations are becoming increasingly matrixed and team-oriented. Structures are feeling less hierarchical; we are now trying to drive work through colleagues whom we don’t have authority over. Although these flatter structures can be effective at breaking down siloed thinking, they have also thrown old ways of working out the window. Top-down, hierarchical, order-barking isn’t going to win favor within the dotted-line structure we now operate in. In today’s world,  influence is king—and you are always selling. The question is, are people buying (in)?

Persuasion with Polish

This poses a challenge that we often coach around: Influence is broad and somewhat amorphous; as a result, it can be hard to put into action as a goal on your development plan. In the strictest sense, influence is the ability to enact your will in a space where you have no direct power. In practice within organizations, this looks like “greasing the wheels,” getting people’s attention, and campaigning for your ideas.

So how does one build their influence? As with any skill, by creating specific, measurable goals. What’s tricky about influence is that leaders are often challenged by prioritizing and organizing all the possible tasks they could engage in. There are many behaviors that influence encompasses, e.g., building a strong network, presenting your ideas with impact, using relationships to drive agendas rather than relying on the power of your thinking alone. (Make no mistake, strong business cases are table stakes—but bright ideas are not enough.)

To that end, we offer the following framework to categorize these influential behaviors and help you structure your own development.

Think of your influence as a theatrical production. If you’ve ever attended a play, you as an audience member often only see a polished show. But the final product is the result of both an onstage performance and loads of backstage preparation. There are rehearsals, crew pulling the strings behind the scenes, maintenance of the set and props, etc. In the same way, influence is more than just your onstage presentation, or pitch.

Backstage

Before you even try to influence colleagues, you should be engaging in backstage tasks. Think of these as maintenance behaviors: they’re what you do between those key meetings to gain credibility. These tasks build relationships and get you exposure. The goal is to get to know others’ work and create an opportunity for them to learn about you. Getting your ideas adopted is generally much easier when people know and trust you. In fact, that makes all the onstage work a lot easier. At work, this looks like:

  • Forming and maintaining personal relationships with people. Grab virtual coffee, and proactively set up regular check-ins with people you don’t see day-to-day. Bonus points if they work outside your team and function. Extra bonus points if you know them to be influential or have decision-making power. We highly suggest a stakeholder mapping exercise to plan how you’ll spend your relationship-building time.
  • Engaging in cross-functional work where you can demonstrate that you add value outside your area of expertise. If you can’t get easily plugged into a project that already exists, create and lead a collaborative effort.
  • Staying up-to-date on the enterprise as a whole. Think, “How am I contributing to our strategy?” and “What keeps my executives up at night?” Use this lens to inform how you work. Convey to others that you understand the bottom line.
  • Request a seat at the table. Ask your boss to bring you along in decision-making meetings. You could just shadow, if appropriate, or plan with your manager how you’ll contribute. Ultimately, the goal here is exposure to a wider array of stakeholders. The more they see you, hear your thinking, and trust that you’re working in the best interests of the company, the more credible you’ll be when it’s showtime.

On Stage

The other part of influence is what first comes to mind when people hear that word—can you persuade a room of people to think like you do? Although we are framing this as “on stage,” it is not always so formal. Persuasion can happen anywhere: in 1:1 meetings with your boss, at the proverbial water cooler, or in the pre-meetings with stakeholders before your presentation to the group.

We often hear from leaders that they get caught up in this moment and find it hard to be persuasive. The idea of “convincing somebody” is elusive. Luckily, the science of persuasion says that persuasion at work typically boils down to decision-making efficiency. In other words, your goal is to make it easy for people to decide (hopefully, to agree with you). To do so, you want to prepare a message that is buttoned-up, practiced, punchy, and relevant to your stakeholders. Here are some common pitfalls we see leaders fall into when they make their pitch, and how you can avoid them.

  • We sometimes coach leaders who have gotten feedback that they provide far too much information, and it loses its persuasiveness. This often comes from the impulse to “prove your work” during a presentation. Try putting yourself in your audience’s shoes and ask, “What points will they be most interested in?” Keep your message tight by excluding information that they might not find relevant, like your detailed Excel analyses. Trust that they will ask follow-up questions if they need to.
  • The message fails to energize the audience. This is usually from a lack of panache; there is, after all, an art to performance. To get their attention quickly, practice leading with your headline. First provide context, and give them the “so what” early in your message. This could be as simple as outlining a problem you want to fix or opportunity to improve processes.
  • We also hear that leaders can fail to “read the room,” e.g., sharing ideas without realizing how they land. Hopefully, you’ll prevent this with some backstage work—getting to know others’ perspectives before it’s time for the pitch. But in the moment, one winning strategy is to keep the conversation collaborative. When you feel you’ve just stepped on someone’s toes or start to sense the mood shift, pause and ask for input to clear the air.
  • If you aren’t already familiar, we highly suggest acquainting yourself with Cialdini’s Principles of Persuasion. These time-tested tools are backed by science and have merit in any kind of selling, be it a product or vision. One such principle that’s helpful in any context is to end a meeting with next steps –people are far less likely to go back on an agreement once they’ve made a commitment.

The Balancing Act

With this framework, think about how much time you are spending on both onstage and backstage tasks. Behind-the-scenes effort, like relationship-building, often takes a backseat to our day-to-day demands. This is understandable, as we don’t typically feel a sense of urgency for this—we think to prioritize it when we have extra time, as if it is outside the scope of our “real” work. However, it’s crucial to remember that this is what makes your onstage presentation successful. Also, with increasingly ambiguous organizational structures, influence is really the key to getting things done. It’s time to start thinking of building influence as another responsibility in your job description. Always be closing.

For your next opportunity to sway people’s minds, create an influence plan. Chart your key stakeholders and outline how you will get their buy-in. Consider: first building trust with them, when to introduce your ideas, in what context, and how many touchpoints will be necessary. Get to know how your work intersects with theirs and let them know you’ve considered their point of view.

Or, as Carnegie put it best: “To be interesting, be interested.”

When was the last time you had to exercise influence? What did you do that was effective, and what would you do differently now? Sound off in the comments below!

Looking for a coach to help you take your powers of influence to the next level? We invite you to get in touch!

About Jasmin Martinez

Jasmin joined Vantage in 2017 through its Intern Program, where she assisted in the quality control of client deliverables, data management, and assessment preparation. As an associate consultant, Jasmin continues to hone her skills in individual assessment, client feedback administration, and leadership development. In both roles, she has enjoyed leveraging her research background through data analysis and interpretation. She also has experience consulting with nonprofit organizations to create team engagement plans. Jasmin is passionate about research that focuses on women's experiences in the workplace, workgroup dynamics, and diversity and inclusion.

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