The first time I heard the phrase “Influence Leadership,” which describes the art of having influence without possessing a position of power, I struggled with the idea of really being able to move the needle without a position of authority. But reflection on my own career and the careers of my mentors has helped me realize that many times, without recognizing it, we had been “influencers” outside of positions of authority.
But how do you become an influencer on purpose? How do you craft a road map that allows you to consistently have influence over outcomes and events without power and authority? In my experience, I’ve found 4 key elements that have given me an edge and allowed me to influence decisions without necessarily having direct authority. Those elements are passion, focus, expertise, and social/political capital.
- Find your passion: While this phrase has been overused, I’ve found it to be a key element in becoming an effective influencer. It serves as the fuel that keeps you going, helps you persevere, and gives you the courage to bounce back from failures. Some people have always had an innate, focused passion for something. But passion can also evolve over time through trial and error of discovering what you like or dislike. There were many times early in my career where I struggled with the question “what do I want to do?” I really only knew what I did not want to do, and I used that as a starting point for finding my passion.
Over the years, as I took on different roles, I looked at each one of them through the lens of whether or not I would do it again. Over time I figured out that my sweet spot and what I truly loved to do was business development and strategy. So passion can start with something you “like,” and turn into something you “love.” If you are still seeking your passion, explore your “likes” seriously, get good at them, and as you gain mastery the passion will unfold.
Take action: Make a list of what you like and do not like to do. Narrow down the list of “likes” and pick one specific thing. Develop a plan to develop your expertise in that area and commit to stick to it for a month. Explore it seriously and determine if this is your sweet spot. If it is, with time and effort, as you gain mastery, passion will come. Give yourself a timeline to explore and if after that, it doesn’t feel like a good fit, pick another one until you find it.
- Develop your focus: It is very hard to try to do it all while becoming exceptionally good at any one thing. As I experienced various roles, I enjoyed many of them, which tempted me to take non-Business Development opportunities over the years. But I realized, I could only do so much and I needed to start focusing. To focus, you will have to make tradeoffs. The very act of making tradeoffs will sharpen your focus, and help you pinpoint your passion. Focusing on the right things can free up a tremendous amount of time and energy. It will give you a sense of purpose and a feeling of being in control. You’ll need to be a bit ruthless and get honest about what you don’t want to do. Let me emphasize that this is not about simply refusing to do necessary but mundane or boring tasks, rather, it’s about making conscious choices. Stop overcommitting to things that do not fit within your chosen path.
Take action: Make a list of your responsibilities. Evaluate which of these support you in achieving your career path and identify which may be taking your time away from your area of passion. Brainstorm ways those tasks could be automated, reduced, or transferred to someone else who it aligns more closely to their career path.
- Become an expert: To be heard and trusted, you’ll need credibility as someone who knows what they are talking about. Honing your craft and building your knowledge base is the fuel that will feed your passion and give you confidence and courage even in times of adversity. You need to be able to answer the following questions: Why would anyone listen to me? Why would someone pay me for what I do? How does what I do or know help meet the needs of the organization? Regardless of your topic of expertise, it requires commitment to learn constantly, the honesty and rigor to find the gaps in your knowledge and skills, and the discipline to address the gaps.
Take action: Identify the gaps you have in your knowledge base and make an actionable plan to learn those things. Connect with experts in your field and understand the basics of their expertise, and ask them what you need to know. Get and read the right books, blogs, and trade magazines. Find mentors to keep you accountable and steer you in the right direction. Learn by observing those you admire in your company. Practice! Volunteer, if necessary, to gain the experience you need to get you started.
- Build your social and political capital: Even if you’ve honed your skills, unfortunately, you may still not get a seat at the table. So, what is missing? Your social and political capital is key to your ability to leverage your expertise to make things happen without being given obvious authority. You must learn the art of connecting positively with people and building a network of ambassadors. You need to find people who can help you along the way—this means, you’ll have to help them too (and probably first). Start growing and deepening your relationships with people around you. Help others wherever possible to achieve their goals. Take a risk on people and help them succeed. Mentor the next generation. As you build up mutual trust and respect, you build your board of “allies.” This will help you in your journey to achieve influence and drive towards sustainable change.
Take action: Make a list of all the stakeholders that impact the outcomes of decisions in your field. Don’t just look up the ladder – think down and across. Think of ways you can help those people achieve their goals and offer your help. Identify someone who has influenced you and list five attributes that made you take notice of him or her. Come up with a list for yourself that you want to emulate or develop.
I would like to end by reiterating that it may take some time to find your passion, and you may encounter a few not-so-positive experiences before you find the right path. Most of all, give yourself permission to explore and try new things. Go outside of your comfort zone. Take charge of your career journey and build a life of passion.