The greatest skill of all September 2016

By PAUL GILBERT, Published in Management

I would like to write about influence.


I guess it is something we would all like to have more of, because to be more influential is a good thing, right? However, I want to write about a specific aspect of influence, less generic, less "of course". I want to suggest that being influential without power is the key skill to learn to unlock our potential and to counteract almost everything that is negative about the way we work today.

In most hierarchical structures we tend to equate influence with power. This, in my view, is a false and self-limiting construct for judging the true potential of individuals. If all we do is to find ways to accumulate power to be influential, it is a little like standing on a step and claiming to be taller. Of course it works, as long as we can keep standing on the step, but we are not actually taller.

In the workplace I all too often see a focus on accumulating power rather than developing skills. Far too much time is spent on what are frankly inconsequential power-plays – for example the size and position of a desk, or even whether we have a pot plant! I understand that power is conveyed and accumulated by our job title, through our grade, our reporting line and through the meetings we are permitted to attend; but the pursuit of these things to be influential is, in my view, the wrong way round and risks creating empty, petty, fragile people who draw false lines of differentiation that can only divide and disgruntle colleagues.

I am convinced that if we spent less time on these false indicators of influence and more time on learning to be more influential, we can create the opportunity to be more successful, more resilient, more experienced, more useful and, ironically, more powerful.

I also think that this is, at least in part, an answer to managing workplace stress, to increasing job satisfaction, to getting an appropriate balance and to career fulfilment. If we get it right it also goes to establishing a constructive, supportive and creative workplace culture in which people thrive because of their contribution and not because of the people they try to play golf with after work.

What interests me therefore is how we can help people become more influential without the petty trappings of power. Referring back to my step metaphor, how can we act tall so that we do not need the step? How can we make a difference without asserting hierarchy? How can we improve our resilience so that we are better able to withstand the predictable vicissitudes of a career

If we can crack this conundrum, I believe we become more powerful than we thought possible, and a lot more powerful than is ever going to be bestowed by the size of our desk or its proximity to a woody, neglected yucca plant. It means we are defined by our talent, not by our grade or job title.

It is sixteen years since I held the role of General Counsel, in the intervening years I have worked with, and observed thousands of lawyers and mentored hundreds. The theme I am exploring now is something that I explore in much greater detail with everyone I mentor but for the purposes of this 1000 word article, I will share just three insights of many on achieving influence without power.

1. Are you present or just in attendance? We all have days when we coast; where we do not move through the gears but gently drift through the hours on a slow boat named "prevarication". I am not going to be judgemental about this and we certainly all need space to think, but it isn't being influential. So, my challenge on these slower days is to change our energy level and pick up some curiosity. For example, consider the everyday humble business meeting and ask of yourself the following questions:

a. Before stepping into a meeting – what impression do you want to create as you walk through the door?

b. What is your purpose attending this meeting? Can you say it out loud?

c. What do you need from the meeting and have you shared this with 
those who can help you get it?

d. What gaps in your knowledge do you have? Who will close those gaps for you?

e. Are you brave enough to ask the pressing "dumb" question?

f. Have you committed to do something? (And why not if you haven't?) Is the deliverable clear?
g. And how/when will they see that you have done it?

2. Do you follow-up or do you care less? Decision-making in many organisations is poor, implementation of decisions is often even worse. I am convinced that helping to improve decision-making and implementation is one of the most important and influential things anyone can do – regardless of pay grade or status. This is not about interfering or being a corporate "busy-body", it is about asking for clarification where there is ambiguity, testing for vulnerability before it is important and offering to help where colleagues might be stretched to better manage inter-related dependencies. The teenage defence of "not my fault" is pointless and destructive if we truly care about outcomes and doing the best we can for the teams we work in and support.

3. How often do you help someone in need? Linked to influence is investing in networks. Companies do not exist without their people. The biggest institutions on the planet are nothing unless people go to work in them and so networks of people are the lifeblood of commerce, culture and success. Networking done well inside a company is sometimes misunderstood and often misdirected. I am not talking about sycophancy or playing politics for personal aggrandisement; I am encouraging all of us to seek opportunities for small selfless acts of kindness, of showing concern and of generosity to others. These are simple, polite, courteous and thoughtful interventions that help others do their job well, to grow their confidence, to be successful in their own right and to achieve more for the business as a result. The motivation must be to help but the result will be a mutual gains appreciation of the power of cooperation and concern for each other's success and welfare.

Power plays are tedious, often selfish, and frequently destructive of goodwill and culture. Becoming more influential is not a power play but instead it will empower you and others. It grounds individuals in a self-aware, self-confident, thoughtful and present mindset, and it permits the fulfilment of potential in ways that are richer, more secure, more real and more understood.

It is the greatest skill of all.

Gilbert is CE of LBC Wise Counsel.