I’ve been in sales roles for many years and know the joys and pains of trying to sell to others. The sales process at times dragged on for longer than I expected and sometimes took a wrong turn for reasons I couldn’t figure out. It was frustrating when I felt I’d outlined an excellent solution to the customer’s problem and clearly shown the value of buying from me. Often I was talking to the decision maker in the organization but wasn’t getting the signature on the contract.
Guy behind the guy
I had to learn the hard way that rather than chase executives with lofty titles to make something happen, the best approach is to first seek and win over the people who have influence.
People with influence have currency that people with power don’t have: They can afford to spend their currency on your behalf. My contacts with positional power were actually handicapped by the fact that if they exercised that power to buy my product, they would be a lightning rod for criticism and despised by those who felt like a victim to their choices. Their power made them overly cautious and slow to act. Sometimes their power made them not buy from me.
When I cultivated relationships with with influential people I sold more quickly and easily because my champions drew little attention and their reputation and careers remained intact after they exercise their influence. Influential people don’t generally create enemies.
Given a choice of having power or influence, I’d choose influence in a heartbeat.
Aye, aye, sir
I traded my career as a Navy officer for the life of a technology consultant. One day at lunch a customer remarked that my previous life in the Navy was easier than his role as a manager in the civilian world. He said, “You could just order someone to do something.” He didn’t understand power versus influence.
I had to explain to him that while I could technically give orders to get things done, my ability to lead others was judged on gaining influence over those who reported to me and not my ability to tell people what to do. The military, with all of its structure and outward signs of rank and power, relies on learning early to have influence. Careers depend on it.
How well do other people respond to your suggestions? How often do they follow up on your requests for information? Are you able to get meetings when you need to? If you’re not self-employed or an assembly line worker, these are the key questions that indicate your influence in your job.
I just read today that Steve Nash was traded to the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers this week but only after calling the Lakers’ star, Kobe Bryant, to make sure “he was completely onboard.” Nash knew that his success in Los Angeles rested on Kobe’s influence more than with those in power.
Being the new guy
When my company was acquired last Fall my first task was to learn about our new parent company, including who the influential people were. That’s a job that has little to do with reading the organizational chart. The value was more than gaining access to the right people…it was the way to learn the most important things, as influential people usually share knowledge and expertise outside their prescribed work.
The social media platform used by company opened my eyes to the changing nature of influence in the workplace. Sure, there will always be those who are quietly influential, but there is a new class of individuals who gain influence through their collaborative and extrovert behavior on this new technology.
And I’m not talking about noisy people who have much to say but little of value. They probably have less influence, in fact. I’m talking about the people who get the comments, the shares and the followers. There’s a whole new way of being a valuable to your employer that comes with a whole new way to be influential.