Influencing and professional success

Bill, an equity partner in a large law firm, advocated for a change in the way the firm utilised secretarial support staff to ensure continuity when secretaries were absent or when staffing changes occurred. Although Bill is a senior partner, to his surprise, his seniority and authority proved to be of little help in getting other lawyers to support the initiative, despite the logic of his approach. They baulked at the added level of collaboration and communication the initiative required.

Emily Morrow

In frustration, Bill asked Anna, his senior associate, to take over the project. Because colleagues frequently sought her advice and respected her judgement, making her central to the firm’s informal networks, she quickly succeeded in getting others to support the change. She spoke with individuals across the firm, including those more senior to her, peers and subordinates, using both substantive and personal arguments.

Because Anna was perceived as being both knowledgeable and authentic, people listened to her. Several weeks later, the partners voted overwhelmingly to adopt the new proposal. Thereafter, Anna was actively involved in successfully implementing the changes.

Interestingly, Anna proved to have much greater influence within the firm than Bill did, despite his seniority and seeming power. She was a successful change agent as a result of her informal networks within the firm. She had access to information, knowledge, opportunities and personal support and could therefore mobilise others.

Despite the importance of hierarchy, formal authority often matters much less than network centrality – high rank does not necessarily correlate with increased organisational efficacy. People at any level within a law firm who wish to exert influence as change agents need to be strategic in how they seek to utilise influence.

The situation in which Bill and Anna found themselves involved the use of influence and their success depended on their ability to deftly practise the art of influencing. I define influencing as “the ability to lead others outside your control so they make better decisions affecting you and your work”. Influencing, therefore, is a critical leadership competency. The inability to influence those to whom you report, your peers and/or your subordinates can derail your career more quickly than your lack of a particular technical skill.

“Influencing” versus “advocacy” or “authority”

Here is an interesting point in regard to lawyers, who are trained to be advocates and/or negotiators. We know how to frame arguments, make a case, present it in court or elsewhere and be assertive (if not aggressive) when appropriate. You might expect, therefore, that lawyers would naturally be highly-skilled influencers. In my experience, this is often not the case.

In fact, counter-intuitively, your skills as an advocate may get in the way of your ability to influence. Advocacy involves direct and often transparent presentation of arguments, frequently in an adversarial context. Influence has to do with leadership, suggestion, active listening and careful management. It relies heavily on “people skills”, an understanding of human nature and emotional intelligence, capabilities lawyers often do not cultivate in themselves. In fact, as lawyers, we often underestimate the importance of these “soft” skills.

Further, there are significant differences between exercising authority and influencing capabilities. The former can appear in the short term to be an effective tool, but is often a very blunt and transient instrument. The latter is subtle, elegant and can ultimately be more effective and enduring. When stressed, lawyers often instinctively use authority to obtain results, even though the use of influence might be more appropriate. Think about this as you work with peers and direct reports and when you observe how others to whom you report manage you.

Types of influence

Consider first the exercise of internal influence in your workplace. What “unspoken” networks exist behind the scenes, as opposed to the defined lines of power and authority? Whose advice is sought and followed? Whose opinion causes others to change theirs? Who confides in whom? At whom do people look when they make a recommendation?

Identifying these networks, getting feedback from others about how you are seen, and developing relationships with the key players will be critical to your success. Indeed, “personal selling” – selling your views, ideas and self to others, expanding your network of “allies” and successfully negotiating with others both within and outside of your immediate work environment – is essential.

Although having a high level of internal influence at your workplace is important, in today’s turbulent business and legal environment, you would also be well advised to develop external influence and allies. Doing so will enhance your reputation and that of your office, will strengthen your future position and will provide you with greater insight and objectivity. Try to develop an entrepreneurial attitude. Set realistic and achievable goals, monitor these regularly, and expand your network of external allies. For example, schedule one networking luncheon weekly, plan to make four presentations to external groups annually, liaise monthly with both your internal and external key constituents. The cumulative effect of these small but regular actions will be much greater than that of the occasional “big thump” event.

Influencing can be done both formally and informally. Formal influencing is generally done through oral presentations or in writing, both of which require well-developed self-presentation and communication skills. The key with formal influencing is to tailor your presentations to the interests and needs of your audience.

Use a bit of imagination and put yourself into the shoes of your listeners or readers. What are their concerns, interests and goals? What background do they have on your topic? How much detail is it appropriate to provide so they understand critical concepts while not being inundated with data? How formal or informal should the tone of the presentation be? To what extent is it important to establish rapport with the audience versus just transmitting information? How can you best establish such rapport?

Informal influencing depends upon excellent relationship-building skills and the ability to network by connecting people with other people and with new ideas or opportunities. It is helpful, but not essential, for people to like you in the context of informal influencing. That said, informal influencing is most effective when others respect and trust you. Without that, the scope of your influence is likely to be limited and short-lived.

As with other “intangible” skills, some people are naturally gifted with excellent relationship-building skills or networking capabilities and are therefore better informal influencers. However, with some focus, attention and practice, such skills can be perfected by anyone.

Influencing up, across and down

Different skills and approaches are appropriate depending on whether you are influencing someone to whom you report (“influencing up”), a peer (“influencing across”) or someone who reports to you (“influencing down”).

For lawyers, influencing up typically occurs when you report to a partner or someone else more senior than you in a firm or general counsel’s office, to the board of your firm or to a major client. Therefore, sometimes the person(s) whom you want to influence may not be lawyers, so you will need to tailor your approach accordingly.

Pay close attention to your use of technical language, define terms, ask open-ended questions that will let you determine the extent to which your “audience” understands your position, and so forth. Actively listen to how those whom you seek to influence discuss issues (what type of language and approach they use), as this will give you clues about how to structure your formal presentations. Make it clear how your suggestions will add value organisationally – what will the ROI (return on investment) be and how do your suggestions further the work of the firm, etc? You are there to help, even when you have to raise concerns. Be scrupulously and consistently respectful, but do so firmly and self-confidently. Gravitas is critical when you seek to influence up.

When influencing across with your professional peers, you will need to gain their goodwill so they respect and trust you, and hopefully like you as well. Be flexible and good-natured where appropriate, “give until it hurts”, support the success of others, be an excellent team member, and let others know your intentions are positive and benign. I call this “making deposits into the bank of goodwill and social capital”. If you have a healthy deposit on account at this particular bank, when you need to step into the “withdrawal queue” and ask for help from others in achieving your objectives, you will find that influencing across occurs naturally and easily.

The more senior you become in your workplace, the more critical influencing down will become to your long-term success. You may be put in charge of a team of lawyers and other professionals, all of whom will need to collaborate with you to achieve essential outcomes.

Again, goodwill is critical here. Get to know each and every team member, take note of their unique contributions and let them know how highly you value them. This is all part of cultivating and retaining high potential employees, and, as someone who manages other people, you must always be investing in the success of others. It never stops – you will never arrive in this regard, so embrace the journey.

Building loyalty and trust is a key component of influencing down – your team must fully believe that you always “have their backs”. If the work of those you manage is sometimes repetitive and even boring, you would be well-advised to articulate why and how such work is critical to the team’s overall mission and success – what is it that makes even the most pedestrian work meaningful and compelling? A little bit of “creative inspiring” can go a long way in influencing down.

Interestingly, I have noticed that those who work in the not-for-profit sector, such as nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), are often highly skilled in the art of influencing. Because they frequently work with volunteers and donors, over whom they have no authority, they must deftly use influence to obtain results, while avoiding being viewed as manipulative. Perhaps those who work in the business sector can learn something from the not-for-profit sector in this regard. You might want to consider this the next time your firm is designing a leadership development programme or the like for high potentials. What can lawyers learn about influencing while working as volunteers?

Ultimately, influencing (like many other capabilities) truly is an art and not a science. You must rely on your intuition about people and situations to get it right. You must be genuine and honestly motivated by a desire to support the success of others and attain meaningful organisational outcomes. If you do so, I expect your scope of influence will be extensive and robust.

Emily Morrow, BA (Hons), JD (Hons, Juris Doctor), was a lawyer and senior partner with a large firm in Vermont, where she built a premier trusts, estates and tax practice. Having lived and worked in Sydney and Vermont, Ms Morrow now resides in Auckland and provides tailored consulting services for lawyers, in-house counsel and law firms focusing on non-technical skills that correlate with professional success; business development, communication, delegation, self-presentation, leadership, team building/management and the like.

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