Wouldn’t it be great to be able to just tell people what you want and then have them magically do it for you, just the way you want it done?

Unfortunately, life doesn’t usually happen that way.

That’s why being able to use influence is so important for getting things done. And don’t think that when you’re in charge that you can simply wave your wand and command people unilaterally.

That may work if you’re Madonna, Nikki Minaj, or Don Corleone, but it doesn’t work too well in most organizations that revolve around something other than a single “diva”.

Using Soft Power vs Hard Power

Whether we lack the formal authority to mandate outcomes or simply don’t want to resort to using it, this capacity to have an effect on people and results is about using your “soft power” or influence to achieve those outcomes.

It’s about finding a way for others to embrace your ideas and choose to put them into action. Some would say it’s about “selling” your ideas, but I disagree. No one likes to be “sold” something. They prefer to feel like they’ve come to that conclusion themselves. And that’s when they are most likely to act.

The kind of influence we are talking about is the ability to get others to see things in a different way so that they agree to a course of action.

Why is it important?

Influence is a key aspect of leadership and is particularly useful in two settings:

  • When you have the authority, but want to use it sparingly
  • When you are seeking to effect change but don’t have direct authority

When you have formal authority, you can use your “hard power” and order people to do something. Sometimes you just need to flex your muscles and make the command.

However, what you get may be compliance, where people do the minimum to satisfy the command. But you won’t have won their hearts and minds. Compliance may be expedient in the near term, but it won’t get you to widespread and sustainable adoption.

For example, do you like it when your boss orders you to do something versus having it be a request or choice?

When you lack formal authority, you need to use your “soft power”, or influence, to get things done. This is often the case with cross-divisional projects, committees and just plain getting your job done when you are part of a bigger organization.

If you want to be maximally successful in your career, it helps to know how and when to wield both types of power. And that means learning to use your assets – whether it’s money, connections, fame, family name, or passion about a particular topic.

Who does this well?

  • Most children: Most of us had some adult wrapped around our finger. Kids seem to know just how to get treats from their favorite aunt or uncle, or to bargain with parents for extra privileges like staying up late on a “special occasion”.
  • Diplomats: Ambassadors and other diplomats have little or no formal authority over the nations with which they are the link. Yet, they do find ways to achieve results through influence.
  • Bono: He’s “just” a musician. But he has parlayed that into much more and mixes in lofty circles. He’s punching above his weight. The same goes for others with a following, such as Angelina Jolie, who are leveraging that to influence change in the world.
  • Malala Yousafzai: She stood up for her beliefs and is making huge waves across the world through her passion and story.

So, how do you develop the capacity to influence outcomes for yourself, your family, your team, your organization, your sector, and the world?

Bring something to the table

To have influence, you need to bring something to the table. You need to have some combination of assets that combine to give you clout.

It also helps if you come from a mindset that’s “pure” and not just self-interested because it’s hard to get people on board if they think you’re only in it for yourself and there’s nothing in it for them.

With that in mind, here are four steps to increasing your influence.

1. Identify your sources of influence

These are the sources of your “soft power”, the assets you have and can draw on. Be conscious of and nurture these as they will serve you well.

Relationship assets

  • Your connections – people you know, people who know you
  • Your tribe/followers – when you represent a larger constituency, then people will pay more attention
  • Your knowledge and expertise – what do you know that others would find valuable and make them want to know you?

Personal assets

  • Your force of personality/charisma/ personal appeal
  • Your character
  • Your passion/beliefs/willingness to go the extra mile/enthusiasm – never underestimate the power of even one highly committed person
  • Your thought leadership
  • Your wealth
  • Your energy

Professional assets

  • Your ability to get things done
  • Your reputation/track record
  • Your platform – do you have a stage that gives you the right or excuse to engage in that line of dialogue? Can you invite others to present on your stage and create an opportunity for collaboration?
  • Your earning power

2. Decide which outcomes you want to influence

  • In your career: Your promotion, recognition, compensation, assignments
  • With your team: Productivity, motivation, teamwork, assignments, recruiting, retention, development
  • Across your organization: Policies, products, services, client base, culture, future direction
  • Within your sector: Future direction, collaborations and partnerships

3. Determine where you can best apply your influence

  • Read the lay of the land to see where you can truly move the needle – what’s the most receptive entry point for making your difference?
  • And in some cases, you will be the beachhead, laying the ground for others who follow – like Rosa Parks who sparked the equal rights movement in the U.S.

4. Continue to invest in your influence

  • Join forces with other influencers – especially those who are complementary to you. Forming connections will help you become even more influential.
  • Build an external “fan base” of people who know and respect you
  • Get involved in areas outside of your direct role and make connections, build relationships, and become a connector or bridge between your group and adjacent groups and beyond
  • Help others who are in need
  • Give wise and thoughtful counsel
  • Get to know other areas of your Company and/or sector. This knowledge will help you be more able to connect the dots, synthesize, spot opportunities, and add value.
  • Offer other people opportunities to shine – for example, if you’re putting on a client conference, invite people to speak – they'll love the chance for greater visibility and be more inclined to repay the favor
  • Don’t sabotage yourself – it's the figurative version of “stop making people “eat their spinach’ ”. If you’ve ever tried “making” a 5-year old eat spinach, you’ll know it’s virtually impossible without their cooperation. The more often you attempt the impossible, the higher their defenses will rise when you come around and the less respect they will have for you.

What factors help you gain influence?

When I took on the role of leading a cross-divisional business initiative, I had no formal authority or power but needed to gain the cooperation of groups who were competing with each other. It was about using influence and persuasion rather than command and control.

Here’s what gave me the influence to make it work:

  • Not taking credit for the success of the divisional collaborators – that would mean competing with the very people we were trying to co-opt
  • Making it easy for people to participate
  • Adding value to them personally
  • Identifying a common goal and having them see and embrace the broader mission
  • Never making anyone do anything they didn’t want to do by positioning everything in the context of the agreed-upon common goal
  • Utilizing my relationships and connections, including the ability to make people look good (or not!) with senior management
  • Knowing that if it came to it, I would have the backing of senior management

So, do you know your sources of influence, and how are you applying them?