When you are mid-career looking to climb to the next level in your career, there is one thing you think about often. How can I become more influential among senior leaders?
The common mistake most professionals make is assuming that influence is synonymous with gregariousness and schmoozing. That you have to be way up in the organizational food chain to have any sway of influence. This often become a block in any attempt to gain more influence.
Anyone can up their influence with senior leaders; however, it takes some practice and approaching day-to-day conversations differently.
Nick Morgan, the author of Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact, defines influence as taking charge and understanding the roles that positional power, emotion, expertise and nonverbal signals play.
I will take it further by saying that influence is about earning the right to be heard. This implies that you first have to give respect in order for your advice to be received and listened to.
Through my own professional experience, in-depth research, and the work that I do with high-achieving mid-career professionals I noticed that there are three key things to do in order grow your influence with senior leaders.
Ask powerful, open-ended questions. Senior leaders spend a great deal of time solving problems and trying to make this better. This often engages the left brain, which is more logic and problem-solving oriented. As a direct report you can engage your bosses to tap into his more right, creative brain by asking powerful, open ended questions.
Questions that begin with ‘What’, “When’, ‘Where’, ‘How’ and sometimes ‘Why’ activates this more creative part of the brain.
Michael Bungay Stanier, author of the The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More and Change the Way you lead Forever, sees asking open-ended questions as a powerful leadership trait that eliminates over-dependence, increases respect and activates a greater sense of productivity.
Engage in third-degree listening. Effective listening is one of the most important gateway into building influence with anyone. It's also underused in relationships today. Think about it, have you ever been in a conversation where you felt that someone truly listened to what you had to say? You got the distinct sense that they understood exactly what you were feeling and had no agenda other than to be in the moment with you.
There is a very high chance that you developed an enormous amount of respect for that person.
One of my favorite thinkers on building trust, Charles H. Green in his book the Trusted Advisor, made a powerful case when he expressed that reciprocity is an important driver of influence. That it’s about doing a better job at listening, not a better job at making you care. Imagine the amount of relationship capital you can build by simplifying giving your boss a true listening ear next time you have a conversation. Here are three tips to improve your third-degree listening skills:
Be present. This simply means being there in the moment in the conversation. It means focusing on what is being expressed to you as opposed to thinking about what you are going to have for lunch.
Listen for what is said as well as what is not being said. In other words, tune into the actual rational information coming out as well as focus on the tone, body language and feelings behind what is being.
Briefly put yourself in your boss’s shoes. Once you hear what is being said, and you tune in to what is not being said, try to imagine yourself in your boss’s shoes for a moment. Then mirror back what you heard and the feeling that came up for you. Experts call this empathetic listening.
This may sound something like this:
Your boss: I just finished the presentation to senior management on our next quarter marketing campaign launch after weeks of planning, and Gary our CFO, is finally giving the green light on additional $2 million we asked for.
You (after listening and processing): Congratulations boss! That’s really great news as this will finally get your vision into action. Given how important this is to you, it must be a huge weight off your shoulder; especially after having to go through the rounds with Gary who initially didn’t seem to buy into the project.
Challenge from a place of curiosity, expertise and respect. This is a bold move; however, it’s one that earns you respect with your bosses. The higher you climb up the organizational food chain, the less likely you are to be challenged. Consider this approach as a gift to your bosses to envision even more possibilities.
To challenge, you want to do so curiously and with respect. You may even want to leverage your own expertise in doing so. Using phrases such as ‘What if’, ‘Yes and’..., ‘How might we’ or starting off with ‘I am curious, what if we were to approach that another way?’ are effective ways to challenge without coming off as disrespectful
Here is an example of how you might challenge your VP in a conversation:
Your VP says: There’s no way we are going to meet our sales target this month. Amy has been out sick for the last 2 weeks, and I just don’t know what’s going on with Edward since lately.
You might say: You might be right about that. I am curious: what if we were to approach this differently? When I was at Patten & Block we had a similar challenge. We decided that for the five most seasoned sales managers on our team, we would each prioritize two big clients and go after them with all got that month. It was hard work, but we ended signing 3 of those big clients and upped our target by 20% that month.
Growing your influence is not as hard as you may think. It starts with the way you approach your daily conversations. You want to earn the right for your advice to be taken seriously. This starts with asking powerful open-ended questions, listening empathetically and when given opportunities, respectfully challenge your bosses drawing on your curiosity and expertise.