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The Subtle Art of Influence

In an increasingly collaborative and connected world, success depends more than ever on building your influence.
photo by Brenda Gottsabend
photo by Brenda Gottsabend

77 percent of employees prefer a leader who gives them the resources they need to get things done, rather than one who simply strives to be “inspirational.”

A CFO persuades a highly regarded controller to leave a comfortable job and join her company. A department head inspires his team to put in the extra effort needed to make a seemingly impossible deadline. A company strikes a deal with a key supplier to jointly expand into an emerging market.

In these examples and scores like them, the factor that often spells the difference between success and failure is “strategic influence.” It’s a concept that originated in the military, to describe one country’s ability to shape another country’s actions and policies. In that sphere, influence largely equates to power. As the term has migrated into the business world, however, its definition has altered. Today, an executive’s strategic influence is not nearly as dependent on authority as it is on integrity, and on the strong ties forged with people inside and outside the organization who respect that executive’s knowledge and point of view and respond positively to them.

Strategic influence is quickly becoming a critical skill because the nature of work is changing: success now depends on the ability to collaborate with all parts of the organization and to manage a web of connections that spans the broader business community. It begins with networking, progresses to relationship building, and culminates in a strong bond characterized by a high level of trust and respect, to the point where the person values your opinion over most others.

Strategic influence is, in a sense, the tangible outcome of many behaviors that senior business leaders are routinely encouraged to practice, from fostering a culture of transparency and accountability to developing their top talent and recognizing outstanding performance.

Stay Connected

The first step in growing your strategic influence is to make time for it, which is not easy. Building relationships and cultivating networks is an important activity, but usually not one that people tend to prioritize. Even a brief amount of time devoted to it each day, however, whether spent making a quick phone call, sending a friendly email, or having unhurried face time with a colleague you don’t talk to very often can make a huge difference.

You can’t network with everyone, of course, and some contacts are more important to nurture than others—even if you can’t always be sure which ones those will prove to be. Think strategically about whom you’d like to forge stronger ties with and why. Consider what their concerns and priorities might be, and where you have common ground, a shared interest, or the opportunity to help each other.

It’s also important to think beyond the boundaries of your own company. Attend conferences, meetings of professional associations, or other events with an eye toward making contacts that can progress to strong relationships and ultimately to an expanded sphere of influence.

It’s Not (Always) About You

Whether it’s a hallway chat with a co-worker or a meeting of fellow CEOs, face time is an essential component of building stronger connections to the people you need to influence. To elevate the relationship to that level, focus on three activities: listening, offering help, and building trust. Try to see things from their point of view, and look for common ground and opportunities to share each other’s expertise.

The strongest bond you can forge with a colleague, client, or any business contact is respect, which is borne of trust. And that often hinges on how reliably you deliver on what you promise. One consultant dubs it the “say/do ratio”: the more often you deliver on a promise, the more strategic influence you will accrue. In other words, strategic influence is not a measure of your popularity but of your credibility, your authority, your reputation, and your ability to inspire others.

Making those traits known to others often depends on strong communications skills, a fact that senior executives sometimes overlook. Many senior executives mistakenly believe that if they communicate a message once, that should suffice. In fact, there is tremendous value in repeating important messages through a variety of channels, to make sure all employees truly hear it and understand it. The more readily people within your company — and outside it, as well — know what you’re doing and why, and how that squares with your past statements and actions, the more likely you will gain influence.

Communication goes both ways. It is also critical to listen carefully and to keep an open mind. Disagreements are inevitable, but they present an opportunity to ask another person to explain his or her point of view or decision in more detail. You may ultimately be convinced. Even if you aren’t, by having a dialogue you have seized an opportunity to strengthen your relationship.

Not all of your efforts at relationship building will result in greater strategic influence, but the important thing is to focus on it more than you’re probably doing now. The margin for error in today’s ever-more-interconnected business world is small. The difference between good and great is small. Developing a greater level of strategic influence and encouraging the rest of the organization to do the same can make all the difference.


This article is adapted from "The Art of Strategic Influence," part of the Action Resource Series produced by GE Capital in conjunction with The Build Network. For more, download the free Access GE app, available here.

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