In a previous essay on the importance of gaining influence in your career, we highlighted the power of the symbolism and veracity in the song “The Room Where It Happens” in the popular musical Hamilton. Aaron Burr sings that song as he contemplates the disparity between the incredible power of Alexander Hamilton being in the decision-making room with his own feelings of powerlessness from being excluded. The song occurs as key decisions are being made about the establishment of America’s young republic -- decisions that clearly benefit Hamilton’s agenda, while Burr is simply disregarded.
We can all relate to the helpless feeling of looking in from the outside of the metaphorical, and sometimes real, room. We have all felt hopeless after being impacted by decisions made by other people that directly or indirectly affect our work, with little potential to influence those decisions.
In fact, that is a particularly acute issue for early-stage professionals. Many of the mentees with whom we work bemoan their lack of influence and struggle with the challenge of how to gain influence in their budding careers. They clearly understand the need to influence decisions but express a lack of understanding how to do so. They are perplexed that hard work doesn’t seem to get them the influence they desire.
We’ve contemplated these seemingly simple yet complex issues, reflecting on our combined 60 years of leadership in higher education. How does a new professional legitimately gain influence? What are the strategies and tactics to earn a seat at the decision-making table? And how do motivated new leaders advance their own desire to gain influence while not venturing into pure self-promotion or manipulation?
We both agreed that simply preparing a well-crafted, pithy elevator pitch in hopes of sharing it in a serendipitous encounter with a member of the upper leadership is not the answer. Rather, we believe gaining real and deep influence requires a long-term and intentional career plan. Influence tactics, undertaken for pure self-promotion, will backfire. Influence must be earned, as other people perceive your positive intent to contribute to the organization over the long haul.
Strategies to Earn Influence
In our previous article, we shared some of the key principles of influence that Robert Cialdini outlined in his seminal work, Influence: Science and Practice. In this piece, we will provide specific strategies and tactics to enable relatively new professionals to implement several of those universal principles. We will offer concrete and pragmatic advice to help newer professionals gain influence, including specific real-life examples from our individual careers. (Where we say “I,” note that it could be an example from either of our careers.)
Some of the most relevant principles of influence that Cialdini listed include:
Reciprocity: the tendency for individuals to repay what another has provided at an earlier time. You should work hard to support other people’s projects and to advance initiatives, processes and policies to benefit other organizational units outside your own line of management. They will be more likely to support you in return. For example, early in my career, I cultivated a large philanthropic gift to establish a universitywide center for entrepreneurship, which also enabled the business college to expedite its development of a new minor in entrepreneurship.
You should also ensure that your administrative unit’s priorities and your individual work aligns with and adds significant value to key strategic priorities at your institution. If you add value to others’ work, they are more likely to provide value to yours. For example, I have always made it a practice to become familiar with my colleagues’ specific strategic plans to enable my team to align our work with my colleagues’ strategic priorities.
In addition, share your gratitude. Write handwritten thank-you notes to key leaders for any assistance they have provided with a project, for including you in a professional development activity or for offering any other professional opportunities. Your true gratitude makes others more likely to provide you with more such opportunities.
When appropriate, give people positive feedback. Publicly compliment and authentically support key leaders and your colleagues' work and successes. They may reciprocate and learn more about your work.
Commitment and consistency: the tendency for individuals to remain consistent with what they have committed to. You can start by documenting decisions and commitments. For example, immediately after a meeting or conversation, write a follow-up summary or email outlining for appropriate senior leaders any agreed-upon issues or initiatives. Respectfully record what they committed to doing, as well as the work you will do in return.
You should also try to help solve vexing university problems within your control. We recommend thoughtfully creating small yet impactful pilot proposals with well-articulated goals and outcomes and a solid business case. Once an institutional leader commits to a small project, he is more likely to commit to any larger ones that you suggest later.
It’s also important to make other people aware of your professional aspirations. Thoughtfully identify strategic mentors both inside and outside your institution and ask for their help becoming more influential. Let them know your goals and interests, and ask them to commit to helping you gain key assignments, projects and seats on committees. For example, one of my recent professional positions, which got me in the room, was directly attributed to being nominated by my well-regarded mentor.
Liking: the tendency for individuals to say yes to those they know and like. Be sure to make connections broadly across the campus. Have lunch with colleagues from a different unit each week or month and let them know what you are working on. Offer to help them, as well. For example, when I was in a previous position, my team conducted annual dean walks to meet with each college leadership team and identify areas of potential collaboration.
Always avoid being an obstructionist or labeled “difficult to work with.” That doesn’t mean being a doormat -- it means being respectful, thoughtful and helpful, even when you disagree with a colleague.
Offer to help and volunteer to participate on task forces and committees so that other people get to know and value your work. For example, offer to take meeting minutes. Your colleagues will appreciate it and recognize your leadership, which will also allow you to add your lens to the outcomes of the meeting, as well as to engage your colleagues as you ensure the accuracy of your minutes. Be a quality doer: one of those colleagues who get things done -- and well.
Social proof: the tendency for individuals to look to others for validation of their choices. Gain buy-in by vetting new initiatives with key influential leaders before you advance ideas up to senior leadership -- realizing that senior leaders often ask peers for their views when making a decision. In short, manage up. For example, one of my supervisors frequently determined his support for a proposal based upon which deans had already approved of my proposed project. Thus, I always made sure to engender concrete support from key leaders before I approached my supervisor with requests for a pilot project or a new initiative.
You can also offer to create a new group or task force to address key emerging issues and, in fact, create the room where it happens. Identify key organizational issues and offer to write short thought papers to share with your supervisor to help solve a significant problem she is facing.
Scarcity: the tendency for individuals to value what is less available. One helpful approach is to thoroughly understand university policies and procedures and then share them with other people who need that information.
You should also develop distinctive skills and become the go-to person for expertise in a critical area. For example, over a decade ago, while leading a nascent online program, I led a very business-oriented team that marshaled marketing strategies that were then far more common in the corporate sector than in higher education -- including, for instance, a customer resource management system, search engine optimization, analytics, B2B marketing, market research and market segmentation, among other practices. Over time, undergraduate admissions and many colleges adopted or used our resources.
Show them the money. If possible, provide discretionary revenue, always rather scarce in a university setting, to advance colleagues’ priorities.
Finally, build external validation. Consider creating an external advisory board for your organizational unit, with representatives from key business and governmental organizations with whom other university leaders want to engage.
In sum, earning influence is a long-term career strategy, and you must pursue it with intentionality. What strategies or tactics do you use to gain influence? We hope you will join the conversation.