Full text of author Ron Carucci’s talk: “The Secret to Having Influence” at TEDxBeaconStreet conference.
In some form or other, we all imagine being people of lasting influence.
So how many of you have ever picked up the hairbrush in the morning while getting ready, and into it, belted out the song playing on the radio? Come on, said the words- I’d like to thank the Academy. Banked over on your cocktail table as the gold medal got put on your neck to you streaming down your face as your flag unfurled.
Of course we’ve all done these things. If you didn’t raise your hand we know the truth.
But why do we do them? Because we’re a closet megalomaniacs with delusions of grandeur? No, well maybe you are but that’s not evidence of it.
No, we do these things because we all come wired with the capacity to imagine our lives as something more.
As organizational consultants to executives my colleagues and I at Navalent, spends our days in the throes of wild organizational transformations.
Years ago, I had the privilege of working with a young leader who also had dreams of being very influential. Everybody saw him as having enormous potential and at the end of our project, he was offered the opportunity to take on a position of greater influence in his organization.
Well nobody was surprised everybody thought, assumed he’d be very successful. About nine months later I saw his name in my caller ID and I was excited. I assumed he was calling to tell me about all the great progress they had made.
Sadly, he was calling to tell me he’d been fired. And that he needed help finding another job.
Well I barely had time to recover from that call, when two hours later, the CEO called also to tell me they let him go. And that he was angry implying that some of the responsibility for his failure was mine, for not having better prepared him.
I was devastated. I asked if we might come back into the organization to see if he could learn what went wrong.
Well that short investigation led us to a ten-year longitudinal study of more than 2700 people. We’ve known for decades, that more than 50% of those that take on positions of greater influence in their organizations fail in their first 18 months. Meaning they’re no longer in those positions and not by their own choice.
That leader was just another statistic. Well, being partially held responsible for his failure made me resolve, we just had to do better.
We took on this comprehensive study and documented it. Because the idea of otherwise promising and influential talent continuing to be set up to fail. The notion of all the good their influence could do, going to waste, felt utterly unacceptable.
Well our research did reveal some good news. The data uncovered four remarkably consistent patterns. Among the exemplary people in the other 50% of those that actually succeeded in positions of influence.
The problem was, no matter how we cut up the data, even after like a hundred regression analyses, the best influences were set apart by being exemplary and excellent across all four patterns.
And as much as I didn’t want to have to say that I couldn’t deny the data. It did have partially explained some of the failure rates even those that did three of the four well, were not successful.
But the best news of all was a closer examination of the exemplar group, show that these were in four mysterious attributes that they were lucky enough to have been born with. No, these were four capabilities acquired through hard work. And they are four capabilities that anybody who wants to have greater influence can learn.
So the first pattern we called CONTEXT.
These folks were remarkably astute at reading the environment around them. As the adage goes, they knew their audience deeply. They were eager to learn about the people and settings in which they wanted to have influence. So they could adapt themselves and their ideas accordingly.
The unsuccessful leaders started by assuming they already had an answer or an idea everybody else needed. But the successful leader, started by first learning about the world that they wanted to have impact in.
Context means understanding that those you want to have influence with, have as much to change in you as you have to change in them.
So how do the best leaders learn to read context so well?
They cultivated curiosity. They put themselves in unfamiliar environments, where they had to learn. They became naturally fascinated like anthropologists.
Think about the people you want to have influence with. How much do you really know about them? About what frustrates them or what motivates them. What assumptions have you made about them that may not be true? To be influential with context, start by learning about those you want to influence.
The next pattern we called BREADTH.
The successful leaders have the amazing capacity to see how all the pieces and parts of their organizations fit together. They knew, that those they wanted to influence fit into a bigger story. They also knew that it’s common in organizations for people to be fragmented from one another.
The unsuccessful leaders ignore that fragmentation, and targeted their influence so exclusively on one group at the expense of others, sometimes they made the division worse.
But the successful leaders knew they had to build coalition among those that were disconnected from each other. They knew that it’s really at the seams of an organization where people in groups come together that transformation actually happens.
Breadth means learning to see our communities and our organizations as a whole, not just the sum of their parts.
So how do the exemplary leaders learn breadth?
They cultivated the ability to build bridges between people. One guy in our study who’d risen to the position of school district superintendent inherited great tensions among parents and teachers at administrators. But he helped them find their common ground. They first found out where there was fragmentation among them and then they brought those fragments together.
To be influential with breadth, start by stitching the seams among those you want to influence.
The next pattern we called CHOICE.
The successful 50% had the courage to make hard choices, even though they knew that sometimes that might mean disappointing people. They knew that sometimes you have to focus people on just a few things in order to help them have lasting impact.
The unsuccessful leaders focus more on pleasing people. So they said yes too often. And ended up confusing people with their choices. But the best influencers knew when and how to include people in their decision making.
Choice means narrowing your focus on just a few things in order to be able to do them with excellence.