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How to Become a Person of Influence

Cultivating your influence skills can benefit your career, your lab, and the business as a whole

Sherri L. Bassner, PhD

“A person of influence” can mean different things. This phrase can refer to a “thought leader,” someone considered a leading expert in an area whose opinions strongly shape the thinking of others. A person of influence can also be someone in a senior or other position that holds sway over the direction of many people. For the purposes of this article, “a person of influence” is used in the broadest concept—someone who can impact and change the thinking of others. It is important for everyone, regardless of their seniority, to understand the value of influence, the difficulties that may arise when trying to influence others, and how one can develop their own influence skills.

Many employees labor under the fallacy that once they become a manager, they will finally have the authority to do what they want without the need to get “permission” from others. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even the CEO of the company must answer to the board of directors, who in turn must answer to company shareholders. As such, authority only goes so far. Influence is critical in gaining support laterally as well as commitment to resources from outside of your direct sphere of control. Advancement of your ideas and thus your career are dependent upon your ability to influence those above you in the hierarchy regarding the worthiness and impact of your ideas and accomplishments. Even within your own organization, direct authority goes only so far in motivating staff. Your goal as lab manager should be to convince lab personnel of the value of their efforts to the business, tapping into their desire to put in that little extra effort that will make all the difference between a good lab and a great one.

Building relationships outside of the lab

Even those who understand the value of influence often find the skill difficult to develop. There are several reasons this might be the case. In a scientific environment, this difficulty is partly connected to the meritocratic characteristics of science in general. As scientists, we have the tendency to believe that a good idea will always be supported on its merits alone, without needing to sell it. The faulty assumption in that thinking is that all involved will take the time to fully understand your idea and see those merits. Think of influence not so much as selling as it is teaching—explaining your ideas in a context that the recipient can absorb. Additionally, many feel that influencing others can be seen as manipulative and disingenuous. (Below, we will discuss how to avoid that trap.) Finally, influencing others can be plain uncomfortable, similar to networking.

Becoming an effective influencer begins with learning how to communicate well with non-scientists, since many of those you will need to influence will be outside of the lab. The lab is your world, one you understand and see as critical to the success of the business. Your goal is to explain the contributions of the lab to those who don’t understand it as well as you do. To do this, you must be able to explain the lab to those in other functions in the context of their role. To do that effectively, you must understand those other functions well. If you want the finance director to understand the lab, for example, then you must first understand finance—how the lab fits into the overall success formula for the business. How do the finance or, sales or manufacturing groups depend on the lab? How does the lab depend on those functions? Learn to “speak the language” of the other functions and understand those managers’ pain points. Then articulate how supporting you addresses those pain points. Note that this technique is valuable within the lab as well. Everyone has different responsibilities and pain points. The better you understand them, the better you can describe your need within their context.

Remember that effective influencing requires preparation. If your goal is to gain support for a particular proposal, think through who needs to sign off and who needs to contribute resources, dollars, information, or access. The more time you have spent getting to know the daily needs of those from whom you need to gain support, the better you will be able to articulate why and how supporting your proposal will help them achieve their own goals. While the daily demands of managing a lab can easily consume all your time, you must prioritize your efforts to understand other functions and those who run them. This networking is part of your job because it makes you a more effective influencer.

Challenges to becoming an influential member of the lab

Even those who are well-acquainted with the other functions in the business and the managers who run them can struggle with influence. A primary reason is not taking the time to fully form a proposal before approaching others for support. Do your homework, even going as far as writing up a proposal that details the idea and the support you will need. Be your own worst critic. Put yourself in the shoes of the person you will be approaching and use your knowledge of their role and their pain points to poke holes in your arguments. You rarely get more than one chance to gain someone’s support for a proposal. If your idea is in the early stages and you are looking for feedback, be upfront about that. And if those from whom you seek support provide input, be prepared to use it and to share credit.

Another reason people can struggle with influence is authenticity. Some shy away from influence because it can be seen as manipulative and self-serving. If this is how you approach influence, then this is how it will be perceived. If you are only asking for support for your needs without being able to realistically describe how the proposal benefits the person you are trying to influence, there is little chance for support. If you can’t honestly articulate how support for you benefits the business and that other function, then you shouldn’t be asking for their support. Finally, remember the importance of reciprocity. Looks for ways of supporting others when it makes sense. If you are always asking and never giving, you will soon lose the support of others. Keep your eye on what will help the overall business and help those people and ideas.

Influence skills are important whether you are an individual contributor, manager, or executive. For the lab manager, the investment in time and energy placed on understanding the overall business and how the other functions work is critical to developing those influence skills. Be curious about the business and build proposals with that knowledge in mind. Your influence goals will be achievable if you can describe your ideas in a way that others see the benefits to them and the business as a whole.