Some people seem like they were born to excel. They’re gifted physically, intellectually or artistically, and it appears as if they just float to the top.
But don’t be fooled. However gifted someone may be, he or she still had to develop those talents to achieve a lofty professional position. And that’s good news for the rest of us. Each one of us has our own skills and talents, and we too can develop them and propel ourselves into positions of influence.
Here are seven ways to enhance those talents:
1. Develop your critical decision-making skills.
Decision-making is a top leadership competency because it pops up everywhere, from the simple choice of where to hold a staff meeting to the strategic options of where to spend marketing dollars. These decisions impact the people in the next cubicle, but they may also affect a subsidiary halfway across the globe or an entire country.
Decisiveness is not a trait we’re born with -- it’s a skill that can be learned. To master it, analyze your process of critical decision-making to spot weak links in your reasoning and to recognize unconscious biases for or against something or someone. While we can’t control outcomes, we can shape the process that sets them in motion.
2. Learn to make a solid argument.
You may never address the United Nations Security Council or testify before Congress, but everyone should be able to put together a coherent argument. That skill is critically and frequently useful -- in high-stakes conversations, in presentations, in question-and-answer sessions and in other discussions with decision-makers or anyone else who represents a certain viewpoint or asks you to explain yours.
To argue means to give reasons. It means defending and promoting your choices against the contrary arguments of equally adept influencers. Take what you’ve learned in school and build on that base with private instruction and directed reading on the relevant subject. You’ll find that your ability to think critically and analyze others’ arguments will dramatically increase your influence on their choices.
3. Become a storyteller.
Storytelling has been a premier tool in influencing people across cultures and eras. Influencers tell stories for strategic purposes. From motivating people to act, to teaching, to reducing resistance and changing minds, a well-told narrative is a formidable force, often far more powerful than the mere recitation of complex financial or technical facts.
Numbers and figures are important, but when it comes to showing their relationship to any issue, large or small, a strategic narrative wrapped around the digits will deliver the message better and more memorably than anything else.
After you master the data, ask yourself: Is there a way to put a human face on my message? Are there real-life examples that will help me make my point in a way others can relate to?
4. Hone your speaking skills.
When many of us think of influential people, we often think of those who were great speakers, such as John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Steve Jobs, as well as contemporaries such as Michelle Obama and Sheryl Sandberg. While many influencers operate effectively behind the scenes, those with the ability, the drive and the courage to speak persuasively have an additional source of powerful leverage.
Like decision-making skills, speaking skills are in high demand. Every day in myriad organizations, corporations and schools, vast numbers of presenters strive to capture the imaginations of workers and executives and students in order to drive an agenda forward. Yet many people fear speaking in public, giving in to a panic that closes a heavy door on a fast track to success and influence.
Do not shy away from speaking opportunities. Hone your message and delivery skill by repeatedly putting yourself in front of an audience, gather feedback, make adjustments, rinse and repeat. Summon the courage to speak and accept discomfort as a natural part of learning and growing. Start in smaller settings first, and then build up from there. There’s no limit to where your influence can grow with this skill.
5. Have a basic understanding of current events.
You can’t have an intelligent conversation with your peers and clients if you’re stumped when faced with everyday topics such as the election, taxes, budget deficits, interest rates, markets, unemployment, economic instability in China and the meaning of all these things to the average citizen. You don’t need to be an expert on these topics, but you do need a basic understanding of them.
Influence is about shaping opinion, and embarrassing holes in everyday knowledge -- the kind that force you to awkwardly steer conversations into friendlier waters -- can significantly dampen your 360-degree influencing efforts. To fill these gaps, set aside a particular time each day to learn what’s in the news. Make it a daily habit. It will require no more than 20 minutes.
Test your knowledge and wit by engaging friends and colleagues in the salient topics of the day and see how far you get and whether you’re able to make a well-informed point that you can back up. It’s a low-risk strategy that allows you to gather feedback in real time with the opportunity to fill gaps just as quickly, with hundreds of news sources just a few clicks away on your smartphone.
Build your knowledge incrementally and notice how others will start coming to you for information, which is, after all, a major source of influence.
6. Think like a leader.
Influence is most obvious when it happens at the front of the pack. While influence can arise from any position, it is also from a position of leadership that it can make the most impact.
The most successful companies develop their high-potential leaders from within. If you’re lucky enough to work for a leadership-development powerhouse such as GE, IBM or P&G, you’ve got it made, because everyone else is going to woo you to come on board with them and practice what you’ve learned.
If you don’t work for one of those great firms, if your company simply doesn’t have the resources or if you’re just out of school, volunteer to head up something such as a community project, a fundraiser or anything where you can test your mettle for making difficult decisions, setting strategy and motivating people toward a goal while keeping an eye on available resources.
Volunteering is an excellent start for leadership training, as is mentoring others and helping them achieve their goals. The number-one leadership rule to keep in mind: help others become successful! Your altruistic efforts are sure to influence decision-makers around you to pencil you in for a bigger job when the opportunity comes along.
7. Understand communication technology.
It’s the 21st century, and even 5 year olds know about Twitter, Facebook and the latest multimedia platforms. Social media have secured a big foothold and they’re here to stay. If you don’t have an ongoing online dialogue with your customers or if you need a 19 year old to show you the ropes every time you log on to your website’s forum, you’re behind.
Business is online, and customers and recruiters are looking for you to be present. Google yourself right now, and if the search produces 25 other people with your name -- but not you -- it’s time to dive in headfirst. For the majority of people with whom you’ll come in contact, your reputation and perceived influence start with what they can find about you on the Internet.
Each individual, even those gifted people who seem to float easily to corporate heights, need to work on the skills that enable and enhance influence. If you develop these competencies, you will watch your influence soar.
This column was adapted from my bestselling book 360 Degrees of Influence: Get Everyone to Follow Your Lead on Your Way to The Top (McGraw-Hill, 2012).