o you want to have influence? Most people would say, "Of course!" Having influence means being remembered, being asked in on decisions and strategy well before the strategies are selected and the decisions need to be made. Those with influence make an impact on their organizations and the larger world and can advance more rapidly in their careers.
Here's a test of your current level of influence in your organization. Do people hold up meetings, waiting for you to arrive to make important contributions or interpretations of current events? Do people remember what you say and perhaps quote you in other places and venues? Do people tell your stories and share your lessons as though those stories belong to them? Do people learn things from you that they acknowledge to you and remark about to others? Do others seek out your opinion and ideas or share their agendas and beliefs with you in the hope of influencing you to influence the behavior of others more senior than you?
Regardless of how you answer those questions, one of the realities of corporate life is that there is only so much face time, airtime, meeting time, and thinking time available to those who lead organizations. You can have influence only to the extent that people take time out of their busy days to listen to you and pay attention to your advice. There is an art to giving advice, as I have discovered.
For more than 30 years, I have advised top executives facing issues ranging from media-initiated investigations to product recalls and plant closings, from ethics failures and criminal litigation to corporate takeovers and serious executive malfeasance. My job is always to help these individuals, and those they rely on, to recognize the nature of the times, and to adapt effectively to continue running organizations with championship, leadership, compassion, and accountability.
Do people hold up meetings, waiting for you to arrive?
Over the years, I have learned a lot of lessons about working CEOs, boards, and senior executives, which I detail in my new book, Why Should the Boss Listen to You? The Seven Disciplines of the Trusted Strategic Advisor. In this article, I want to focus on the art of giving advice.
Your advice may be perceptive, even wise, but if it falls on deaf ears, it helps no one. Beyond the actual quality of your advice, how you communicate that advice plays a major role in ensuring that others can and will listen to it and act on it. The six approaches suggested here can help achieve this goal.
In business conversation, when someone says something with which you disagree, you may be inclined to respond with something like, "You're wrong," or "That's incorrect," or "You don't know what you're talking about," or "It's simply not done that way," or some similar negative approach. You may then explain what is correct or how you really do things, but your listener is still dealing with the insult of your negative language. This makes it almost impossible to hear your constructive language. Negative comments almost always put others on the defensive even though we have important, positive, constructive things to say.
"The Bad News Eradicator" is an exercise I do with clients in which I present a list of common negative phrases and then turn them into positives. Here is small sample of the negative-to-positive transformations:
The lesson is this: Your use of negative language needlessly obstructs and damages your relationship with other people. Eradicate or eliminate negative and emotional words and you become far more powerful and in control of almost any situation. Your positive approach blocks or defeats those who are negative. Most arguments, misunderstandings, confusion, and aggressive behavior are triggered by negative words, phrases, and attitudes. In situations of confrontation and controversy, at least one side of the argument needs the negativity of the other to continue operating effectively and pushing the argument forward. Eliminate that negative energy, and progress can actually be made, or a more peaceful resolution can be sought.
As a teaching and change technique, criticism leads to very bad results. The people you advise are hurt or confused. Often negative advice leads to even more negative behavior. "Constructive criticism" is an oxymoron. Angry, negative language generates a future with angry, negative people. Positive outcomes require positive language.
Here's an example: Recently a friend called. She was in charge of evaluating the performance of the new minister in her church after a year's service. She put together a brief letter to members of the congregation asking that they provide some criticism. I believe she used the words "constructive criticism" of the minister's performance. She mailed 700 copies. She received more than 500 responses, each of which contained an average of three comments. Some contained even more.
As a teaching and change technique, criticism leads to very bad results.
The feedback was devastating. If you added up all the criticism, there was no way this minister could possibly continue in the job and survive emotionally. Most of the criticisms were negatives; many reflected individual misunderstandings, and virtually none reflected knowledge of the scope of the congregation's mission or the daily activities required of the minister as the congregation's leader. My friend's problem was, of course, that she had to share this information with the minister. If she didn't have something else worked out, he would undoubtedly resign. Even though the congregation really liked this man and wanted him to stay, even a minister could not withstand this level of personal criticism.
I told her about a lesson I learned early in my career from Chester Burger, now retired, who was one of America's most famous, beloved, and influential business communications consultants for many decades. Rather than criticizing past performance, his strategy, which I've followed for years, was to ask each client executive to make one positive and constructive suggestion about what that executive might do to achieve the goals of the organization. The application of this technique is incredibly powerful.
My friend did go back and use this technique. She wrote a simple note to congregation members asking them to suggest up to three things the pastor could do in the next six to nine months to move the congregation into the future. Out of the 700-member congregation, she received 12 suggestions. Each was implementable and achievable within a 30-to-90 day period. My friend went back to the minister, in all honesty, and showed the first assessment from the congregation, but then showed the follow-up work. The minister not only stayed, but implemented every suggestion in the first 90 days.
Speedy decisions and actions help you outrun those who love to live in the past.
The lesson is this: We have the power to structure and control productive discussions and debate. If you want constructive results, seek and insist on constructive suggestions. You'll get very few, but what you get will be useful. If you are constructive and seek positive, constructive suggestions, you automatically control and therefore powerfully manage how decisions are made.
Over the years I've learned that whether it's a group of activists, angry employees, upset neighbors, or jealous competitors who appear to be threatening, the way to win, the way to move things forward, the way to stay in charge is to act now, and do it now . . . every time.
Speedy decisions and actions help you outrun the competition and those who love to live in the past. The longer it takes a senior manager or senior leader to respond, the more complex solving the problem becomes. In this day and age, every leader, and certainly every trusted adviser, should be prepared for surprise to the point where they can avoid time-consuming meetings and delays by exercising preauthorized responses to attacks, problems, instability, fear, mistakes, or errors.
This often means making smaller decisions and acting on them more quickly. Some useful responses:
- Answer it now. If you face questions, get the answers and get them now.
- Ask it now. Rather than waiting for someone else to ask the serious question, ask first to get the answer.
- Challenge it now. If it's wrong, correct it. If it's legitimate, act on it. If it's an alternative worth considering, decide and act.
- Act now. If you know something is going to be a problem, work now to eliminate the cause.
- Fix it now. If it's broken, move to repair it; if it's breaking down, move to shore it up.
The lesson is this: Those who act promptly, who do it now, are ahead of the competition and produce fewer new critics, enemies, and naysayers. Prompt action often foils the opposition's most carefully laid plans, and can defeat almost any critic, while better controlling the situation.
Linear thinkers may criticize you for this, saying, "Move that fast and you'll make more mistakes." But mistakes will be made anyway. Deferring them to some other time only delays success and makes them worse. Make the inevitable mistakes early. Fix them faster and move on more successfully. You'll just make different mistakes earlier.
Always focus on a goal. In 1995, I was deeply involved in negotiations between some powerful anti-corporate forces: groups of labor unions, church groups, and nongovernmental organizations. The issues were extraordinarily compelling, in the news, divisive, and to some extent in the streets. The challenge was to find a way to sit down face to face, put these matters in some perspective, and develop a plan of action.
Fortunately, someone suggested that we meet with a minister in Brooklyn Heights, New York, just across the East River from Manhattan. He was reputed to have the personal presence and an unusual strategy for managing such a politically charged confrontation.
We met in his living room in December. This huge, jovial man greeted us warmly, asked us to sit down together in front of a roaring fire, listen to some music, and be quiet for a few minutes.
He then laid down just one ground rule for the day's work: the discussion was to be entirely outcome-focused. This meant that whatever happened between us prior to entering his living room was out of bounds (disagreements, arguments, behaviors, truth, fiction, and lies). The past was completely off limits to our current discussion. This was the fundamental ground rule. If this ground rule was a problem, he promised to end the discussions and bid us a pleasant day.
It's crucial to understand just how powerful this concept is. Fundamentally, it recognizes that everyone owns yesterday, last week, last month, and last year, from their own point of reference. That ownership is permanent. Even given a limitless amount of discussion, the past will remain as it was, owned by those who were there.
But no one owns the future—the next 15 minutes, the next day, the next week, the next month, the next year. Therefore, when we choose to be outcome-focused, we are choosing to enter, live, and build a future together.
Now back to Brooklyn Heights. Each time anyone began a discussion supported by something from the past, our host would halt the discussion and refocus it on tomorrow. It was tough for these real-time adversaries to stick to the process, but by 4:30 that afternoon we had negotiated and signed a one-page agreement containing just six sentences. That agreement was reached on December 15, 1995. Those who signed it, and the businesses and organizations they represented, still live by it today.The lesson is this: Focus on tomorrow and only take from yesterday the positive, useful, constructive elements and ideas that can move the process forward, promptly. There will be very few, if any. Focusing on the future allows you to build tomorrow free of the problems, misunderstandings, and crippling assumptions of the past.
Bonus lesson: Applying this single concept will substantially cut meeting and discussion time. A good portion of most meetings is spent explaining to those who weren't at the last meeting what went on and what has yet to be done. Then, it's necessary to explain again because some of those who attended the last meeting have a very different perception of what went on than you do. What little time remains is finally used to get something done and move ahead. Skip yesterday; go straight to tomorrow and save tons of time.
Tomorrow can only start when today is over. Todays that are governed by yesterday only cause more problems and may even prevent a successful tomorrow. Outcome focus saves precious time, reduces mistakes and misunderstandings, and acts as a positive force for moving ahead.
You get to the future faster by starting there.
You get to the future faster by starting there.
An incrementalist strives for the successful forward step rather than the global solution. Most top leaders are skeptical of silver bullets, big ideas, and brilliant strategies. They realize that progress made incrementally, often following established patterns of thinking and experience, applied after rigorous exploration and study with a hint of intuition and strategic thinking, can actually trigger powerful insights. The incrementalist breaks problems into solvable parts and works to resolve each increment of the problem promptly.
Being an incrementalist actually prepares the leader and the organization to watch for and recognize big breakthroughs. Such breaks are as much a matter of luck as anything. Luck is limited. Luck actually comes most often to those who are relentlessly incremental in their personal progress every day. As Louis Pasteur so famously said, "Chance favors the prepared mind."
The most credible advisers are those who relentlessly and intentionally:
- Grow and learn every day.
- Help those they serve to achieve some positive incremental progress every single day.
- Identify and talk about those positive increments that they work with, supervise, or achieve every day.
- Assess daily what they've learned, and then teach those learnings to others.
Your credibility rests more on what you are actually able to accomplish than on any series of goals or concepts you may choose to announce—but achieve only partially, or fail to achieve at all. Pragmatic advisers focus on what's doable.
One of the more interesting stories about pragmatism appears in Jack Welch's book, Straight From the Gut. He had just finished listening to nuclear engineers decide how they were going to begin selling three nuclear reactors per year in the United States, and how that would save this General Electric division.
After listening for an hour, Welch thoughtfully responded that no matter how good their intentions were, nuclear reactors were not going to be sold again in the United States in their lifetime, so they needed to focus on some other aspect of their business, perhaps servicing existing nuclear facilities. GE is now top in its category of servicing nuclear facilities. Mr. Welch was being a pragmatist.
Most top leaders are skeptical of silver bullets and brilliant strategies.
The lesson is this: A pragmatist matches rhetoric with reality. Put yourself in the other person's shoes. See the world from their perspective. Enlist their help in achieving your goals by helping them achieve a portion of their goals in ways they recognize, and from their own perspective. Dale Carnegie was right: "Help the other guy get what he wants, from his perspective; and he'll help you get what you want, from your perspective."
Giving advice effectively is a strategic force that helps drive individuals, organizations, cultures, and societies forward every day. One of the greatest frustrations of organizational life, especially for individuals aspiring to be influential, is not being invited to important meetings or being invited in too late. By the time you do get called in or become aware of what's going on, or are permitted to participate, all the expensive outside consultants, attorneys, and assorted advice givers have staked out all the avenues you might have successfully recommended. The discipline of being intentionally constructive, with a relentlessly positive approach, helps those you advise be more receptive to the help you offer. You will become influential. You'll get invited in earlier. Maybe they will even begin holding up meetings until you arrive.