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Why influence is an essential skill

18 March 2021

Influence may actually be one of the most important skills that lawyers, particularly in-house lawyers need to develop. In this article we take a deeper look in to why influence is such an essential skill .

The many spheres of influence

Influence can be the difference between being seen as the ‘department of no’ and being a strategic partner who is there at the start of a project and can bring legal, risk and reputational insight from day one.

We often think of influence as something wielded, something powerful and synonymous with extraversion and forceful personalities. That’s a version of influence, to be sure, but not the only one, and it may not always be the most successful one.

Influence certainly gives those who can use it a certain type of power but it’s by no means only a skill for the powerful or those who hold the most inflated job titles. Indeed, many of those who historically have wielded the most influence needed to do so because they did not have the conventional trappings of authority to fall back upon.

Neither should we assume that it’s only those who wield power whom we should be looking to influence. As leaders, the most important influence we have is with those that we lead. That’s also what gives us more traction with those who lead us. If our leaders see that we can successfully inspire, guide and manage change in those that we lead that makes us more valuable to them and our organisation as a whole.
Influence can also work across the organisation; for in-house lawyers working laterally with business colleagues and for general counsel/Chief Legal Officers working with other leaders and C-Suite may be the major area where they need to use influence. The use of lateral influence may also be where the particular nuances of being an internal lawyer and stereotypes that can be associated with that, come into play. Historically, many legal teams have had to reinvent themselves in the face of perceptions of lawyers as business blockers. 

So, how do we create more influence?

Only Connect

It’s often worth starting by considering how much influence you really have?
Are all of the contacts who help you get your work done concentrated in one department; are there only two or three key names there? The more concentrated your sphere of influence the less influence you have and the more vulnerable this is. What if one of your key contacts moves on or retires?

Are your influencing relationships purely transactional and based on a quid pro quo? That’s also a red flag which suggests that you need more focus on who and how you influence.

The starting point for developing more influence at work is similar to where we started with our last Brave New Law topic of empathy. We need to connect with those we want to influence and get to know a bit more about them.

There two factors at play here:

1. Firstly, we get to know the other person or people and understand what is important to them. Do they have causes they are passionate about- is that a shared interest? Is there a particular way they prefer to have information communicated? Will data be more effective than stories or vice versa?

2. Secondly, by making a more personal human connection: a connection that’s not just related to what we primarily do at work, we build more understanding. More human connection also means we do not just get to know others, but they get to know us. As we become known to the other person, they are more likely to view what we say as generally coming from a place of positive intention. For example, it’s not just that the lawyer is saying this but it’s Catherine, she seems quite sensible and seems to have the organisation’s best interests at heart; she’s always been very friendly to me, understood what my team and I do etc.

At a very basic level it’s also hard to have real influence if instead of listening to your ideas people are asking, “Who is that?”

Keep it Concise

Whilst being an expert voice is a key component of influence if we relate this to knowing your audience, then it is understanding what aspects of what you know that are most pertinent to your audience. This can be a challenge for lawyers where training and early experience seems to encourage people to 'show all the workings’ instead of getting straight to what’s really at stake. The easyJet panel selection task of leaving legal advice on an answerphone message was a great example of this aspect of influence in practice: How can I most effectively impart what I know to influence this audience? Sadly, most of the outside counsel on that task flunked it!

Use your Passion

Consider what you’re passionate about, particularly outside of your remit. This links to connecting with others on a human level. They see what makes us tick beyond our job title. Diversity and inclusion and ESG are compelling factors for companies across the board; signalling your interest in these topics and connecting with colleagues from across your organisation can be a great way to increase your network. This allows you more opportunities to make connections and to become more influential. Be aware you can connect with others not only via your expertise but via their expertise. Asking someone who has been involved in a project, pertinent questions or just to explain aspects of that area, means you make a connection, and they identify you as someone who has a shared interest with them.

It takes us back to a human connection again and, as in so many areas of business, it’s understanding the human aspect that allows us to be more effective and impactful.

Author: Catherine McGregor is an experienced thinker on the legal market and particularly on the role of the general counsel, the future of the legal profession and inclusion in law.

 
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