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The Power of Influence

At a series of small-group conversations facilitated by Tom Tierney, chairman and co-founder of The Bridgespan Group, participants in the Bridgespan-GCN program Leading for Impact—Atlanta explored strategies for developing and utilizing influence to achieve specific goals.

Probing for answers, Tierney challenged the group to consider how leaders lead—the mechanics of their working relationships within the organization and beyond, including those with volunteers, donors, and the community. The consensus: Effective leadership doesn’t come from the ability to exercise authority, but to influence others.

“So how do you do that?” challenged Tierney.

Earning influence

“Leadership is enabled by relationships built on trust, respect, and caring,” said Tierney, and building those relationships starts with communication: both how we speak and how we listen. “Communication styles need to be adapted to both the person and the circumstances, which often means reaching out either over the phone or face-to-face, rather than relying on email.”

In the social sector, he continued, there is an inadequate amount of listening. “As a result, there is minimal course correction.”

Paraphrasing John Gardner, Tierney said, “Most people, most of the time, are thinking about themselves.” Because listening authentically is a vital part of establishing trust and respect, effective leaders “lock on and listen.”

Asking, not telling

As the circle widens beyond your immediate “ecosystem” to volunteers, board members, and potential donors, the challenges increase.

Active listening, Tierney said, is vital: “Philanthropy is deeply personal. Listening is your most powerful tool to understanding the needs of those your organization depends on.” Being an active listener, Tierney said, is a matter of “inquiry versus advocacy.” An easy way to make the shift: “Try navigating an entire conversation though questions.”

Underscoring the point, Tierney shared a story about a talkative seatmate on a cross-country plane ride whom he was courting for Bain & Company, the consulting firm he ran at the time. Tierney worried he had blown the sale because he said virtually nothing the entire flight; instead, the feeling of trust and respect he created by asking a few good questions, and showing he was an active listener, convinced his prospect to become a client.

Influence is neither about control, nor about always being right, said Tierney. Rather, it’s about building bridges. Engaging others as trusted advisors is a powerful bridge-builder: “You increase your influence by asking people how you can do better.”

The power of influence is a “giant multiplier” for your leadership ability, a “wildly transferable” set of skills for guiding anything from a team to a conversation. Tierney encouraged everyone to be self-aware, practice listening, and invite feedback.

Three questions to ponder

1. Think of a time you achieved a specific result by successfully influencing a superior, peer, or another essential third party. What exactly did you do? Why were you effective?

2. Think of a situation where you failed to achieve results through influence. In hindsight, what would you do differently?

3. Consider leaders you have personally known. Who was most effective at exercising influence over others? What can you learn from them? 

Tierney’s Reading List

“Power, Dependence, and Effective Management,” by John Kotter. 
A Harvard Business Review classic written by one of the leading thinkers on the topic of power and influence. 

“Managing Your Boss,” by John Gabarro and John Kotter.
Another classic HBR article focusing on the mutual dependence between boss and subordinate, and how to “consciously work with your superior to obtain the best possible results for you, your boss, and your organization.” 

How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. 

On Leadership, by John W. Gardner.
This insightful classic unpacks what it means to be a leader.


Betsy Reid is Vice President, Marketing & Communications at GCN.

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