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How To Influence Without Official Authority

Leadership comes in many forms, and you don’t have to hold a senior title or be above a certain pay grade to influence others.

When you think of a leader in your organization, who do you picture? Chances are it’s your CEO, your department’s VP or maybe your board chair. Your first thought probably isn’t your co-worker who moved an important project along or the intern who shares smart, unconventional ideas.

Leadership comes in many forms, and you don’t have to hold a senior title or be above a certain pay grade to influence others. That said, it can be frustrating and challenging to figure out how to advance work beyond your sphere of immediate influence.

Here are five tips to help you cultivate your ability to influence when you’re not "in charge."

1. Know Yourself

Before you can lead others, you must lead yourself. And to lead yourself, you must know yourself well. Set aside time to inventory your strengths and opportunities for further development. Professional tools like StrengthsFinder, Myers-Briggs and DiSC can help. Knowing how to leverage your strengths, as well as being honest about your shortcomings, is important. Take some time to assess your superpower(s). What do you do better than most? In other words, know what is and what isn't your thing.

Also, put some thought into the language you use to describe yourself. What adjectives and words are you choosing? Are they helping or hurting the way you come across to others? Examine your nonverbal communication, too.

For this reflection to be most effective, I suggest writing things down and mapping the answers out. The visual will help you see connections to deepen your understanding. Add in anything else that comes to mind, like how you get your energy, your values and your personal and professional objectives.

2. Know Your Audience

Once you know yourself well, you can focus on knowing the other person or people you’re seeking to influence. What do they seem to care about? What motivates or inspires them? Who influences them? This can often be done through a conversation where you leverage radical listening to seek sincere understanding. If that’s not possible, you can always do online research or ask others in your network who know the person/group. You may not have a direct connection, but it’s possible that you have a relationship with someone who does.

Remember, there is power in relationships. If you have an existing connection with someone you’re trying to influence or lead, continue to build the relationship and understand the person/group to an even greater degree.

For example, in a previous role, I worked for a large corporation in a position where I was responsible for enterprise-wide goals to diversify their supply chain, but no one was required to work with me. In order to meet my objectives, I had to develop strong relationships with procurement leaders as well as demonstrate an understanding and respect for their businesses, so they wanted to work with me.

3. Know Your Context

Be aware of the landscape in which you are operating. Stay up to date on current trends and information by reading industry publications, newsletters and websites. Also, business can be conducted differently in various regions of the country and internationally. Take the time to understand any social, cultural or business norms affecting the landscape.

4. Mind Your Message

Communication is critical to every interaction when you’re attempting to influence without authority. Make sure you’re consistent, thoughtful and respectful of the other person’s communication style and preferences. This includes small things like choosing the medium for sharing your message: in-person, phone, email, text, etc.

Also, knowing how to position topics is key. If you’re trying to make a case for support, provide stories or examples to bolster your desired outcome(s). This is important for building credibility with your target. If you’re detailing a past success, consider explaining it using the situation-behavior-outcome model:

• Highlight the situation and context.

• Explain what you did to advance the outcome.

• State what the outcome was.

This flow helps others understand the process and how you contributed to results. For instance, in a past role, I was in a situation where a new leader joined the organization and caused some disruption. I became a unifying force on my team to keep everyone aligned and moving toward our goals, despite the chaos. The outcome was that no one on my team departed, and we were able to achieve our goals and work through the disruption.

5. Be Patient

Influencing without authority takes time and requires patience. For example, very few major policy changes happen in one, two or even three years. A long-term commitment is necessary. You may get completely shut out on your first try, but it’s possible you planted a seed for the future. On some occasions, ideas must percolate a bit before they sink in. I think of it as “softening the ground.” On others, you might have a lot of good thoughts, but if you’re new to or not well-known in a space, it can be hard to get people’s attention.

Lasting Benefits

These tips come in handy with the work I lead at Greater Twin Cities United Way. While we provide flexible support over several years to incredible nonprofit partners across our region, none of it is possible without the generosity of thousands of independent donors every single year. As a result, much of my colleagues’ time is spent deploying any combination of these tips in partnership with our external stakeholders.

Cultivating influence goes beyond titles and positions. By practicing and honing the skill of influencing without official authority, you can build relationships, develop increased awareness and master communication skills -- things that will increase your ability to affect change far into the future.

-Acooa Lee Ellis

This article originally shared on Forbes Nonprofit Council.

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