Sunday, February 16, 2014

Developing Influence--A Career Asset

Developing Influence
Robert A. Hall
March 9, 2014

I’m starting this article as I’m incarcerated admitted to the VA Hospital in Madison for some repair work on the new lung I received on December 23, 2013. I can’t say enough about the staff here, as all of the nurses, doctors, health techs and other professionals have been wonderful. I’ve developed friendships with several, including an excellent nurse, Jason Govia, RN. In between running to poke other patients last night, Jason, aware that I’m a recovering politician, said he had become interested in how people obtained influence. We tossed around ideas, and I concluded that since having influence with others is strongly correlated with career success, getting my thoughts in this essay would be a useful addition to my Tiger Tooth Mountain Resume Service blog: (

What is influence?

Influence, like whisky, comes in many variations, good and bad. Most people are influenced by money out of need for a paycheck or business income to feed their families and survive. Too many are influenced by greed. Six senators I served with later switched from Brooks Brothers to Orange Jumpsuits, and I think greed was a factor in every case—though I did think one Democrat got a raw deal. He took a $1,000 check for consulting before he was a senator, and claimed it on his tax return, so he thought it was legal. If you take what you know is dirty money, you ask for cash!

Many people who contribute to political campaigns on both sides do so because they believe the candidate deserves to be in public office based on character, ability and support for issues. My two largest contributors, at $500 and $1,000 each, never asked me for anything, not even a vote on an issue that I recall. Others—far too many in today’s world, alas!—expect something in return, and hope their contributions buy influence. I discovered that two of my contributors in 1974 (whose names I still remember!) gave $50 or $100 both to me and to my opponent. Clearly they didn’t care who won, but just wanted the senator to feel obligated. Personally, I’d have helped someone who only supported my opponent before I would have helped either of them.

Coercion and fear can also be an influence. If a druggie steps out of an ally and sticks a 9mm Smith & Wesson auto in your stomach, you are going to be strongly influenced to hand over your wallet and pray.

Influence is also a form of power, and, as you may have heard, power corrupts. People have understood hubris for thousands of years, but the cure escapes us. So entertainment and sports stars with few credentials, little knowledge and limited education, but enough opinions and certitude to outfit a progressive university, pontificate on global warming, foreign affairs, crime and economic policy. And the great uninformed lap it up. Influence, like any power, may be abused. More on this, below. 

And, of course, every teenager is required by law to have one “bad influence” in his or her circle of friends. My family thought it was my best friend Charlie. His parents thought it was me. Both were probable right.

So we need to define influence as discussed here. For the purposes of this essay, I’m talking about the ability to change people’s minds, attitudes, ideas and behaviors in (what you believe) is a positive way, through your influence.

Influence, in fact, is a variation of positive leadership. In 1966 on Okinawa, I was a Corporal and my outfit sent me to NCO Leadership School, doubtless hoping I’d learn to be like the senior NCOs. But the Corps preaches that “Persuasive Leadership” is better than “Authoritarian Leadership.” Unfortunately, four of the five NCOs who outranked me were strict authoritarians. The exception was a SSGT Russell, a black NCO, who was a fine Marine and a good leader, from whom I learned much. Unfortunately, the others tended to marginalize him. Maybe it was envy, but from remarks I overheard, I suspect racism.

Putting what I was taught into practice got me into even more trouble. But since I finished first in a class of 57, they could hardly court martial me—so they shipped me to the 26th Marines, a better outfit bound for Khe Sanh.

Most of the areas where you can develop influence through leadership, below, come from the Corps’ “Traits of a Leader,” because they apply strongly to exerting influence.

And let it be said that these influence factors apply differently to different people in different situations. Almost without exception, something that gives you influence with one person will cost you influence with another, because of differing circumstances, values, personalities or world views.

Factors you can’t control

But first, there are factors that give people influence, over which you will have little control:

Appearance: Studies show that people who are considered more attractive are more successful in life. (I’ve been successful, but I had to work extra hard to make up for this vicious type of discrimination!) Far more than 50% of presidential elections—though not all—have been won by the taller candidate. In 1960, people who heard the debate on radio rated Nixon the winner. People who saw it on TV thought Kennedy won—appearance counts. It’s known that employers discriminate, often unconsciously, against obese candidates, thinking they are lazy, unmotivated and likely to be out sick a lot, despite little evidence for that. The best you can do here is to keep your appearance as presentable as possible, within the limits that Providence has provided for you.

Ethnic and Racial Heritage: Again, this can cut both ways. People are more likely to listen to “one of their tribe,” (Marines in my case) than to those viewed as outsiders. People who are able to overcome this, and treat other folks as individuals, awarding trust or caution based on individual merit, rather than as members of a group, have lives that are richer and more successful—and this all gives them more influence. But even for the best folks, this always remains a challenge, as I don’t believe any person is free of biases in this area. Every culture has such biases and children are inculcated with them and must fight to rise above the bias. Changing your ethnic heritage is harder than changing your shirt. There was a perennial city council candidate in Boston who decided he was losing elections because he had an Italian name, so he had it legally changed to an Irish sounding name. He was soundly and appropriately defeated in the next election, as both groups voted against him for obvious reasons.

Age: Some people and cultures view older folks as wise and experienced (and we are—witness this essay), giving them more influence. Others view them as out of touch and unable to adapt. (And we are—I’m having a struggle using Word 10 on my wife’s laptop as I write this. Curse you, Bill Gates!) You cannot change your age, but if you are young, you can work to present a more mature appearance. If you dress like a kid, you’ll be treated like a kid. And if you are older than dirt, which according to Google is 22 months younger than I am, you can work to keep in shape and dress more up to date. This was always a challenge for someone like me, because my wardrobe has come mostly from places like Goodwill for years. I recently told my brother I had picked up a couple of sweater vests there. “Hang on to them,” he said, “They may come back in!” I tend to be the non-conformist in the family, wearing what I like, but it hasn’t always helped my career or my ability to project influence.

Religion: You can, of course, change your religion. But if you did so to exert influence, or do better in your career, I think you’d get the same results as the faux Irish candidate I mentioned. And I’m not sure God would approve. Still, religion is a tribe thing too. People are more like to trust “one of our own,” than “one of them.” And in many places, they are still killing “them.” But there is a reason that so many of Bernie Madoff’s victims were coreligionists. As with ethnic heritage, working to rise against your biases in this area (including those who have a secular bias against the religious) is not only the right thing to do, but will pay dividends in a better life, more success and expanded influence. Still, if you want to loath Jihadist extremists who murder gays, young girls and their coreligionists who hold slightly divergent doctrines, or to despise members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who spew vileness at soldiers’ funerals, who am I to gainsay you?

Gender and Sexual Orientation: Without repeating much of what is covered above, people have preprogrammed biases in these areas, for or against. Remember that individuals matter, not group membership. (I follow a couple of gay, conservative Republicans on Twitter.) Serving in the Marines and the Senate, I absorbed the lesson that there are good, honest, decent people in every ethnic, gender, age, political orientation and religious category. And there are bums in every category. Judge individuals by their character and abilities. Otherwise, you cut yourself off from many interesting, talented and good people, a loss to your life.

Factors you can develop

Since I’m taking the time to write this, the least you can do is become highly proficient in each of these areas in, say, the next month. I haven’t over almost 68 years, of course, but my failings are no excuse for you. The fact is that no one is close to perfect in any of these areas, and no one is likely to be above the 50th percentile in a majority of them. Perfect is impossible to achieve or even define. But constant improvement is in the reach of every person and every organization.

In most of these areas you wouldn’t make the effort to improve just to become more influential. But all of them will pay dividends in your career, family and social life—while increasing your ability to be a positive influence on others.

The Marines’ “Traits of a Leader”

The stronger you are in each of these areas, the more other people will respect and admire you, increasing both your success and your influence. Keep in mind that they will have to be applied differently in different situations and for different people. One size does not fit all. Perhaps the three people who have influenced me the most in my life are my Marine Drill Instructors from Platoon 273 at Parris Island in 1964, Sergeants William H. Harris, Michael P. Martin and the late Ezekiel Owens, Jr., who I was distressed to learn had been transferred to Marine Security Guard, Heaven on December 16, 2013.  The self-discipline they gave me has been the source of my success in life, and they have been with me every day for 50 years. But “tack,” from the list below, didn’t seem to have a high priority with them that I can recall.

And, of course, there are others who have had a great influence on my life, using different approaches and traits: my parents and other relatives, teachers like Ben Mark, my high school economics teacher, John McLaughlin , a college history and government professor, colleagues in government and association management, Marine officers, two former pastors, Alison Bucklin, DMinn and Rev. John Zingaro and my current one, Rev. Jeff Vanden Heuvel, fiction writers like Robert Heinlein and Tom Kratman, and writers like the brilliant economics professors Dr. Thomas Sowell and Dr. Walter Williams. (Note that Rev. Jeff influences me for in religion, not so much in politics, where we hold divergent world views and values. The lesson is that different folks are influences in different areas.)

All these people influenced me in positive ways, in different ways and using different factors. And of course, I learned a lot about leadership and exerting influence from bad examples like the NCOs I mentioned above or political or management colleagues who lacked ethics, tack and lots else. When I have a dilemma, I often ask myself, “What would Sergeant R. do?” Then I know what not to do.

People who have these traits have influence over others. So, here we go.

Justice: If you fail to treat people unfairly, or differently due to the biases already discussed, the folks discriminated against will lose respect for you, diminishing your influence. Oddly, so will many of the folks discriminated in favor of, because you will have revealed your character. The same will apply if you have “teacher’s pets” in a classroom or at work who get special treatment based on their likeability, attractiveness or what they can do for you. Being "just" pays dividends for you, for other folks and for the organization—which doesn’t mean it’s easy, just right.

Judgment: They say good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment. Wise people learn from their mistakes, but the really wise learn from observing the mistakes of others, and avoiding making them in their own lives. If you know someone does drugs, steals, loses jobs by inappropriate behavior, smokes, drives recklessly or makes frequent bad, even if small decisions, will they have much influence over you in other areas?

Dependability: If you don’t show up when you are supposed to, don’t keep your word or honor your promises, don’t complete tasks you accept, and let people down, you will not have credibility or influence with them. Everyone drops the ball sometimes, but some people couldn’t hold the ball if it was made of glue.

Initiative: Who will have the most influence at work—the person who does just enough to get by and does only what he is told, or the person who seeks out new ways to do things better, takes on new responsibilities without being ordered to, and finds ways to help colleagues and the team without being asked? And who will have a better job in five years?

Decisiveness: Not making a decision is a decision—usually the worst one. And if you wait until you have every bit of information to make a perfect decision, it’s very likely too late. Yes, hasty decisions can be disastrous, but no decision can be worse, and will destroy your credibility and influence in the bargain. The trick is balance. See judgment, above.

Tact: Compare this approach: You say to your wife, “Sea World called—they want you for the whale act,” or to your husband, “We got a notice from the Post Office—they’ve assigned your beer gut with its own Zip Code.” With this one, “Honey, I’m getting a little concerned that our diets may be having a negative impact on our health. I’d like to keep you around for a while and me with you. What say we look into eating healthier?” Which would be most likely to influence your snuggle bunny and have positive benefits? Unfortunately, many folks can’t see how tactless they are, or don’t care. The funny thing is, they are often the same people who make a hobby out of being perpetually offended by small, perceived slights.

Integrity: Few things will destroy your standing in the eyes of others, and thus your credibility and ability to influence them like having folks discover that you play the edges. I once took over an association, with hidden financial problems, where the executive before me used to take one of the two or three favored staff members (out of 14—see “justice,” above) out to lunch at a very expensive restaurant about twice a week, on the association’s dime. The deficit didn’t stop him from treating himself royally in other ways, too. It was a “turn-around” situation, which I had not detected, because the board didn’t know and the books had been at least warmed over. Imagine the influence he had with the staff who knew what was going on, but had to keep their heads down with the boss and board. Not the least of the problems was the chaos and infighting created through such policies. It was a difficult fix, but they survived. I’ve never been able to spend other people’s money lavishly, on myself or fancy items that were not mission-critical. My frugality has been a running joke in some of the associations I managed, but my ability to influence the boards on fiscal policy was always high.

Enthusiasm: Compare, “I don’t know if this is going to fly—we’ll do the best we can and let the chips fall where they may,” with, “We are so going to nail this—I’m just delighted to be working with this team because this project is going to have a huge impact on our organization!” Who will have the most career success, the most influence on coworkers and be the happiest at work? This applies, again, to the other parts of your life as well.

Bearing: “Bearing” is how you carry and present yourself, and it seems to come naturally to some folks. The rest of us have to work on it, but people with bearing exude confidence, and thus have more influence on others. When I was in the Marine Reserves, I was at an Army base and a guy asked me, “Where’d you get that tee shirt, Marine?” I told him, then, since it wasn’t a USMC shirt, I asked how he knew I was a Marine. “By your bearing,” he said. I walked around for the rest of the training period like someone gave me a medal. So he surely had an influence on me—that was in 1979!

Unselfishness: Self-centered people have little influence and suffer for it, because other folks don’t care that much about them in return. Other-centered folks have great influence on others because they care. (See doctors, nurses and health techs, Madison VA hospital, for excellent examples.) Put the needs of your family, friends, coworkers and especially subordinates first, and your needs will be taken care of. Share the credit for success and take more of the blame for failure yourself. Suppose I asked the board of my association for a 10% raise and for a 3% raise for the rest of the staff? Do you think they would not know? Or that they would work extra hard to make me look good and to make the organization thrive, to my career benefit more than theirs? Would I be able to influence their performance? The big hog at the trough is seldom respected by the piglets.

Courage: We think of physical courage, which in mostly-safe America we are seldom called on for. We have police, firefighters, EMTs and troops on the parapets of freedom for that. (​Freedom is not free, but the U.S. Marine Corps will pay most of your share. --Captain J.E. "Ned" Dolan.) But moral courage is always needed and too often in short supply. If you pass the blame for your mistakes and duck challenging the boss on a hot issue, coworkers will not respect you—and your influence will decline. If you stand up, you might lose your job, of course, especially if the boss hasn’t read this, but you’ll retain your self-respect—and your influence with others.

Knowledge: My surgeon, Dr. Jim Maloney, is highly respected, has a great success rate and presents and trains new doctors. He told me he was undecided on a certain procedure, and I said, “Doc, if you added all I know about lungs to what you know, we wouldn’t know any more. I have unlimited faith in you. You look at it and use your best judgment—I’m fine with that.” Sure, there may be problems beyond anyone’s control, which is why the five-year survival rate on lungs is 50%. But his reputation, skill and knowledge gives him great influence with me. And not only in his field, but because of his intellect, I’d listen carefully to his opinions on other areas. Of course, you have to be careful of “bright guy” disease, as I called it in an article, where the successful person in one field comes to think he knows more than professionals in other fields. That diminishes his influence. There’s a difference between knowledge and narcissism.

Loyalty: If your wife finds out you have a girlfriend, your boss finds out you’ve been bad-mouthing the organization, your friend finds out your girlfriend is his wife and your coworker finds out you took credit for his work, you might have a funeral—but not much influence.

Endurance: Though partly the luck of the gene pool draw, everyone can build up their endurance, because as with most things, attitude and mental toughness in 80% of the battle. I had pulmonary fibrosis for six years. For the last three, I pulled an oxygen tank behind me to work—and everyplace else. It got especially challenging when my lungs took a big hit six months before I retired. But in the last ten years, though I was out for doctors’ appointments and tests, I didn’t miss a day because I felt too bad to work.  (Thank you, Sergeant Owens.) That I had the endurance to persevere gave me added respect and influence with colleagues and my bosses.

Other Influence-Enhancing Factors

Example: Albert Schweitzer said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” I don’t agree it’s “the only thing,” but it may be the most important thing. Not to belabor the point, but see the numerous examples of the different impact created by the good and bad examples presented above. If you don't set the example, people are unlikely to be influenced by what you say.

Communication Skills: Having strong writing and verbal skills, thus being able to express yourself clearly (so the average person can understand)  and concisely (I know—my communication weakness!) is a priceless career advantage for most people. And it’s hard to have influence if folks don’t understand your points. Presentation can make all the difference. Going through the transplant process, we became close to a black couple from Louisiana, John and Donna Payne. John is a brother Marine who saw a lot more action in Vietnam than I wanted to see. His new lung came through five days before mine and he’s doing very well.

Donna retired as a CNA and CNA Supervisor, where she worked in a mental hospital. One of the patients was an old southerner who had slipped off the rails. His racism had intersected with his mental disability, and vile slime spewed from him—I won’t repeat what she told me. Donna was the only staff member willing to work with him. Finally she said to him, “You know the difference between you and me? I’ve got the keys. (Cue dangling keys.) I get to go home at night, while you have to stay here. And you will until your attitude changes.” And his attitude slowly changed. “By the time he left, we were the best of friends,” she said. She found a way to calmly influence him in a way that helped him and, one hopes, everyone he came into contact with. She’s a no-nonsense person, but she’s other-centered, cares about people, forgives the unforgivable, has courage and good judgment, and has great communication skills. This gives her lots of influence. Both John and Donna have influenced me to want to be more like them, because the of the example they set.

Stature and Status: People who have high status because of career, celebrity, money or family usually have more influence, though they often squander it by acting like jerks. I would not suggest that you try to increase your influence by becoming famous or prominent, but if your goal is high success, it might be an interesting byproduct. I come from a middleclass family of great lack-of-wealth. When I wanted to get into politics, folks thought I was aiming too high running for the state senate for my first campaign. On the other hand, Teddy Kennedy was elected to the US Senate never having held a job, but his family was in the wealthy one-percent folks now complain about—unless they agree with them politically. And it didn’t hurt that his brother was president.

When I became a candidate, people were more likely to listen to my opinions, and I influenced a slim majority to vote for me. (And some folks my opponent influenced to vote against him.) Once I was a senator, people sought out my opinions on government, politics and policy. Public office gave me influence.

The problem is that the public is often so over-awed that they are influenced by famous people with limited credentials, experience or knowledge on a variety of subjects outside their fields, who are often wrong but always convinced. I would likely be influenced by a pro football player’s views on going for it on fourth down, or if I cared about such things, a famous entertainer’s thoughts on pop music or current movies, but if I wanted foreign policy input, I’d go to Dr. Condi Rice, or if on economic policy to the nationally known economists Dr. Thomas Sowell or Dr. Walter Williams. But since famous, wealthy and high status folks often have undeserved influence in area where they have limited knowledge or credentials, we must be aware of the fact.

Hopefully, this essay has impressed you enough that it increased my influence with you. Maybe it decreased it. But influence is never static—it waxes and wanes daily. Like any asset, guard it carefully and spend it wisely.


Following college and service in the Marines, including Vietnam, Bob Hall was elected to the Massachusetts Senate five times. He retired (no pension!) undefeated in 1982 to become a successful association executive, retiring from that career in October of 2013 due to health. He has published hundreds of articles and columns, plus some short fiction and poetry. He has also published several books, with the royalties going to charity.

No comments:

Post a Comment