The Skills You Need—But No One Tells You About—If You Want to Be Influential

Being an influential person has very little to do with enrolling people in your personal agenda.

Being an influential person has very little to do with enrolling people in your personal agenda. (Photo: José Martín/Unsplash)

Raj Bandyopadhyay had a problem.

His dream career was to work in the burgeoning field of data science. Understandable, as it’s one of the hottest sectors in the job market. He was an experienced software engineer—so it’s not as though he were coming to the problem as a line cook or a cashier. But in Atlanta, where he lived, there were thousands of software engineers wanting to get into the field who had a lot more specialized Market Skills and experience than he did.

So how did he, just a year later, get recommended to the CEO of Pindrop Security, one of the hottest start‑ups in Atlanta— it had just received $12 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz—as a great candidate to build the company’s brand new data science team from scratch? Why did the start‑up aggressively recruit Raj over a period of two weeks until he finally accepted what was his first “C‑level” job and the highest‑ranking position in the field, chief data scientist?

He knew that most jobs are awarded by referral—up to 80 percent by some accounts—so he figured he would make some initial contacts at networking events. He searched Meetup.com for meetups on data science in his hometown of Atlanta. There were meetups for users of particular software tools within the field, but no general meetups for the entire field of data science in Atlanta. Dead end.

Around this time, Raj heard an interview Michael did for personal finance author Ramit Sethi, about connecting with powerful and influential people, in which Michael gave the following piece of advice: “The best way to meet people at networking events is to host the networking event.”

Raj was a software engineer, not an event producer. He didn’t know anyone who would come to a networking event that he hosted, and he didn’t know enough about the field to develop a compelling presentation to draw people he didn’t know to attend. But the advice wouldn’t leave his brain. What if, instead of a dead end, the fact that there weren’t any data science meetups in Atlanta was his big opportunity?

“I contacted Dr. Nikolaos Vasiloglou, one of the most respected experts in machine learning [an aspect of data science] in Atlanta,” Raj says, “and I asked, ‘If I can get a room full of people interested in your work together on a weeknight to listen to you, will you give a talk for us?'”

Vasiloglou agreed, becoming the event’s major draw. With that agreement in place, Raj and his friend Travis Turney started Data Science ATL. They invited every tech person they knew or vaguely knew in the city, and based on their strong first speaker, they got an initial crowd of 30 people, “which is considered pretty good for a first tech-based meet-up,” Raj said.

Since then, Raj and Travis have organized almost one talk per week, inviting different experts in the field. The quality of the events and the new outlet for people to talk about a shared interest served as the group’s marketing, and word of the group spread through the Atlanta tech scene. During this same time period, Raj was reading books and taking online courses, so he could contribute more and more to the discussion at every meet-up.

They started having fifty people show up for their events, then a hundred, and even two hundred for a recent meetup. Over time, Raj felt less like an outsider and more like a ringleader in the Atlanta data science community. Because of his leadership in this community, he was recommended for the leadership position at Pindrop.

Raj’s story illustrates the power of Interpersonal Super Skills.

As his experience shows, it is arguably the best potential bang for your time and money investment buck, vaulting you past those who focus on just Market Skills—like being a good data scientist. In this chapter, we break down the key skills for you.

INTERPERSONAL SUPER SKILLS APPLIED: THE ESSENTIAL SKILLS OF A BUSINESS INFLUENCER

Being an influential person has very little to do with enrolling people in your personal agenda. It’s much more about understanding the motivations of each key individual or group within a system. Then detecting the agenda that furthers those motivations, serves the greatest purpose, and aligns with your values and objectives; and finally enrolling yourself in that larger agenda. This is one way to ensure that your investment in your own influence doesn’t degrade to a study in deception and manipulation.

With this perspective, investing in the building blocks of influence, the key Interpersonal Super Skills—which we define as leadership, public speaking, visioning, teaching, sales skills, networking, and tribe building, all of which we discuss in more detail below—will improve your ability to perceive and wield the powers that fuel decision making.

Leadership and Influence

Forget any associations you have between leadership and neighboring ideas of authority, being in charge, being charismatic, or getting to tell people what to do. These concepts are not helpful in guiding you to invest in your leadership. You can lead a group you change a person’s heart and mind, you change what they want, and their behavior naturally follows. This is raw leadership, and it’s the single most sought-after skill when wooing executives to take the highest-paid salaried positions: leadership positions.

To start using the Interpersonal Super Skill of leadership, understand why people are choosing point A. Then identify in them a motivation consistent with point B, and find a way to communicate the connection between their already-present motivation and your point B. If you want to encourage a team of volunteers to work longer hours, find out why they became volunteers in the first place and give them the opportunity to have more of whatever that is by putting in more effort.

This communication is primarily accomplished through your commitment, authenticity, and clarity. It is as much a matter of being as doing. The reason “leading by example” is so effective is that it demonstrates this commitment. If you are not willing to work longer, then your story about how working longer is going to be beneficial for others starts to smell fishy. If you don’t really believe working longer will be beneficial to them, again it will smell fishy. This is probably why honesty was found to be the most important quality that people want in a leader, according to research done by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner for their book The Leadership Challenge. Leadership, as it turns out, has very little to do with charisma, being an extrovert, or being a people person. It has much more to do with combining honest empathy for other people (point A) with a vision of a collective future you authentically believe in (point B).

This suggests that the only limit to the leadership and influence you could develop, provided you invest enthusiastically, is your emotional connection with those you wish to lead and your own true belief in the existence of a collective future point B that furthers each person’s deeper motivations and desires

Two trends are making leadership and influence competence even more treasured by companies. First, “command and control”–style leadership typical of big industrial‑era manufacturing firms is phasing out as the knowledge economy becomes the driver of growth. People, especially the younger generations entering the workforce, no longer assume that those with authority also know best. Therefore the cost of bad leadership (for example, just telling people what they should do and expecting them to do it) is growing inside corporations. Second, as our economy becomes more and more globalized and the number of people who can easily interact through technology exponentially rises, the need for companies and organizations to coordinate the collaborative effort of many people behind a single objective is also rising exponentially.

In the 1990s, conventional wisdom held that the ideal number of people directly reporting to a manager was eight. Any more and it was thought that the manager wouldn’t have enough time and attention to guide and direct each person. As company structures move away from the “command and control” model of leadership and get more autonomous, leaders in business find themselves with much flatter organizations with many more direct reports. At Google—one of the most profitable companies in the world—some business leaders have had more than eight hundred people reporting to them directly. This means that leaders at Google must be one hundred times more efficient in their ability to lead and influence.

Start now. Practice influencing people to create a better future, whether with your customers, your friends, or your coworkers. Call your shots. Have a specific future in mind, enroll them in the vision of that future, and start matching their desires to your desired outcomes. Measure your leadership by your envisioned result. Invest in reputable leadership teachers, authors, and coaches and vigorously apply what you learn. We suggest many examples throughout the rest of this chapter, and mention resources in our “Reading” section in chapter 4. This one Super Skill could be the single most valuable “sure thing” in investment history.

Public Speaking

Great investors look for valuable assets that other people aren’t likely to buy. A relatively small investment in one of these undervalued assets can yield fantastic returns because the lack of competition creates an artificially low barrier to entry and therefore a much greater return. Perhaps the most undervalued Super Skill is public speaking. You need only sit in on a few typical corporate presentations to see how rare this form of selfinvestment is. For leaders and influencers, however, an inability to communicate a compelling message to a group can be the equivalent of career death. Even if you never imagine yourself using public gatherings as a means of gaining credibility or demanding the $2,000 to $50,000 in fees that professional public speakers are often paid, you are still working in a knowledge economy. You are trading knowledge with those around you to promote your ideas and motivate actions. And the most powerful venue for this exchange is still an in-person meeting.

Investing in public speaking doesn’t have to start with a high price tag. For $56 you can join Toastmasters International, a communication and leadership development community that emphasizes public speaking. Once you join, you attend meetings, give short speeches, and trade valuable feedback for improvement. Members report that their Toastmasters experiences have helped them write and publish books, get leadership positions, and even get TV and radio appearances.

Visioning

If influence is leading people from point A to point B, the Super Skill of visioning is applying clarity to point B. Leaders spend time clarifying for themselves the future that they want to create, including how each person involved fits into that future. In leadership training courses that Bryan co‑leads with his wife, Jennifer Russell, she explains, “If you are having trouble getting people to follow you, it’s probably because they can’t see clearly where you are leading them. Great leaders paint a picture of the future so vivid, you can imagine it like a painting in a picture frame set on the path where you currently are. If your vision is detailed enough and clear enough, others will feel they can almost step through the frame and onto the path in the picture. When the future you paint feels as real to people as the present moment, they effortlessly follow you and help you create that future.”

How do you gain this clarity of vision? We find that the key to unlocking your own Super Skill of visioning comes from a very unlikely source. We are in a culture that devalues negative judgments about other people and things, labeling them “judgmental.” Conventional wisdom advises you not to even mention anything you find wrong with a situation in a professional context unless you also have a suggestion for fixing it. This advice points to the interpersonal cost of voicing a negative judgment. People don’t like negativity, especially if it exposes a potential weakness or an embarrassing oversight of theirs. But judgments themselves are potentially very valuable. If you were to list all of your negative judgments about a situation and evaluate them, you would begin to see more clearly what you want to create by eliminating everything that it’s not. If you don’t like people who talk too much, perhaps you have a vision of an environment that values more listening. If you don’t like people who waste your time, perhaps you value more efficiency. Trace your judgments to discover your values, and paint a clear picture of the future that expresses those values fully.

For a vision to be clear, it must also be clear to other people, specifically the intended followers. That means that visioning, just like the other Interpersonal Super Skills, is a two-way street. It involves communicating your vision, and also understanding which parts are clear and believable to your audience and which parts need work. One of the most common complaints about poor leadership in a business setting is that the vision isn’t clear enough. Without a clear vision, employees don’t feel confident in making their own decisions, and productivity suffers.

New leaders often think that visioning is located in their own minds, and therefore if it is clear to them, it must be clear enough. The vision that matters, however, is the collective vision in the minds of those you hope to lead. An experienced leader invests in her ability to detect and correct any variances between the clear vision in her own mind and the vision in the minds of the people. When the collective vision is clear, then each person is free to employ creativity and make decisions that all independently support the same positive outcome.

Notice the ways that you are pleased or not pleased with your current environment. Every time you’re not pleased with it, it’s because you have somewhere in your mind an alternative future that it could be. Instead of just expressing your displeasure at the current state, the more you understand what reference point you’re using that makes you feel that displeasure (i.e., your vision of the possible future) and can see it clearly and articulate it and describe it to people, the more you’re practicing the skill of visioning. It is the inner work of developing the reference point, the ability to articulate that vision, plus the outer work of listening to determine if others see how clear your vision truly is.

Teaching

Another specialized form of influence, teaching is the art of leading people to a point B in which they are more educated and capable. It is absolutely essential to a successful SAFE plan, because it provides leverage. If you know how to sell, you’ll make money. If you know how to teach someone else to sell, you’ll make money, friends, and the potential to make money and equity from the sales efforts of other people as well.

Web sites like Learni.st, Udemy.com, Clarity.fm, and Skillshare.com all provide ordinary people with the opportunity to teach something online. You can test and optimize your own teaching methods offline. Find friends or family members who want to learn how to do something you do well. Agree to teach them. Try different methods of teaching (more hands‑on, more hands‑off, letting them fail, correcting their mistakes, etc.) and test how effective each one is at bringing your student closer to your own level of competence in that area.

An ongoing investment in your teaching ability will soon make you a more valuable member of any team or company, because any skill you learn can then be multiplied throughout the organization.

Selling

You may never be in a position of formally selling something to a customer. Maybe you’re an engineer, a scientist, or a mid‑level manager within a large organization. But improving your sales skills and personal influence is still likely to be your most lucrative self-investment. Why?

Even if you are not selling a product for money in your own role, you are continually in an environment where ideas and projects are competing for limited resources. Sales skills are the most predictable way to increase your earnings over the long run. These skills add leverage to your already-existing technical skills (i.e., what you do for a living), because no matter how good you are at those skills, you won’t get paid top dollar for them unless you convince others that your skills are worth top dollar.

The art of selling is the art of persuading others to commit their resources to your idea, product, or project. If you are able to garner support, you are a vastly more valuable member of the team. Every nonprofit needs fundraisers. Every company needs customers. Every project needs internal funding. Every entrepreneur needs partners. Every investment needs investors. Every movement needs support. Selling is often the tipping point between an idea becoming reality or fading away into memory.

One resistance a lot of people have-and Michael used to have-to learning sales or persuasion is that it can sound manipulative. But competency in sales is not about changing someone else’s mind in order to get them to buy. It isn’t about getting someone to do something that they don’t want to do. It’s about discovering what path they already want to be on, and figuring out together if your product, idea, or course of action serves them along that path or not. It’s an act of co-created discovery, which feels great to participate in.

What works are two things: asking what the person you are trying to sell to cares about, and then caring about the answers they give. The more the person you are trying to sell to talks about what they care about, the more likely you are to sell, because you are now in a better position to give them what they actually want, not what you think they want.

SPIN Selling, a fantastic research‑based book by Neil Rackham, Jay Abraham’s work on “consultative selling,” and Bryan’s own “Natural Selling System” course are all based on this basic understanding of how to create sustainable, loyal customers and leave everyone involved with a positive experience. Find a teacher who resonates with you and then buy his or her coursework and practice.

People who do not learn about sales tend to feel highly victimized by “the economy” as a nebulous force they don’t understand. Anytime you find yourself blaming an outside force, such as the economy, it should serve as a signal that it’s time to invest more in Interpersonal Super Skills. “The economy” doesn’t create economic opportunity on an individual scale. People do. Specifically, people who are rainmakers—that is, those who have learned how to sell well. If you’re feeling insecure in your career, or if you feel as though you may be switching your work sometime soon (either voluntarily or involuntarily), consider investing in learning how to become a rainmaker.

Networking and Tribe Building

Like sales, networking is emotionally and financially rewarding for those who understand it and an unpleasant or even repulsive chore for those who don’t. Networking is essentially building a social circle, which takes time and can cost money but could be the best investment of your time and money in existence. Nearly everything we value in our lives—from our closest friends, to Michael’s literary agent, to Bryan’s record contract for the electronic music he produces (under the name NIMITAE), to tens of millions of dollars of business opportunities through the years for Bryan—has come through off‑line, face‑to‑face social networking. The returns you can get via this kind of investing—both on a professional level and on a personal one-far surpass anything available to the average investor through investing in markets, and even surpass what’s available from the other Super Skills, taken in isolation. Though networking is the key to building your tribe, an essential True Wealth asset, for now we will focus on the Interpersonal Super Skill of networking as a way to increase your value to others and maximize your earning potential.

If selling is about finding the match between what people want and what you have to offer, networking is finding the match between what people value and what they have to offer one another. If you think of your network as a hub and spokes, with the objective of creating as many connections to yourself (the hub) as possible, you are likely in for a lot of frustrating and unproductive evenings at awkward parties and stilted networking events. If you think of networking as building a tribe of people who share the same values and are excited to offer value to one another, then you are set up to utilize the power of tribe and become an influential community leader. (We share exactly how to go from the periphery of a few social circles to the center of a powerful entrepreneurial ecosystem or tribe in chapter 8, which focuses exclusively on tribe.)

Holding Paradox

There is one more Interpersonal Super Skill we need to talk about, though this one is perhaps more counterintuitive. There’s something unique that every truly great leader does that the ones who aren’t so great do not do. It has to do with their relationship to paradox.

Consider the common example of a leader who needs to convince her followers that, while the team is experiencing significant challenges and there is a very real risk of failure, ultimately the team will prevail. There are two ways a lesser leader could falter in this moment. The first is to simply pander to neg activism: agreeing with everyone’s feeling that the current situation is rough or hopeless, without offering any vision, possibility, or credible plan. This would be a good display of empathy, but it won’t lead anyone to change. The second mistake would be to hold the opposite view, that the future is bright and the current setbacks are illusory or insignificant. This could be seen superficially as inspiring, but more likely it will backfire because it will be dismissed as being noncredible and unrelatable to the lived reality of the employees.

A superior leader learns how to hold paradox: to believe, at the same time, that the situation is dire and hopeful, meeting employees where they’re at, but also convincing them of the actions they can take that will lead to a brighter future. The evidence is that things are bad (anyone denying this will be seen as a Pollyanna); and also, the evidence is that things are good (anyone denying this would be seen as a weak leader, lacking creativity to produce a positive way forward). Followers need to feel met in the reality that they are scared, yet they also need to be given a realistic expectation of future success.

When you’re confronted with a paradox, you are presented with a choice. You can either ignore it and take a side (believe one side of the statement is true while the other is false), or you can do what we call hold paradox, which is to believe both contradictory statements or implications simultaneously. It’s an expression of faith in a greater truth that is currently invisible to you, but resolves the paradox and allows for the truth of both sides to harmoniously coexist. This is what great leaders do.

Holding paradox is the ability to literally hold in your mind the truth and acknowledge, for example, your utter insignificance on a cosmic scale, and then without allowing that experience to dissipate, add to it the unmistakable truth of your profound significance to those you love.

A leader who chooses sides in a paradox will find that there are people who cannot follow him or her because an important underlying belief doesn’t feel represented in the leader. As an example, would you follow a leader who believed the future was absolutely certain, with no variability? But would you follow anyone who had no idea whatsoever what the future held? Not likely. You would probably feel inspired to follow a leader who could hold the paradox of certainty about the future: absolute clarity of vision without doubting that there are vast terrains yet unknown about the future. Any denial of one half of a paradox causes you to lose the connection to those who believe in that part more fully.

Leaders who hold paradox are standing in the intersection between the two seemingly contradictory truths and finding a center ground where a much deeper understanding arises. When you sense paradox, you’ve found a key to a dimensional doorway. Unlock the door (by holding the paradox) and your consciousness will expand to include all the perspectives, benefits, and insights offered native to the new dimensionality. Almost like a zipper, holding together two folds of the universe, just waiting for you to unzip your current reality and reconsider everything based on a new context.

Suppose that you are only two-dimensional, and that you’ve never seen, experienced, or even considered 3-D objects or the

3-D space in which they live.

Now suppose that you encountered the following apparent paradox:

All angles at 90 degrees.

All angles at 90 degrees. (Author photo)

How could it be? It makes no sense. The object clearly is not solely made up of right angles. Is it a lie? Is it a trick? Your peers decide that the error lies in the text. You decide to hold the paradox.

If you see the image as a crisscross of lines at odd angles, you can easily see it in two dimensions because you are thinking in two dimensions. As you look at the object, force your imagination to “make” the angles 90 degrees, or exactly perpendicular. Suddenly the image “jumps off” the page and becomes a cube in your consciousness, because you’ve shifted to thinking in three

dimensions. Now that you have expanded your consciousness to include additional dimensionality, there is no paradox. There is only an ordinary cube, accompanied by a mundane observation—a “stating of the obvious.”

What’s more, your new three‑dimensional insight isn’t limited to this image of a cube, but instantly reframes, or recontextualizes, everything, past, present, and future. Notice that the paradox only exists when an object (or idea or phenomenon) is witnessed through the lens of less dimensionality that is native to it: 3‑D objects viewed in 2‑D space, etc. Let this serve as a reminder to you that there is a broader way of thinking available every time you sense a contradiction or paradox.

This is the power of paradox, and this is why we call holding paradox a dimensional gateway. Life is littered with these little clues, where the seams of our limited sense of reality don’t quite line up and are just waiting for us to evolve our thinking. Every time you experience a paradox or conflict between truths, know that there is a new understanding waiting for you to behold—as fundamental as waking up to three dimensions after having lived only in two.

Through intellectual honesty, you can start to hold these paradoxes, unlocking dimensions of consciousness among apparent dichotomies such as the masculine versus feminine, the material versus spiritual dimensions, the agentic (identification with self as an “agent” acting on the world) versus the communal countless more.

Perhaps the most important leadership paradox is about change itself. To grossly generalize, Eastern wisdom teaches us that the present moment is perfect, without any alteration or adjustment. In this conception, “enlightenment” is achieved by the full realization of the perfection of the now moment. Western wisdom teaches us that the ultimate human expression is that of progress and evolution; that “a better tomorrow” deserves all of our attention. You have the potential to harness these two powerful opposing truths and gain the power of this apparent paradox but also the potential to lose the ability to lead those who are inculcated in one or the other culture.

Any leader who can fully acknowledge the perfection of the present moment and fully endorse our evolutionary drive to grow and change can unleash inspiration and motivation among followers on both sides of the paradox.

Michael Ellsberg is the co-author of The Last Safe Investment: Spending Now to Increase Your True Wealth Forever, and The Education of Millionaires: It’s Not What You Think, and It’s Not Too Late, both published by Penguin/Portfolio. He is also the author of The Power of Eye Contact: Your Secret For Success in Business, Love and Life, from HarperCollins.

Bryan Franklin is a transformational leader and executive coach who is creating the contribution culture amongst the world’s most exciting entrepreneurs. Bryan is also the co-author of The Last Safe Investment: Spending Now to Increase Your True Wealth Forever.