“How do you build influence if you are the low person on the totem pole?”
We all have to start somewhere, and usually that somewhere is at the bottom of the heap. So how is it that some people seem to climb higher faster than others? It really comes down to doing three simple things that are available to any of us.
Here’s the story of one person who started at the bottom who managed to build a great deal of influence before she was done. Following her example, we can do the same.
Doing the Math…
Katherine was a young black woman living in the southern United States in the 1950s. She was bright, but her career options were limited: they boiled down to either teaching, or becoming a nurse. She was not interested in either option. She loved numbers and wanted to become a research mathematician.
You may have heard of Katherine Johnson – she was one of the protagonists in Hidden Figures, the story of how black women broke the barriers of prejudice while working as human computers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Johnson’s story is a great example of the three steps it takes to build influence.
But before we get into the those steps, there is an underlying advantage we can give ourselves so that when we apply them they can work their magic. It comes down to one word: competence. The ability to influence others begins with them believing that you know what you are doing.
Katherine had shown her mathematical abilities from an early age; she began her career in school by entering directly into the second grade, and was a college graduate by age 18.
We may not be as intellectually gifted as Katherine, but it’s important to note that her competence was the underpinning of all that followed.
Skill or talent alone are not necessarily enough to make someone influential. But from a starting point of competence, these three steps can help translate that ability into influence.
1. Show Up
The effort to build influence starts with simply showing up.
Johnson was one of several “computers” whose job was to solve mathematical problems given them by the engineers in the Guidance and Control Branch.
What made her stand out from the others was that she wasn’t content to simply solve the problems and turn in the answers. She wanted to know the “why” behind the problems she was given to solve.
To improve her understanding, she got permission to start attending briefings so she could hear the engineers discussing what they were trying to do.
The more she showed up at these meetings, the more she understood. As a result, the better she was better able to help them find the answers they were looking for, perhaps even help them ask better questions.
Application: Decisions are made by the people who show up. It’s the ones on the scene who are discussing the issues, wrestling with the problem, and searching for solutions. When we show up we demonstrate our personal investment, broaden our understanding of what is going on, and create opportunities to contribute.
This is more than just coming in to work every day. In your environment, think about where discussions are happening and decisions are being made, and try to be present when those things are happening. It could be at planning meetings, or specific briefings; it might even be at the water cooler at certain times
Begin by listening in order to understand the context of the discussions. The better we can understand what is needed, the better we can see where we might be able to step up and help meet those needs.
2. Step Up
If showing up gets your foot in the door, stepping up turns you into a player.
While working as a computer, Johnson contributed critical math inputs for a 1958 document “Notes on Space Technology” a collection of lectures. She didn’t receive formal credit on the paper, but her leaders took note of her contributions.
Two years later, she not only contributed to but coauthored a paper with one of the group’s engineers about calculations for placing a spacecraft into orbit. It was the first time a woman from her research division had ever received credit as an author of a research report.
Application: As you gain understanding of what needs to be done, look for opportunities to contribute, whether large or small, then volunteer to take those tasks on.
Only take on jobs you have the ability and commitment to actually do, and then deliver to the best of your ability. It’s far better to do a few things well than overload your plate and turn in late or substandard work.
This critical third step is where it all comes together. It’s not glamorous, but it’s vital. The currency of leadership is trust, and this is where you build it.
Johnson followed up by doing her job well, solving the problems assigned to her, and by being absolutely accurate every time.
In fact, before Alan Shepard became the first American in space, he wanted to be sure that the new electronic computers that calculated his flight trajectory were correct.
Prior to the flight, referring to Johnson, he asked the head engineers to “get the girl to check the numbers…If she says the numbers are good…I’m ready to go.”
Because of her reputation for accuracy, she had gained the trust and faith of those whose lives were on the line.
Application: Once you have signed up to do something, here are some thoughts to help make your follow-up effective:
- Do something, anything right away (first 24 hours) – whether it’s capturing who’s going to do what on an email you share to the group, initial contacts with people to coordinate the next step, or getting started on your specific task, don’t wait to get the ball rolling. Build momentum by getting started early.
- Set a schedule – Lay out what you plan to do and when. Use backward planning as a technique, but add in plenty of buffer space at the end so that you complete the task early, and have the flexibility to adjust if necessary.
- Keep the team informed. Doing so will help motivate others to stay on track and remain in sync with each other. Coordinate continuously and honestly.
- Finish. If you really want to stand out, of course it’s important to get something started, but it’s even more critical that you finish what you start.
It took Johnson a full day and a half to reverse-engineer the flight calculations that the new electronic computer had made, but she was able to confirm that they were correct.
Based on her follow-through, the mission launched, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, and lived to tell about it.
How to Build Influence – The Takeaway
Katherine Johnson faced many disadvantages as she tried to launch her career, but she didn’t let them stop her. She focused on developing the skills she needed, then applied these three steps to steadily build influence with the people around her.
She showed up at the places where discussion happened and decisions were made so she could broaden her understanding.
She stepped up when she saw opportunities to contribute.
And she followed up every time with high quality work that earned the trust and respect of those around her.
The fact that Shepard wanted her approval before his historic launch is the ultimate testament to the influence she had built.
As in Johnson’s case, the effort to build influence doesn’t yield fruit overnight. But if you follow this pattern consistently, over time eyes will begin to turn to you when something important is about to happen.
If Katherine Johnson can do it, maybe we can, too.