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The New Grad’s Influence-Building Skill Set: 12 Tips For Thriving In An Uncertain World


by Robert L. Dilenschneider, author of “The Ultimate Guide to Power & Influence: Everything You Need to Know

It’s graduation season, and young people everywhere are in a time of great transition. Whether that’s high school or college receding in the rearview mirror, you’re zooming toward the future (well…perhaps after enjoying a bit of well-earned fun). I have a two-part message for you. One, it’s time to get focused on building your influence skill set. And two, make sure you understand what influence really is.

We live in a time of great upheaval. Our lives have been upended by a pandemic, social change is accelerating, and technology is reshaping our lives in ways we don’t even comprehend yet.

When all paradigms are being disrupted, our ability to influence becomes incredibly important. It’s what allows us to find the opportunity hidden in the uncertainty. It’s what allows us to thrive in virtually any field and any job. It’s what gives us staying power.

There are lots of misconceptions about influence. It’s not about being pushy or manipulative or convincing resisters to change their mind. And the rise of social media “influencers” (with their short-term focus on getting “likes” and orchestrating superficial trends) hasn’t helped.

Growing your influence is about deciding how to direct your power. My message to grads is this: As you’re figuring this out, don’t confuse activity with progress. Don’t get caught up in things that might make you highly visible but fail to build real influence.

Whether you’re heading off to college or searching for (or stepping into) your first real-world job, here are a few tips for growing your influence skill set:

Start with a complete self-inventory.

What are your values? You must start here, because this is what drives everything else. Influence is about who you are, not just what you do. When you’re young, you may still be learning about yourself, and that’s fine. But be sure to ask yourself why you want the power to influence others.

Will you use your power for personal gain or for the greater good? “Do you want to have the power to lord it over others or the power to make things happen that will benefit many?  The way you use your power says a lot about your character and will determine your legacy.

Ask yourself: How can I help others?

Counterintuitive as it may sound, real influence comes from the ability to help the people around you and shape the world into a better place. This is what makes others want to follow you and what will ultimately drive your success.

Find a cause that matches your interests and passions. Use your skills and talents to support it. Your help may not be monetary. It may be something less obvious, like the ability to help people think creatively. Not only will you draw others to you, you’ll become a better person and experience a real sense of fulfillment.

When networking, focus on what you can do for others, not vice versa…

It’s not just shaking hands and smiling at networking events. It’s about really connecting with people based on shared values and being prepared to add value. And it’s not a one-way street.

Focus on what you have to offer. Research industries and leaders you are likely to meet. Have something to talk about with them that will convey your knowledge and interest. And most of all — listen. The people you connect with need to come away thinking about what you could do for them, rather than the other way around.

… and know that it’s an ongoing process, not a “one-and-done” activity.

You may think the purpose of your network is to grow your business, make sales, recruit, or be recruited. But the truth is that it’s about building relationships. You are not there, hat in hand, seeking a job. That may come eventually, but don’t be so desperate to make it happen. Life unfolds in its own time.

Keep your name in front of people you want to connect with.

Make a list of people you would like to know in your field, the media, politics, or other realms. Then narrow that list to a manageable number. Research their backgrounds, such as where they went to school, what boards they serve on, their charitable causes. Then, find ways to regularly connect with them.

I know a fellow who wanted to reach three key people. He put their names in his electronic Rolodex, and when something would come up in the news related to their interests, he would contact them with the information. It was an enormous help in making connections. Don’t overdo it, of course. You want to be helpful, not pesky.

When making personal connections, know that the little details matter.

Much depends on how you interact with others. Always be nice. Know birthdays and send cards with a short personal note. Use correct grammar and spelling. Give credit to others. And be respectful of people’s time: Return phone calls and emails promptly (within 24 hours is best).

Don’t underestimate the power of gratitude.

In our nonstop, sometimes frantic lives, we may easily forget the importance of gratitude, the value of that often brief but vital connection we make when we take a moment to smile and say “thank you.” People benefit from saying it as much as the one listening appreciates hearing it. Vast emotional distances may be overcome in a moment by a “thank you” that conveys “I value you and what you do.”

Protect your reputation, starting now.

The more power and influence you end up accumulating, the greater the efforts of others to take them away — or at least take them down a few notches. Assume your life is an open book. Social media has forever blurred the lines between “personal” and “professional,” so think before you post anything inflammatory, controversial, or politically sensitive. It could come back to bite you, many years from now.

Before you say it or write it, get clear on what you want to communicate.

The more focused your communication is, the deeper the impression it will make. Focus begins with clear thinking. Ask yourself what result or action you want before you send the email, pick up the phone, speak up at the meeting, or write the speech.

Make sure your tone and word choice match your goal. Be succinct. Always. No one wants or has the time to wade through verbiage.

Use the strong language of success.

For example, avoid cliches. Not only do they make your message unclear — after all, what does “Get the ball rolling” or “Think outside the box” really mean? — they make you seem lazy. Be original. Always use the active voice, never the passive. Make your sentences energetic, not flabby.

When speaking, as in writing, use active, muscular verbs. And please, avoid the temptation to ‘-ize’ a word. Don’t promise to ‘prioritize’; say that you will ‘set priorities.’ Use the strong language of success.

Seek to be a problem solver and conflict neutralizer.

Dr. Zoe Chance, an author, researcher, and professor at the Yale School of Management, claims the question that can “transform conversational dynamics” is: What would it take for us to resolve this?1

The key to having influence is to get people to focus on a problem that is clearly and succinctly stated (and usually, you’ll have to be the one to do the clarifying and the stating). Then, you find out why the issue is so emotionally important to the people involved; finally, you offer a solution that satisfies all the parties needed to make the solution work.

Own your mistakes.

Mistakes are bound to happen, particularly if you are doing new and innovative things. Never try to hide from them or shift blame to others. Instead, own the mistake. Take responsibility, learn from it, and find a constructive way to move forward. Don’t wallow in failure. Do continue to take risks.

Finally, people of power and influence aren’t afraid to change direction. When work and life cease to be exciting and energizing, it may be time to pivot.

The well-rounded individual makes little distinction between work and play, labor and leisure, the mind and body, education and recreation, love and religion. When you are doing work that provides satisfaction and personal fulfillment, it doesn’t feel like work. It is part of the natural flow of your life. It’s like moving effortlessly with the current in a river instead of fighting every inch to go upstream.


Robert L. Dilenschneider, author of “The Ultimate Guide to Power & Influence: Everything You Need to Know“, formed The Dilenschneider Group in October 1991. The firm provides strategic advice and counsel to Fortune 500 companies and leading families and individuals around the world, with experience in fields ranging from mergers and acquisitions and crisis communications to marketing, government affairs, and international media. He has authored 18 books.