To influence…Is this the greatest skill of all?

January 7, 2011

If you were to ask lawyers what their ultimate client compliment would be then many will say that it is to be considered a “trusted advisor”. It doesn’t matter if these lawyers work in-house or in law firms the phrase “trusted advisor” seems to have a very special resonance which goes to the essence of what being a lawyer means to them.

I have thought about this phrase a great deal, examined examples where it has been achieved (and not) and analysed what it might actually mean in practice. In this article I will explore the steps lawyers can take that will help them move along the relationship development pathway towards becoming a “trusted advisor” to their clients.

The headline conclusion of what this phrase means will not be surprise; the essence of being a trusted advisor is to be influential.

One of the most rewarding days of my career as a lawyer was when my then Chief Executive, with whom I did not always have the warmest of relationships, said to our Sales Director “I agree, but subject to what Paul says”… In that moment I knew that my judgement was trusted and that I was regarded as someone with influence whose judgement was considered neither partial nor self-motivated and whose views would be offered in the best interests of the company.

This was not about the quality of my legal expertise (how would they know if my technical knowledge of legal regulation was accurate or not?), but about the quality of relationships I have developed and the sense those colleagues had of my judgement and of me as a person.

This point in my career however was not achieved quickly – It took a number of years for me to reach this level of acceptance; so what is this concept that we have called “influence”? Can it be trained or coached? And how do we know how well we are doing? I think there are five stages to becoming more influential and therefore to becoming a trusted advisor:

  1. Have a track record of decision making that demonstrates more often than not that you make good calls. No one is ever 100% right 100% of the time, but do you make decisions that generally have good outcomes? There are two related and crucial points to make – first be seen to make decisions and second make sure the outcomes from your good decisions are seen as well!
  2. Develop a work ethic that puts colleagues’ interests and concerns before your own. There is no need to be continuously burning the midnight oil (although some will be involved inevitably) but be seen to work hard in a committed, non partisan and not self-serving way.
  3. Show a willingness and a curiosity to be engaged across your colleagues/clients business and be genuinely interested in their people, products and services. Be passionate for their worlds and they will invest more in yours.
  4. Demonstrate a generosity of spirit that praises publically the good work of others, but which also offers a quiet private word when things could and should have been done better.
  5. Have an appetite for being involved in the non legal projects and initiatives that are the personal concern of senior managers. To be influential you will need to reach out from behind your desk and become involved in work that is not just about the law.

Earlier, I posed the question can this be trained or coached? The answer is undoubtedly that it can, but if you find yourself attending a half day workshop entitled “Influencing skills for lawyers” it will most probably be too superficial to be useful and may seem a little trite. I believe developing influencing skills requires a deeper and more thoughtful approach. It is an approach I can summarise in six short points:

  1. Be good at presentation across all media – a thoughtful email, a well chosen comment and insightful recommendation etc, will carry impact. The more presentation skills are practiced, developed and honed the better.
  2. Be visible – listen a lot, contribute thoughtfully, but not too much and ensure you have an opinion. Having an opinion does not mean forcing your view; it just means engaging in the debate. You must be seen to be part of the environment and culture, not separate from it – If colleagues can say about you “I don’t really know what he/she thinks” it will be so much harder for you to become influential and therefore a trusted advisor.
  3. Have good project skills – ensure you have initiatives of your own and be seen to deliver successfully against your targets and objectives.
  4. Be a generous networker – be prepared to share your ideas, help others in their concerns. The more you share, the more will be shared with you.
  5. Set the highest ethical and professional standards for your own conduct and that of your team – Do not wear “professionalism” on your sleeve, but ensure commitments are kept (always) and never, ever, give anyone the slightest cause for concern about your motivation
  6. Be patient – the tipping point will not always be obvious and may be at different points for different colleagues. The challenge is not to force people to respect your work, but to ensure that what they see of you and the way you work will resonate with them.

Present well, be visible, project management, network, be ethical and patient – all these points are about building influence over time in a disciplined, systematic and thoughtful way. It is just one among many important skills, but in my opinion it is THE core skill for all successful lawyers. It is the window through which others will judge your talent, your commitment and your judgement – and it doesn’t get any more significant than that…

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