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Make Yourself Clout Worthy

Seven questions to ask on your way to becoming the influencer of tomorrow. By Kim Simios | Fall 2015

Summer Kim

OK, so “influence” might not be the first word that springs to mind when you think of accountants. But it should be.

As accountants, delving deep into our spheres of influence may not come naturally; many of us are analytically wired and would rather have a spreadsheet in front of us that we can routinely check off and feel good about. For me, thinking about influence can be a little uncomfortable. I have to build time into my schedule to think about things differently—relationally.

Last year, I took on a new leadership role as managing partner of Ernst & Young LLP’s Chicago office, which includes helping to guide the career paths of our younger professionals. Not surprisingly, the new position created new opportunities both to influence and be influenced. I took a purposeful step back and thought about the impact of a leader’s sphere of influence—how it drives behavior, shapes team performance and defines others’ perceptions. In order to be impactful, I consistently challenge our young professionals (and myself) to ask these seven questions.

1. What impression do I make?

Influence starts with being self-aware. We’re not born with self-awareness; it evolves over time, so consistent re-evaluation is important. I can’t remember where I heard this quote, but it resonates so perfectly with this topic: “In every encounter we either give life or we drain it; there is no neutral exchange.”

To build self-awareness, I encourage others to ask what kind of interaction they want to create. What impression do they want to make? What kind of personal brand is their interaction cultivating? How are they perceived by others based on these interactions?

We’ve all worked with people who exude negativity. They complain and complain, and always know why something is a bad idea, without offering anything new. And, as a result, their insights are often overlooked. Contrast that with someone who goes out of her way to ask people how things are going and if they need help, or someone who performs random acts of service for team members when least expected. Which person do you want on your team? Which person are you?

Your appearance also influences how people perceive you. The “guys in ties” theory once made it easy for men to dress for success; at least they always looked like they knew what they were doing! Today, that’s not always the case, as suits and ties largely have fallen by the wayside. And for women, who often are more closely scrutinized, clothing choices add another layer of complexity. I went shopping for an interview outfit with my college-age daughter recently; she was quick to call me too conservative, saying, “Well, your generation is different.” I nodded in agreement, but reminded her that it’s still people like me who hire people like her, so it might not be a bad idea to take my advice.

2. Whose perspective do I need?

Our ability to influence also hinges on our understanding of others’ perspectives. For me, I have my to-do list—I know what needs to get done, and I sometimes assume that others on my team share the same goals. I realized early on as a leader that this was a huge error in judgment. I also thought that my team members knew when they were doing great work, even if I didn’t bother to tell them. To have positive influence and outcomes, you have to consider other people’s perspectives and how they define success.

Have you ever had someone working on your team who has impressive technical skills, but wastes so much time and energy with office politics and jockeying for position that he lacks focus, meaning his work quality suffers? In this scenario, rather than telling this team member what he’s doing wrong, I reframe the conversation into something more constructive—which requires me to understand his perspective and what motivates him (a promotion opportunity, for example).

3. What questions am I afraid to ask?

Influence doesn’t mean having the right answers, but rather asking the right questions. One of my favorite ways to approach challenging situations is with one simple statement: “Help me understand.” It’s not offense or defense; it helps to keep the conversation neutral and can drill down into a variety of issues.

Many of EY’s best initiatives have been inspired by people who had a need and were bold enough to ask probing questions to get the conversation started. I’ll give you an example from my own experience. When I had my second daughter, trying to balance my expanded family with my increasing work responsibilities at EY became so overwhelming that I decided to quit to be a stay-at-home mom. A few years into my hiatus, I asked EY whether there was a way to structure a client load that was less than full time, and put together some ideas of how that might work. Our local leader at the time agreed to try my proposal, and I came back on a reduced schedule. My arrangement, combined with those of a few others, helped to create flexible options for all our people.

A more recent example involves a couple of EY managers who recognized that they needed more education and networking opportunities across our multiple service lines. They got input from colleagues and leaders, and put together a proposal to launch a networking event that included input from service line leaders and facilitated networking for their peers. The event launched this summer.

4. Who’s influencing me?
I can personally attest to the fact that being on the receiving end of influence can change your career trajectory. Great influencers give and get feedback on a regular basis and are highly aware that leadership skills are honed over time. One of my favorite leaders, Bill Hybels, always says, “Everyone wins when a leader gets better.”

When I first made partner, one of our leaders thought it would be a good idea for me to shadow one of our senior partners on a challenging new account. The words “intimidated” and “terrified” best describe my feelings about being a tagalong. I didn’t know this guy at all, except that I thought he was way out of my league.

My impression was that he had a massive book of business and could get people promoted or dash someone’s career in the blink of an eye. Of course, my preconceived notions were false; in reality, he had great relationships, was a strong mentor and took time to give me feedback regularly, much of which was on point, and some of which we amicably debated. He had a counterpoint for every point I made, which was frustrating—until, that is, I realized his motive was to inspire contemplation and solidify my position.
His willingness to mentor me, be a core sponsor, and give candid and honest feedback had a meaningful and far-reaching influence.

5. What kind of energy am I putting out?

One of the most valuable things you can give your colleagues is your energy—even more so than your time. Energy is empowering; it makes people want to do better.

I once worked with a leader who spent an extraordinary amount of time telling people what they would achieve and who they would become. “I have no doubt that you’re going to knock that project out of the park,” he would say. “You will make a great partner someday. You’re presenting this to the client, and I know you will articulate the position just perfectly because you just did for all of us here.”

Everyone wanted to work with this guy, because he brought so much positive, constructive, affirming energy into the process. As a result, he was able to turn ordinary people into top performers.

There’s no question that there are times when we need to work hard, and it’s easy to feel drained, but we can’t forget how energy impacts performance. For me, understanding my energy and how it impacts others is something I have to be intentional about, because one’s energy is contagious. Negative energy can bring down a room immediately. Positive energy can exhilarate and inspire it.

6. Which relationships do I need to expand?

Arguably, developing influence within public accounting depends on your ability to build relationships. People want to be known. They can’t be fulfilled in their jobs if they’re not known, and your chances of being a key influencer plummet if you don’t take time to strengthen relationships.

I’ve seen our younger team members become so consumed with getting the work done that they forget to build relationships with client personnel. Their intention is to be efficient and not waste anyone’s time, not realizing that building the relationship will help the work go much more smoothly. With some coaching, these new managers change their approach, instead focusing on connecting with teammates and getting to know them on a personal level first. When they do, their engagement increases, they become more influential and their team’s performance improves.

7. What kind of ‘ripples’ am I making?

Influence isn’t static. It has a ripple effect whether or not we realize it. Whether it’s becoming more self-aware or building better relationships, your sphere of influence definitely becomes more valuable if you work on it.

I’ve become very self-aware as a leader, but it’s easy to lose sight of my sphere of influence and the impact I have on others. I can either create ripples that are crashing waves, resulting in turmoil with the people I come into contact with, or I can be a positive influence that undulates across the organization from person to person in a constructive, inspiring and motivating way.  

Kim Simios is a Managing Partner at Ernst & Young LLP's Chicago Office. This article is based on Kim’s presentation at the 2015 ICPAS Young Professionals Leadership Conference.