What is your current career situation? Are you looking to get promoted to the next level? Maybe you like your job and want to insulate yourself from future layoffs or being labeled a “blocker” to younger talent. Are you an entrepreneur looking to grow your business? While these scenarios are very different on the surface, expanding your spheres of influence is a critical ability that addresses all these situations.
The concept of spheres of influence started as a political term referring to a country that has the power to affect another without having formal authority. In career development the term means the ability to affect others, and attract new opportunities and business based on your image and connections.
Jobs are dynamic, not static. To remain relevant, we must continually update our skills and expand our influence. I breakdown spheres of influence into three parts, the perception your organization has of you, the perception your industry has of you, and the perception the world has of you.
Organization Perception and Influence
Mastery in a role is the first step to expanding your spheres of influence at the organizational level, and it comes from putting in hours of practice. You need both a diversity of jobs and diversity of situations in which you have applied your skills to master your role. To get to the level of mastery, consider questions like: Have you done your job during good and bad economic conditions? Can you do your job when you have a supportive, mentoring boss and when you have a demanding but absentee boss? As Malcom Gladwell articulated in his book Outliers, it can take 10,000 hours of committed and deliberate practice to become great.
You know when you’ve begun to master your role when others ask you to consult. Consulting is the next level of organizational influence. People believe that you can influence individuals, groups, and organizations with your knowledge, skills, and experience. In the early stages of consulting, you will be asked to mentor others and guide them to perform at higher levels. In the later stages of consulting, you’ll work across departments on larger initiatives.
Being viewed as a subject-matter expert (SME), is the final level of organizational influence. SMEs, like consultants, work across departments but they are given decision-making authority. They can stand alone and represent the interests of others. Consultants generally make recommendations based on analysis. SMEs often outline strategies, make decisions, and guide initiatives through implementation.
At the SME level, you are at the top of the organization perception, but if you want to climb higher, or grow your business, you must focus on building industry influence.
Industry Perception and Influence
Expert is the first step in expanding your spheres of influence at the industry level. An expert is seen as the authority in an area, just like the SME, but now people across the industry trust you as a source of accurate and reliable information on a subject. Image validation as an expert comes from outside your organization, not within it. You recognize experts because they are quoted in newspapers and magazine articles, they speak at industry conferences or are interviewed on podcasts.
From expert you evolve to become a thought leader. A thought leader is more than a pundit you see on television. They are viewed as authoritative (trusted and reliable) and influential. At this point, you are proactively taking steps to influence the image and direction of your entire industry. You are viewed as a spokesperson for the industry, not just your company. To identify thought leaders, observe who the media contacts during a crisis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci was a prominent spokesperson for the medical community.
The final step in industry influence is to become a visionary. Visionaries think about and plan the future of an industry. They have the imagination, insight, and wisdom to move the industry to the next level. In workshops, I stress that the best ways to progress from expert to visionary is to write – articles, books, blogs, etc., and to speak. Writing and social media are ways to expand the universe of people exposed to your ideas. Visionaries move an industry forward by promoting the discussion and debate of ideas and solutions.
World Perception and Influence
The final transition is to expand your influence from a single industry to the world. At this level, you have built a track record of success, and your ideas are accepted industry practices. To further expand your influence, you must analyze the factors that resulted in your success and explain them in more generic terms to they can be adapted and adopted outside your industry. In the beginning your ideas impact your local region. As more individuals become aware of you, your image and influence expand throughout your country, and then the world.
Oprah Winfrey, billionaire media executive and philanthropist, is an example of how a person expanded her spheres of influence from organization to industry to world leader. She started as a local news co-anchor in Nashville. After relocating to Chicago her half-hour morning talk show called AM Chicago became a hit show. Oprah jumped to become an industry influencer when The Oprah Winfrey Show became nationally syndicated. Oprah became a world influencer when her charitable arm, Oprah’s Angel Network, raised more than $50 million for charitable programs and she built a leadership academy for girls’ education in South Africa and provided relief to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
In 2013, Oprah received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the President Medal of Freedom, from Barack Obama, symbolizing Oprah’s status as a world influencer.
Performance is important, especially early in your career, but image and your spheres of influence count more as you climb the corporate ladder. Invest the time to develop company, industry, and world influence.