How to Identify Influential People

How to Identify Influential People

Taunee Besson, CMF, Senior Columnist

Question: Some people seem to know everyone and how to make the most of their relationships. I have no idea how they do this. Does it come naturally, or can I learn how to create my own network of connected individuals?

Answer: A lucky few are natural networkers who initiate relationships easily. For most people, it’s a learned skill that requires regular practice to become a successful habit.

Many professionals don’t realize there are two keys to success in their career: doing excellent work and knowing the right people. Accomplishments alone aren’t enough. To be recognized for your achievements and offered increasing opportunity, you must interact with individuals who can help you succeed. Surprisingly, these people are often not where you might expect. In any organization there are both formal and informal hierarchies. The formal one is easy to recognize because it defines power by position. Everyone knows the CEO is the top dog.

On the other hand, identifying the informal structure requires finesse. In the informal hierarchy, colleagues award power to one another, regardless of position, for one of four reasons:

  • Relationships - Friends, relatives, people with similar interests or philosophies, mentees and assistants to the powerful may have a great deal of influence over them. First Ladies, veteran assistants and corporate rising stars all exude relationship power.
  • Expertise Colleagues -  who have earned the reputation for being smart, reliable problem solvers may have a lot more clout than their positions belie. It’s not unusual for both high-level executives and peers to rely on their advice, particularly in a critical situation. Consider Scottie on Star Trek. He could always get more from the ship’s power plant than any other engineer in the fleet.
  • Information - These employees nurture the corporate grapevine or are exceptionally astute at gauging political situations, perceiving trends, keeping confidences or remembering where the bodies are buried.
  • Seniority - As the glue that holds the company together, these veterans are intimately familiar with the organization’s history and culture. They are reassuring, non-threatening and reliable. Often they knew the CEO when he was just a kid and continue to harbor maternal feelings for him. He has a special place in his heart for them as well.

Here’s how to find these informal centers of influence, if you are a new hire or transferee:

  • When you start your position, be equally congenial with everyone. Learn the lay of the land before you choose your corporate buddies. The person who is anxious to be your friend is often the office pariah.
  • Ask lots of questions. Listen carefully to the answers. It won’t take long to separate wisdom from bravado. Align yourself with the most capable people.
  • Watch how your fellow employees interact with one another. Notice whose opinion your colleagues trust. In one to three months, you will know the informal power structure.

If you are joining a company task force or looking for a mentor:

If you are moving to a new company or pursuing a client contract:

  • Talk to friends, neighbors, fellow students and volunteers to determine if they know anyone at the company who is capable, friendly and works in the area that interests you.
  • Contact this person to establish a relationship.
  • Once she trusts your intentions, ask if she would be willing to refer you to a decision maker who can discuss a job opportunity or a potential contract.
  • With prior investigation and a little luck, you will have befriended someone with the formal or informal power to say yes.



Senior Columnist Taunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979 that works with individual and corporate clients in career transition, job search, executive coaching, talent management and small business issues. She is an award-winning columnist for and a best-selling author of the Wall Street Journal's books on resumes and cover letters. Her articles on a variety of career issues have appeared on numerous career/job websites and trade and business journals. Ms. Besson has been quoted numerous times in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money, and a number of other websites and publications.

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