Category Archives: Influencer Institute

Influencer Institute

Using Our Skills in Our Own Communities

At this year’s REACH Conference, I had the pleasure of interacting with a hundred or so VitalSmarts Certified Trainers in breakout sessions entitled “Using Your Skills in the Community.” I walked away from our conversations with a renewed interest in serving in my own community, and I think other attendees felt similarly.

How will you use your skills in your community? What follows is a brief summary of our conference musings. Perhaps these will spark your own creativity and desire to serve.

Be an example. Let’s say that you’ve learned a new skill, such as how to hold a high-stakes, emotional conversation—that’s the crux of Crucial Conversations, right? Each time you use that skill, you’re sharing a little light with those around you—giving them a glimpse of a new behavioral possibility. Think of your skills, not just those that stem from your exposure to VitalSmarts content. Can you use them more deliberately and frequently? In an appropriate way, can you use your skills more visibly?

Be a mentor. Can you remember a key moment in your life when someone mentored you? Take a moment and consider the people in your professional, social, and family circles. Who could you motivate or enable? Whether you think of your own skill set as limited or vast, chances are that there is someone near you who can benefit from your kind words, coaching, cheerleading, or guidance. You don’t need official permission or a mandate to be a mentor, and often those who need your help are hesitant to ask. Who might look back a few years from now and thank you for mentoring them?

Be a trainer. If you’re a VitalSmarts Certified Trainer, then you may have heard of the Not-for-Profit Training Grant Program. Through this program, you can donate your unique skills as a trainer to a qualifying nonprofit organization in your community. Many nonprofits, which otherwise couldn’t access training of this quality, have benefited from this program. Can you think of an organization in your community that could benefit from your training skills?

Be a volunteer. The important work of building healthy communities takes place at many levels—through the work of inspired individuals, neighborhood associations, churches, service organizations, and a variety of nonprofits, for-profit and social impact ventures, and government. Nearly every one of these is an entry point for volunteers. Given your skill set and the needs of your community, how might you stretch yourself into an unfamiliar and potentially rewarding volunteer role? As a trainer, you possess facilitation and teaching skills that could be especially valuable.

Be an influencer. During our breakout session, we spent extra time discussing the Influencer model, which is the backbone of the book, Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change. This model presents a systematic way for any reader to influence behavior. You don’t need special permission or training to apply the Influencer model, and, in fact, I’d love to hear about your efforts, successes, and challenges. I encourage you to read stories of others who have applied this model to accomplish important goals within organizations and communities. How will you influence your community to change for good?

If you’ve felt inspired by any of these descriptions or questions, then I’ll conclude with this invitation: act now. Act in a small way, but act now. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity or for a formal invitation or for a season when you have more free time. Don’t wait for this motivational microburst to subside. Take this challenge now—and let’s all use our skills for good.

Influencer Institute

Influencer Institute: Hey Lone Ranger…It's Time for a Braintrust

Andrew MaxfieldAndrew Maxfield is director of the Influencer Institute, a private operating foundation that seeks to increase humanity’s capacity to change for good.

Influencer Institute

I love to think—quietly and nonstop. My wife says I’m nuts for spending so much time in my head, and of course, she’s probably right. I’m intrigued by stories of individual artists and problem-solvers—the great minds of our era. I like the idea that one brain operating in isolation can do so much.

While this image of the solitary genius seems to be true sometimes, my recent experiences persuade me that even the brightest individuals—and especially average folks like me—benefit from the influence of groups. And very frequently in unexpected ways.

In his management memoir, Creativity, Inc., Pixar founder, Ed Catmull, describes a key group that evolved within his legendary animation studio called the “braintrust.” The braintrust is a team of creative individuals that convene at intervals to review storyboards for movies in production—from the earliest sketches to the final features we enjoy in theaters.

Catmull makes the surprising claim that every Pixar movie was “terrible” at its inception. He explains that the genius of Pixar—the recipe for their many hits—is integrating the genius of the braintrust with the genius of the individual as part of a routine product development process. Invariably the braintrust spots holes in the narrative or contributes ideas to improve the storytelling in ways that no individual could. Importantly, however, the braintrust doesn’t prescribe solutions; choosing a path forward is left to the film’s director. Pixar leverages the group dynamic for diagnostic activities and ideation but stops short of groupthink.

This lesson about the power of groups was reinforced for me during a recent workshop with one of Influencer Institute’s partner organizations. This organization operates one of the largest and most rigorously scrutinized and validated child sponsorship programs in the world. They have helped to release millions of children from poverty over the last sixty years.

On this occasion, our consulting team gathered with their leaders to design strategies to influence their many thousands of sponsors—folks who live in developed countries and who give time and resources to help children in the poorest places on earth. Although our meeting was driven by good research and excellent communication, the real secret to its success was that our partners had invited a large handful of actual sponsors to join the process. Imagine that: co-creating an initiative with the very people who will be served by it.

We had formed our own braintrust, and it paid off before we were even an hour into our meetings. By sharing their experiences and points of view, these sponsors helped unearth obstacles to implementing our partner’s strategy and provided ideas for improving it. Similarly, the diverse team assembled from within the partner organization gave the strategies breadth and depth that no individual could have created.

As a consultant and writer, I’ve seen my own work routinely and immeasurably improved by the insights of team members and colleagues. Used well, groups can be a windfall for creativity, and a bolster for motivation and accountability.

Influencer Institute

Influencer Institute: Building a House…One Skill at a Time

Andrew MaxfieldAndrew Maxfield is director of the Influencer Institute, a private operating foundation that seeks to increase humanity’s capacity to change for good.

Influencer Institute

It began innocently enough. My wife and I bought a fixer-upper—a cool, though neglected, ’60s suburban gem—and drew up plans with an architect for a “little remodeling project” that we would do, ourselves, to “save money.”

You can probably guess where this is going. And if you’ve been there, you also won’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Several months later, I was staring at our back yard—from my vantage point on the front sidewalk, through the giant crater in the middle of our house. This was a view no one was ever supposed to see and that was now haunting me day and night. By that point, we had nearly leveled the house, ripping off the roof and even pouring new concrete footings and foundation walls.

My headache-du-jour was the entryway that we were supposed to build in place of the crater. This entryway would be a prominent design feature on the never-ending construction project that was now infamous throughout the neighborhood. More importantly, it would be the barrier to prevent passersby from walking their dogs in my dining room. True story.

But there was a problem: I had no idea what to do or even where to start. I felt hopeless. It wasn’t just the frustration of the moment; it was the accumulation of weeks and weeks of stress. Not only could I not make heads or tails of the architectural schematics, I didn’t have the carpentry know-how to cut, treat, and install the planks of tongue-and-groove cedar that were stacked in my driveway, mocking me.

Fortunately, my father arrived on the scene before I could find a stick or two of dynamite. An experienced builder and cheerful worker, he helped me break the task of building the entryway into bite-sized pieces. First we overlaid measurements on the underlying structure to make sure our work was plumb and square; then he showed me how to make mitered joints and cuts using a variety of saws; then we started applying timber oil to the cedar. Of course, I was overthinking each step and agonizing over my mistakes. But the act of doing, the deliberate repetition of small steps, gradually built my confidence and competence.

Before long, the entryway took shape—and our local dog-walkers had to choose new routes.

So my father won on two accounts. First, he showed up, and it’s hard to overstate how much I appreciated that help. Second, he sensed that I was anxious about my lack of ability rather than simply unmotivated, and he provided help in the form of unhurried coaching and teaching. Rather than delivering a pep talk, he helped me learn how to do what needed to be done, which in turn freed me from my feelings of frustration and despair.

How does this homebuilding homily relate to your work and mine? Consider it a warning about a kind of thinking that can sabotage our work: when we see someone who isn’t doing the right thing at the right time, it’s convenient—but often dead wrong—to make assumptions about that person’s lack of motivation.

For instance, in Influencer Institute’s work to accelerate the successes of microenterprise organizations, we’ve learned that it’s folly to assume that poor people are simply lazy. Instead, we’ve learned that they very often lack skills related to personal management, which they can develop through coaching and practice. Your conclusions about yourself and others can be no better than your assumptions, so train yourself to look for hidden skill gaps that underlie what appear to be maligned motives.

Reflecting on my ongoing renovation saga, what’s most interesting to me is that when it came time to build the rear entryway to my house (very similar to the front), I jumped right in and built it without hesitation, indigestion, or help.

Moral of the story? Never trust the architect.