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.

Influencer Institute

Influencer Institute: The Power of a Vivid Story

Recently, I had the great pleasure of spending a few days with Martha Swai, one of the primary architects of an influential (and now world-renowned) radio soap opera in Tanzania.

In the early 1990s, Martha and her colleagues developed a serial drama called Twende Na Wakati (“Let’s Go With the Times”), which blended first-rate entertainment with carefully crafted public health messages. The result of her efforts was that millions of listeners adopted safer sexual practices to reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS. Further, Martha’s efforts elevated the status of women in Tanzania and promoted planned childbearing to curb cycles of poverty.

Before you get caught up in the remarkable pubic health implications of these broadcasts, think about how Martha worked her magic: she changed the behavior of an entire nation by telling vivid stories.

Does storytelling strike you as a soft skill? Something for the PR department or for social evenings around a campfire? Daniel Pink doesn’t think so. In his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future, Pink characterizes a mastery of story as a critical individual skill and organizational competency. And if you’ve read Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, you’ll know that influencers are master storytellers, which leads us back to Martha.

Rather than broadcasting lectures or logical arguments, Martha told stories. She and her writing team invented believable characters and plot lines that resonated with their listeners. They followed the exploits of a philandering truck driver who, much to his surprise and the surprise of the listeners, contracted HIV/AIDS and eventually died. They gradually revealed how his reckless and often abusive behavior negatively affected his family members and acquaintances.

One of the reasons that storytelling is so powerful is that it honors the listener’s intellect, which creates a participatory relationship wherein the listener begins to own the parts of the story filled in by his or her imagination. A good story invites the listener to personally discover the connection between actions and consequences. A good story invites the listener to scrutinize information, make guesses, and imagine outcomes. A good story triggers empathy and emotions.

Next time you’d like to influence the behavior of an individual or group, remember Martha Swai and the power of a vivid story.

Note: At our REACH conference this year, VitalSmarts recognized Martha with the 2013 Albert Bandura Influencer Award for her exceptional public health efforts. Click here to learn more about this prestigious award.

Influencer Institute

Influencer Institute: Finding Meaning in the Mundane

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

Atilano, a new friend of mine in Mexico, smiles while he delivers bottled water from his bicycle to nearby homes and businesses. His is a small business by nearly every standard, yet it is a powerful component of his escape route from poverty. And it’s working.

But that’s only half of the story. It turns out that there are several behaviors besides increasing income that lead a person to the outcome of a reliable financial surplus, and, eventually, to permanently improved economic conditions.

Can you imagine what one of those behaviors is?

You probably already know the answer—and it isn’t an exciting one. The behavior is: regularly write down every amount of money you take in and spend. People who make a habit (the intersection of ability and reliability) of regular financial record keeping know exactly how much they earn, exactly how much they spend, and can therefore take action if there is an imbalance between the two.

Our work with small business mentoring organizations in Latin America verifies this fact: their very poor clients who start small businesses and keep daily financial records manage to escape poverty over time, sometimes rapidly. Those who start businesses but are sloppy with record keeping or neglect it entirely, may never get ahead—and often don’t.

So here’s the rub, and it’s probably familiar: what if an all-important behavior is mundane? What if it’s dull, inconvenient, or psychologically painful?

This is where we can all learn from Atilano. It’s true that the act of record keeping might be tiresome if you view it as taking away from income-generating work, family time, or whatever you’d rather be doing. But Atilano thinks of his kids and the example he’s setting. He reminds himself of the “why” behind the task. Believe it or not, he considers his ledgers a personal diary—evidence of his hard work and dedication to his family. Taken in that light, record keeping can be a celebration of sorts, a happy daily ritual.

Can you think of a way to reconnect the task you routinely avoid to what you care about most? Can you link it to your values and vision and to people you care about?

Finding the thread that links what you must do to the grander vision of why you do it can help drum up the motivation you need to do an unpleasant task. Of course, your personal motivation isn’t everything; you also need skills, tools, and social support—and those factors unquestionably contribute to Atilano’s successes.

However, you and I can take a big step forward in our efforts to influence ourselves and others when we deliberately find meaning in life’s mundane but vital tasks.

Influencer Institute

Influencer Institute: Beating Poverty One Vital Behavior at a Time

Andrew MaxfieldAndrew Maxfield is director of the Influencer Institute.

Influencer Institute

What does poverty have in common with obesity? Both are conditions—states of being—that result from repeated behaviors over time—patterns of doing.

If you’ve read Change Anything, you know that we claim both of these conditions can be dramatically and fundamentally altered by changing the habits that produce them. And habits hinge on pivot points called vital behaviors.

Influencer Institute, a charitable private operating foundation funded in part by VitalSmarts, has applied a behavior-change approach to helping people escape the clutches of dire poverty in Oaxaca, Mexico through a partnership with an organization called Cause for Hope. Let me relate a few lessons we’ve learned that can perhaps help you in your own personal change efforts as well as in your training and coaching.

First, insist on vital behaviors. There are many important and interesting behaviors, but few vital ones. You’ll know a vital behavior when you see it because other behaviors and results naturally follow if you get the vital behavior right.

In the case of our experiments in Mexico, participants who lifted themselves out of dire poverty over the course of several months did just a few key things:

  • They made and kept weekly commitments related to growing a small business.
  • They kept daily financial records of income and expenses.
  • They saved an increasing amount of money each week, even if in very small increments.

Take Connie, for example. Now a proud owner of a children’s clothing store, she describes how her monthly income grew from less than $200 to over $400 (and still growing) and how she now has accumulated $800 in savings. Further, her husband’s earnings have improved substantially due to her influence. Her children will have opportunities that she never could have provided without focusing on her vital behaviors.

Second, find or create a team. You might think that getting yourself out of poverty is your battle alone, that it’s a math problem involving your income and your expenses, period. And in a sense, that’s true—at the end of the day, you must be the one to enact the behaviors that change your condition.

However, engaging the help and encouragement of supportive team members is a powerful component in an influence strategy to change your behavior. This has been the case in our work in Mexico, too.

Each participant belongs to a “peer-mentoring group,” which provides the vehicle for ongoing peer-accountability, motivation, and learning. At weekly group meetings, participants engage in a ritual of making and keeping a commitment relative to growing his or her small business and reporting on the prior week’s commitment. Group members hold each other accountable for making steady progress and also participate in joint problem-solving sessions. These participants are progressing together in ways they couldn’t (and didn’t) alone.

Finally, consider a condition in your own life that you’d like to change. It might not be dire poverty, but there is at least one thing that you can learn from this experiment: results ensue when you pursue the vital behaviors.

Influencer Institute

Influencer Institute: Introducing the Influencer Institute—And a Call to Action!

Andrew MaxfieldAndrew Maxfield is director of the Influencer Institute.

Influencer Institute

If you’ve been connected to VitalSmarts for even a few minutes, you know the company often makes some audacious claims, not the least of which is that you and I, just ordinary people, can develop the capacity to “change anything.”

Wait a minute—anything?

Sure, we might be able to design a strategy to quit smoking or perhaps maintain a new exercise routine. And maybe we can even ensure the success of an important initiative at work by flexing our Influencer muscles.

But what about bigger, stickier social issues, problems, and opportunities?

The newly organized Influencer Institute, a private operating foundation funded primarily by a percentage of VitalSmarts profits, is an emerging answer to the question of how we’ll leave the world a little better than we found it. It’s our attempt to put our money where our mouths are. And here is a snapshot of some of the initiatives we’ve been working on this past year.

Helping Families Escape Dire Poverty
Poverty flows from myriad causes, particularly poverty that reaches through many generations within families, communities, and nations. And while it’s trite and inadequate to say “poor people have poor ways,” it is true that in many cases, individuals remain in poverty for reasons attributable to behavior as much as to genes or circumstance.

In partnership with Fundacíon Paraguaya, Influencer Institute co-designed a program that helped participating families enact vital behaviors related to growing their monthly incomes and increasing their savings. Fundacíon Paraguaya estimates that 6,200 families have lifted themselves above the poverty threshold through these efforts.

Meanwhile, the Institute has partnered with Cause For Hope, another fine Latin American development organization, to pilot a new form of poverty alleviation intervention based on Influencer principles. We’re in the thick of the experiments now: creating strong peer mentoring entrepreneurship groups, teaching the basics of self-directed behavior change, and designing lean, scalable support systems. Early results are promising, and we anticipate that many individuals and families will be enabled to lift themselves from longstanding poverty.

Improving Educational Outcomes for At-Risk Youth
Influencer Institute has also partnered with KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), a leading USA-based public charter school system that has shown tremendous results in helping inner-city, at-risk youth prepare for, enter, and graduate from college. We’ve been working with KIPP to reduce turnover among their key administrators, a factor that impacts the day-to-day educational experience of their students. Early indicators are good, and we look forward to helping KIPP help tens of thousands of our nation’s youth.

A Call to Action for Certified Trainers
How would you like to make a difference in your own community by training the leaders or members of a worthy nonprofit organization? You choose an organization that aligns with your values and serves people you care about. You donate your training time and we donate up to twenty-five toolkits through the “Not For Profit Training Grants Program.” (See the one-page application on the Trainer Zone website for details.)

Certified Trainers from around the globe have reported personal, moving experiences related to giving freely of their time and talents. How might you make a difference in your own context?

I invite you to stay tuned to Influencer Institute updates, and to join us in the great adventure of transferring the VitalSmarts tools and ideas from the training room to the trenches, and helping to change our communities for good.