Influence is More Than Access

Access and influence are easily confused but far from synonymous. You don’t need access to a leader in order to influence him or her, and conversely, just because you have access doesn’t mean you’re influential.

WHAT IS INFLUENCE?

Access is tangible—you either interact with someone, or you don’t. Influence, on the other hand, is intangible, and it comes down to trust and respect. Influence is the ability to persuade or lead others to participate in things that they otherwise might not. Influence develops over time, often through shared experiences, difficult seasons, and years of faithful service. A title can get you access from the first day you start a new job, but influence has to be earned.

When I started at Mars Hill, it was in the role of General Manager. I focused my first six months on straightening out the financial records and I had very limited involvement with ministries across the nine locations. However, in November of 2011, I was suddenly thrown into a role for which I had a title, but little if any influence across the church. Many people did not even know me and I had earned little trust and respect simply due to lack of time. Just because I had a title, did not mean that I had any influence across the staff.

NO ACCESS REQUIRED

I started a company called Khidmah (means “service” in Arabic) in the United Arab Emirates in 2008. In the early days, we could have “company meetings” over lunch, with just five of us sitting around a small table: Saima from Pakistan, Illias from India, Taghrid from Palestine, Abdulla from the UAE, and me. I was the CEO, but since all of the employees reported to me, all of them had full access. Our relationships were informal and direct.

During those early days, I would go out to lunch with the men on the team. One time we went to a Yemeni restaurant where we ate on the ground without utensils. Those were times when I invested in my relationships with them—building trust and respect with my team members. This afforded them great influence with me, and me with them.

On another occasion, my wife Marci brought homemade tamales to a “Texas lunch” with all of the staff. We laughed as some of my team tried to eat them with the corn husks still on. It was a lot of fun, and it made “deposits” into the trust and respect “accounts” with the staff.

The team that helped create Khidmah in 2009.  (from left to right - Taghrid, Adel, Sutton, and Abdulla) The team that helped create Khidmah in 2009. (from left to right – Taghrid, Adel, Sutton, and Abdulla)

Over the next 14 months, the company grew to 500 employees, and the original four found their skill-maximizing positions within the organization. None of them reported directly to me anymore, as they once had. Their direct access was gone, but their influence indeed remained. During those 14 months of rapid growth, they each worked hard to form a deep trust in and worthy respect for them. This was because of their loyalty, diligence, perseverance, and excellent work ethics—not to mention their savvy business acumen. I respected them and trusted them, plain and simple (and that wouldn’t chance just because I didn’t see them as often). As I stated before, influence is built over time, and it is especially increased (or damaged) when people go through trials and difficulties together.

Influence is intangible, and it comes down to trust and respect.

Taghrid was my executive assistant, and she had a ton of influence with me. I trusted her because she adopted the early vision of the company, and I respected her because she hung in there through the tough start-up phase, working seven days a week.

Since she had a love for customer service, I sent Taghrid around the world for training. Eventually she started leading our 24/7 call center, overseeing many agents speaking six different languages. Even though she no longer reported to me, I would still walk down the hall from time to time to visit the call center and seek her advice.

The influence and love that defines a friendship or pastoral relationship must not be determined by the access (or lack thereof) that comes with a professional relationship.

The influence and love that defines a friendship or pastoral relationship must not be determined by the access (or lack thereof) that comes with a professional relationship. This is challenging for those of us working in a church, because our boss and our pastor is often the same person. But this is not only true in the church—many times in a business, your golfing or fishing buddy is someone you with whom you work. If and when we lose the professional access (or if we never had it to begin with), it can feel like our pastor doesn’t care about us since we don’t see him, talk to him, or meet with him very much. The enemy can use this to cause division and bitterness. But shared history and common mission don’t change, and a pastor can still influence you, care for you, and love you as a pastor, even though he’s not checking in on you everyday as your boss.

MORE INFLUENCE = LESS ACCESS

Having been CEO of four companies and executive pastor of two different churches, I’ve learned that professional access to the senior leader must become more restricted as the organization grows. If it doesn’t, both the organization and the senior leader will suffer.

When a leader begins an endeavor, whether you are a church planter or an entrepreneur, access to that leader during those early days is granted to all. You are many times a staff of one and if it is going to be done, you are doing it. There is no hierarchy or organizational chart.

However, as the organization grows, things change.

As the church or business grows, the number of direct reports needs to decrease down to 3-7, at the most in my opinion. This means that in the beginning, many of the people you started with, are no longer your direct reports. They no longer have direct access to you in the form of a weekly one-on-one meeting, senior staff meetings, etc. These are good things for the organization, however when access is taken away from someone they can sometimes believe they no longer have influence with that person.

Over and over again, I have seen churches and companies start out with a small senior team and then try to maintain that team structure by just adding direct reports to that senior team. This is an effort to maintain access to all the original team, even though that team might not be what is required to lead the growing organization.

If a leader’s responsibility changes while his accessibility does not, something will break, whether it’s the leader, the church, or the leader’s family.

We see this in Acts 2. The early church consisted of 120 people with Peter as their leader. But on the day of Pentecost, the church grew by 3,000. From this point forward, those original 120 are not mentioned again as a group. The original core scattered but stayed connected via letters and councils, and new leaders arose (like Paul). While the original 120 did not have access to Peter, they had influence. Each shared a common connection of knowing Jesus personally and witnessing firsthand the birth of Christ’s church.

If a leader’s responsibility changes while his accessibility does not, something will break, whether it’s the leader, the church, or the leader’s family. A senior leader who oversees a half-dozen direct reports and a dozen more indirect reports with casual access will eventually require a sabbatical. Many will simply quit because they are physically unable to recover or escape the demands of so many people. Unfettered access to the senior leader will damage if not destroy the organization.

HIJACKED BY THE GOOD OLE’ DAYS

When an organization grows and people lose access to the senior leader, many will take the selfish route and leave. They look back on the smaller, familial organization as the golden days, but Ecclesiastes 7:10 (NIV) reads, “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.”

A fondness for the former days is often based on a prior level of access to the senior leader and a perceived influence with him. It can be an indication that, for some, status is more important than the organization’s health or the senior leader’s well-being. What they don’t understand, however, is that as the organization grows, each person’s influence grows with it. My former company, Khidmah, has now grown to over 1,000 employees, and the call center led by Taghrid has gone from 300 to 3,500 calls per week. It is now one of the largest call centers in Abu Dhabi.

If Taghrid had quit back in 2009 when she lost her access to the CEO, she would have missed out on the influence and the opportunity that a high-growth organization has to offer. She humbly stuck it out, and is now enjoying a successful leadership career.

A TWO-WAY STREET

The lanes of influence create a two-way street. Trust and respect must be mutual between the leader and the follower in order for influence to exist. A follower cannot influence a leader without his or her respect, and a leader cannot influence a follower without his or her trust (and vice versa).

The greatest test of influence takes place once access disappears.

It is possible to work in close proximity with a person while exerting no influence over them whatsoever. In fact, the greatest test of influence takes place once access disappears. You can lose your access without losing your influence, but if your influence evaporates once your access is gone, you never had any influence to begin with.

–Sutton Turner

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