How to Become a Community Influencer

Four tactics to help you build and exert influence

Photo by Adam Solomon on Unsplash

To make change, you must have influence. Workforce development is no exception. In your community, you need to influence employers, community-based organizations, community colleges, workforce boards, educators, economic developers, elected officials, and more. These four tactics can help you build and exert influence.

1. Build and Use Your Expertise

Influence starts with expertise. You must build a track record of success in some aspect of workforce development that you can showcase so that you can speak knowledgeably and credibly about what you’ve accomplished. You also need to know how your area of expertise connects to the bigger picture in your community, and then communicate those connections to others.

Pearl of wisdom: View every interaction, no matter how informal, as an audition. Meetings, receptions, and presentations are all opportunities to practice your elevator pitch, share what you are working on and thinking about, and learn about the priorities and challenges of others in your community. These are opportunities to build your reputation and credibility and to gather important information about what else is going on. There are plenty of stories out there about how chance discussions have led to important connections, insights, and opportunities. Because your time is limited, be strategic and figure out where you need to “see and be seen.”

2. Make Strategic Choices

Think strategically about the problem you are trying to solve, why you are trying to solve it, and what your role is or could be in solving it. Align the problem with your organization’s mission.

As you define the problem and identify key stakeholders and gatekeepers, think about whom you must influence and how can your curate that influence. Who is the best person to gain that influence? (Note: It may not be you.) Although it focuses on job quality, the National Fund’s report on workforce practitioner competencies and the related paper, Appreciating Employer Resistance to Job Design Changes, offer frameworks for identifying key influencers who can help you advance your agenda and overcome resistance.

Pearl of wisdom: Learn what motivates the person or organization you are trying to influence. (It may not be what you think it is.) In the workforce field, we are told that we must make the business case and show the return on investment for anything we want to discuss with employers. This information helps you get in the door but rarely influences change. Find out what the real motivator is and plan accordingly.

3. Decide How and Where

When you are clear on the “what,” “why,” and “who,” think about the “how” and the “where.” Where are key decisions being made? Do you or your influencer need a seat at that table? If that table does not exist, should you create it? Do you have access to funding that may help influence decisions? Is the issue you are trying to influence significant enough to require an ongoing campaign or small enough to launch with a few targeted interactions?

Pearl of wisdom: When the National Fund started on its job-quality journey, we knew that it would be a long-term campaign of learning, building credibility, and changing minds and mindsets. We knew that we had to move the conversation — among workforce practitioners and employers alike — to design better jobs and address the skills gap. It became — and continues to be — a steady drip of narrative change. The work advances through every blog, conference presentation, tool, and funder interaction, and the impact is huge. Job quality is now mainstream. Think about how you can create a movement in your community.

4. Stay Relevant

Organizations can “die” in many ways, but one way is when they lose relevance in their local context and no longer add distinct value compared with other organizations. As an influencer, you and your organization must evolve and remain relevant. The people you want to influence likely have many voices telling them what to do. Sometimes, you can support and amplify those voices; other times, a unique message can catch people’s attention. For us, this is how the job-quality journey started. “Yes, the skills gap is real,” we said, “and employers need to make some changes, too.” That was a different message than the many voices asking for more funding for training programs. Ask yourself these questions frequently:

  • How has our local workforce landscape shifted in the past six months? Have new players or priorities emerged, such as racial equity and inclusion?
  • How does our organization’s work fit in that shifted landscape? Are we one of many, or do we make a definable difference?
  • Are there newly identified needs or opportunities that no one is working on and for which our work would be a good fit? Could that be a definable difference or new value that we add?
  • Have we learned anything from the “see and be seen” opportunities that could influence our thinking?

Pearl of wisdom: Stepping out and doing something new takes courage and tenacity. Trust your gut and do not get frustrated. Every idea has its time, and that time is often not anticipated. If you have an idea but are encountering resistance, do not give up: It may not be the right time. When it is the right time, things will move easier and faster than you ever thought possible. In the early days of our job-quality journey, many argued that we should not tell employers how to run their businesses. It was discouraging, but we knew that the work was important and necessary. When the right time for job quality arrived, the pieces fell into place.

Janice Urbanik

-- Senior Director for Innovation and Strategy, National Fund for Workforce Solutions