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Knowledge, authority and daring

Most professionals working in the engineering sector wish to have impact. They advise clients not because it is their job, but because they truly believe in the message they are putting across. They want to help build a better world. How do you achieve impact?

How do you give powerful, persuasive advice which will influence others and attract support? As I see it, there are three key factors: knowledge, authority, and daring. The first two are mentioned in practically all textbooks and courses. No one will get very far without knowledge and expertise. Professional knowledge forms the foundation of your work. People will only ask your advice if they think that you know more about the subject than they do. You also need certain ‘soft’ skills in order to make full use of that knowledge. You must be able to see things from the client’s perspective and you must be able to understand their actual requirements. Your advice should then be in keeping with those requirements and the client’s underlying motives. Do not bully or cajole. Do not impose your views but involve the client in the search for a solution. These are tips that I have found extremely useful over the years.

‘Authority’ is slightly less clear-cut. It refers to a reasonable expectation that your advice will be heeded, based on experience and example. You must display congruent behaviour in keeping with the advice that you give, practising what you preach. There is nothing so annoying as someone who tells you how to act in a certain situation without ever having been in that situation themselves, or doing something entirely different. It is like a salesperson for one particular make of car driving around in a different manufacturer’s vehicle.

While knowledge and authority support good advice,  they do not guarantee that your advice will have true impact. Impact calls for more. Impact entails adaptation. Impact means bringing about some permanent change which would otherwise not have taken place. Creating impact often involves opting for a less obvious solution which generates greater value than any alternative. It leads to new, unforeseen opportunities. The advice must address the problem in hand, but there is nothing wrong with a little ‘out of the box’ thinking.

There have been two occasions in my life on which I was given advice with real impact. On both occasions, the advice was offered by people with the necessary knowledge - they knew what they were talking about - and authority. On both occasions, the advice had a profound influence on me and was quite confrontational. I gave it due consideration because I trusted the people concerned. Nevertheless, it was quite some time before I actually acted upon it. My advisors had taken a risk: they could have lost my interest and support. This did not happen and in the event, I gained much from following the advice. The message here is that an advisor must also be daring if he or she is to achieve the desired impact. To expertise and experience we must add the courage needed to opt for a solution which may not work as intended.

Jacolien Eijer
Director, NLengineers