EPISODE SIX: AM I BUILDING THE WRONG BUSINESS?

Before “Influencer” described an entire career, “influence” was just a noun, and not even a very sexy one. (See my reference to influence-as-sleezy-used-car-salesman in Episode Five.)

And yet, as a brand-new executive director of a youth development nonprofit that desperately needed funding, I had to learn two things: One, how to get people to listen to me. Two, how to get them to open up their pocketbooks.

Only that. No biggie. Just power and money.

And I was a complete beginner.

Like any self-respecting, former journalist, my preferred research method was to call an expert and asked questions over lunch. Luckily, I had a new friend, a former Washington, D.C., lobbyist, who was game to help. (And who knows more about building influence than those guys?!)

We met at a Thai restaurant.

“What do I do?” I asked. “I don’t know how to convince people to listen to me, let alone believe what I have to say.”

He took out a pen and drew a small circle in the center of his napkin.

“This circle? It’s your inner circle,” he said. “Start here, with those closest to you. Help them buy into your vision and ideas.”

My colleagues were my true inner circle. While they had no more money or power than me, at least they were already on the bus.

Then he drew another circle around the first, and then another, and another, until the napkin looked like a target.

“Expand to the next ring. Who is here? Maybe it’s your board. Help them understand the vision. Then focus on your key supporters. Then your members. Then outward, toward the general public.”

The strategy began to crystallize. Start small, with insiders, then scale.

It was one of the most memorable conversations of my life. This probably sounds like “Influence 101,” but it was the first time I understood that my job wasn’t to manipulate people, but seed better ideas – ideas I believed in. I needed to build a network, and empower people along the way.

I was growing, but it was only the start of a learning curve. (Luckily, learning is my jam.) I went to work studying:

  • Storytelling. How do I tell memorable stories? How are they structured, and what makes them stick? What are the right stories to tell?

  • Screenwriting. Why are TV and film among the most influential art forms today? How does it work? What can I borrow?

  • Design and aesthetic. How do colors and images work together? How do they influence what we think of ideas, or what we feel?

  • Empathy. How do I tailor my message to my audience – understanding what they think, believe, and feel? Can I flex enough to meet them at their level?

And then, years later, I went to coaching school.

The beauty of coaching school is you are asked to look at yourself first. In our workshops, we learned what it’s like to be a client as well as a coach.

Here’s what I discovered . . . I knew what I wanted, my own coaching and consulting business, but I was scared to leap. And I didn’t truly believe I deserved it.

I was comfortable being an influencer for ideas that were larger than myself, or where I wasn’t personally benefiting. Put me in front of a cause like education, the arts, environmental protection, homelessness – I’m an expert champion.

But promoting myself as an entrepreneur? Wow. Wrapping my mind around that evoked tears, confusion, and mental blocks, until eventually . . .

I launched the nonprofit consulting business. You know which one I’m talking about: The “wrong business.”

Yep. I backpedaled right into my safety zone. I built a website, blogged for months, set up social media, and even started growing an email list.

Don’t get me wrong – as I said at the beginning of this story – part of me was excited to start something on my own, finally. But there was no flow. No joy. No fun and silliness.

One morning, while making my bed, I said out loud: “I have to pivot, and quickly.” Remember the voices of the Whac-A-Mole moles from Episode One? Those guys had finally worn me down.

I put down the mental mallet. 

Ok moles, I said. I’m listening.

But the thought of beginning again was like missing your exit on a road trip, only to have to drive an 20 extra miles through the desert until you can find a place to turn around.

And yet 20 extra miles is better than 100. Three months of sunk work is less than two years. So I dredged up more stamina, channeled extra grit, poured another cup of coffee, and wiped the slate clean.

The fact is, rarely does growth ever happen like a neat line graph on a steady climb. It’s more like a pattern of wavy ups and downs, and with any luck, the cumulative growth trends positive.

I didn’t launch the business I really wanted because I didn’t believe in myself yet. I’d never asked anyone to follow me, Stephanie. I’d only asked them to follow me as a representative for a larger cause.

In retrospect, I probably had to take a few wrong turns before landing here.

“I learn the easy way,” said no one ever.

That brings us to today. I am finally building my business, Stephanie Coaches, the way I want. My way, to quote Sinatra.

After all, I do live in Las Vegas.