Sunday, August 7, 2016
“You need to be visible and influence more to grow in your career” was the gist of feedback that I had received and ignored a few times during my career as an individual contributor. I didn’t find such feedback useful the first few times, as I didn’t really understand what it means to influence, why it matters, or how to influence.
I was also not really open and willing to understand why influence matters at that time. For all I cared, influence was a jargon word. My attitude was that I just had to work hard and try to excel as much as I could, and everything else would follow. I couldn’t be more wrong.
Two things have had to happen to change my perspective. First, I was entrusted with opportunities to lead efforts that required formation of large teams, and collaboration with several talented individuals. Second, I also got a chance to work with and closely observe a few influential leaders lead through conflict and change. Both meant a personal struggle to understand how to work with others, how to seek collaboration and support, how to make compromises, and more importantly, how to make a positive dent on initiatives that no single individual can do alone.
Individual contributor roles in tech organizations share a few common expectations like (a) being able to create, such as coding, (b) being able to architect and lead, and (c) ability to make a positive impact for the business. Other than the ability to create, these expectations demand influencing and leadership. However, sadly, individual contributors neither get the coaching nor the mentoring to help them lead others.
Most individual contributors consequently end up making some mistakes:
- Assume that only managerial roles are influential to let them command collaboration and alignment
- Focus a lot on ideas to solve technical problems, but struggle to get the support they need to execute on those ideas
- Take a passive advisory attitude towards outcomes thinking that outcomes are so-called management’s problems
Here are a few that helped me unravel this puzzle of influencing.
First, realize that leadership is not a title, but is a role others permit you to play. It does not matter whether you are an individual contributor or whether your title at work includes “manager” or a “director”. You are at the mercy of your team to give you the permission to lead them. Your success as a leader depends on getting and keeping that permission. If you’re unsure about this, read John Maxwell’s The Five Levels of Leadership.
Second, as important as sound technical ideas are, you can’t always be the fastest horse to generate the best ideas and execute on them. Many others are potentially looking at the same set of problems as you are, and will very likely come to similar conclusions. You don’t have monopoly on ideas. Period.
Third, empathize with the business and develop the context. I’ve heard some very senior individual contributors proclaim that it is the management’s problem to implement their ideas, or to adopt their creation. However, you can’t influence change unless you empathize with the things you want to change.
On the subject of empathy, I’ve an experience to share. Years ago, I wrote a piece of software called ql.io. I was extremely passionate about the ideas, and executed hard and fast. I orphaned the project about a year later as it failed to gain adoption. In retrospect, though my ideas were valid and the problems my ideas were addressing were real, I failed to develop the context under which teams were facing those problems. I was furious at the problems I was trying to solve, but failed to empathize with the people dealing with those problems. Teams that looked at ql.io liked what they saw, but could not quite figure out how to incorportate it into their apps. Consequently, I could not get the adoption that I depended on. The lesson I learned from that experience was that I need to understand the context, and empathize with the people and their current technical environment. No matter how great the ideas are, you can’t balloon-drop solutions.
Fourth, instead of trying to mint solutions to solve problems, help others develop better mental models to solve problems on their own. As Peter Senge says in his The Fifth Discipline, teams and organizations trap themselves in defensive routines that insulate their mental models from examination. It is often the established mental models, including your own, that prevent change from happening. Inquire into those mental models first.
Finally, resist the temptation to intervene into everything. As you grow up in the hierarchy and stay long enough in any organization, you will get an opportunity to see most things as they happen. This gives you a chance to jump into every conversation and voice your opinions. Resist that urge to intervene, let things pass, take an observer role, and intervene only when absolutely necessary. Inquiry into mental models starts with observation and not intervention.
As John Maxwell says in his book, “Leadership is much less about what you do, and much more about who you are”.
Originally published at https://www.subbu.org/blog/2016/08/on-influencing.