Who do you listen to at work?
We all have our favorite people to consult with, the people we trust most with big decisions and projects, and people who we believe have the insight and power to help us accomplish big things. Now think — are all of these people above you in your organization?
A lot of them probably are. After all, people who are more experienced than you and have more expertise than you are some of the best to turn to for guidance. Your mentors, your manager, your executive team; all of these people have tactical experience and are also well-versed in helping guide people to make the best business decisions.
But are there people whose judgment you take seriously in spite of their being way more junior than you? These are the people who exude leadership qualities, even when they’re not in an official position to lead anyone. They know their stuff and people listen up when they have something to contribute. They’re a leader…without authority.
I think this idea is so important. In fact, I founded popforms because I believe in the idea that there can and should be leaders everywhere. I’m giving a talk at Velocity this year on the topic too. Because I really believe that everyone — from CEOs to a first-year developer — everyone can be a leader. You don’t need a title to be a force for good in your company.
But that being said, you do have to go about it the right way. When you’re not the boss, people don’t take kindly to you bossing them around. And even when you do have some authority, isn’t always better to reach consensus with people rather than implementing changes “because I said so”?
Why influence matters
I’ve been in a leadership role for a long time, but even from a position of power I still find it more effective to lead through influence rather than authority. What I mean by this is, I find I can have a much more significant impact on my team and my peers when I use communication and questions to get people to come around to my point of view, rather than telling them, “Well, I’m the VP of Engineering so we’re doing it this way.”
I’ve had bosses who exerted their influence that way, and while it may get them results in the short term, I believe that having good relationships with people where you are someone who empowers them and is open to their opinion, will always serve you better in the long term. The good relationships I’ve had with my teams — even when they didn’t like me at first — have all come out of being able to build trust and good feelings with them that made them want to help me.
I’ve also experienced being unable to influence the people around me too, so I know quite well how frustrating it is to be unable to make changes happen when and where you think they should. And this didn’t just happen to me when I was a junior software engineer at a big company — it happened when I was an executive at a startup too.
The company I was working for decided to make a strategy change, and I really didn’t believe in it. I knew it was the wrong choice, and I did everything I could think of to influence the decision-makers. I leveraged relationships I had, I got as much data as I could, and I had long conversations with my bosses and peers.
But I couldn’t change their minds. I still look back on that experience all the time. I see it as a failure, because I didn’t know what to leverage and how to make it impactful for the people whose minds I needed to change. I knew I needed to influence, and I used strategies that had worked in the past, but I didn’t know how to influence effectively for *this* situation with *these* people.
I realize now that I was unsuccessful because I had no compelling alternative solution to bring to the table; I just knew this one decision was a bad one. I should have done more brainstorming, talked to more people in the organization, and brought in more data. I prioritized the wrong things.
For example, I thought getting more data would have taken too much time, but isn’t that time worth it if you think this decision could be the difference between whether the company lives or dies?
In the end, I had to just go along with the company’s decision even though I disagreed, and not long after, I left the organization.
I consider myself a fairly effective influencer, but thinking about that experience reminds me that I still have a lot to learn. I hope this post can help other people examine their strategies for influencing the people around them, and help us all get better at leveraging relationships and good communication for change.
Becoming a leader
What qualities exist that can make a person someone who can lead from any position?
You can’t force someone to listen to you, and trying to (especially when there are no “rules” or titles telling that other person that they have to listen to you) is actually counterproductive. Forcing your will on other people makes you seem bossy and even insecure, which doesn’t inspire many people to think they should listen to you.
Instead, I think everyone has something that makes them valuable and influential. It’s not the same thing for everyone, but I think we all have qualities that make us stand out from the crowd and make other people take notice.
In thinking about this, I was inspired by this post. Everyone has something about them that makes other people take them seriously. What’s yours?
Go through this list and see if any of these qualities apply to you. Do you embody a quality not listed? Are there qualities you possess that you may be unaware of? If you think that’s the case, send an email to a friend or two asking them what qualities they think make you influential and powerful.
Character. This one is so important. Are you someone who follows through? Do you lead by example, or do you just tell people what you think they should be doing? There are plenty of people who are willing to judge and backseat-drive, but few who keep their heads down and do the hard work necessary to do things better, smarter, faster than planned. Few people are giving their all every single day. You’ll stand out if you do.
Knowledge. Having specialized knowledge makes you a valuable asset, even when your title suggests otherwise. What do you have to offer that no one else does?
Relationships. Connected people can be huge influencers in their companies. When you are connected to people within and outside your organization, you have huge power to leverage, by creating partnerships and opportunities that otherwise would be hard to build.
Passion. Do you finish everything you start? Close every deal? Work until 2am just because you want a feature to be perfect? Every once in a while, a team needs a cheerleader or energizer bunny — the person with the enthusiasm to keep everyone going when spirits are low.
Social or emotional intelligence. When you are a peacemaker, or someone who helps facilitate collaboration, you can find yourself in really high-level situations being viewed as the person necessary for keeping things together. This is a really powerful position to be in, and you get there by demonstrating an ability to connect people and ideas.
Proactive help. Do you make a great sounding board? People who ask smart questions usually draw smart answers from people who are blocked, which makes them valuable of the eyes in the people they help. How do you help the people around you get what they need?
Transparency. Do you share knowledge and opportunities with people around you? Be honest about what you can do and why you want to do it. Your credibility is shot once you start trying to manipulate people or situations in your favor.
Communication. I first was asked to represent my team at meetings (and lead for the first time in my career, though I wasn’t yet the manager) because I had a knack for breaking down complex technical ideas into language other departments could understand and use.
Knowing when and how to influence
Most of the time, your manager’s job consists of many things they don’t want or need your help with, for a variety of reasons. But their job also consists of plenty of things they’d love some help with.
Put yourself in their shoes, and try to determine what their biggest pain points are. Where do their needs and your top skills align?
You can come right out and ask them how you can help, or for specific opportunities to take a leadership role. If you state your intentions clearly — to take on more responsibility, make a bigger impact on the company’s success, to learn more about a certain area of the business — you’ll likely be rewarded.
Be careful not to phrase it as an accusation, like that you feel like things are slipping and someone needs to pick up the slack. Instead, offer it as an opportunity for you to do what you do best and make their lives easier.
It’s also a good idea to have something specific in mind. Where can you make an impact?
If you go in asking just generally for more responsibility, you’re creating a new task for them to do in the form of coming up with an assignment for you. Instead, if you come up with a few ideas for projects you think could help, and explain how it would benefit them without negatively impacting the work you’re already doing, you’ll exert a little influence right then by convincing them how you can help.
How you gain influence and keep it
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re new to a position of influence — especially when it’s an “unofficial” leadership role with no clearly defined guidelines or rules of conduct — such as being invited to high level meetings because you’re a great collaborator.
When I first became a manager, I focused so much on pleasing my own new managers that I was forgetting to pay attention to my own team’s best interests. I had forgotten why I wanted to be in a leadership role at all: to make be in a position to make decisions that were good for my team and good for the company.
Even if you’re nobody’s boss, though, you can still gain influence among your peers and managers and make a positive impact on the company. By earning their respect, you can start to have an impact on big things. Just remember, as you gain more influence in your career, your level of responsibility increases.
You have to live up to the good reputation you’ve established, and conduct yourself in line with the principles that guided you before. Don’t let the praise and confidence go to your head, or undo all the goodwill you had established by shirking your new responsibilities. Here are some of my best tips for gaining — and then keeping — credibility and influence.
Ask questions instead of giving answers. You know the solution you want to reach, but how do you lead people to that without just telling them? By asking smart questions. We all want our opinions to be important, and we invest in people who invest in us. Plus, listening to other people makes you smarter.
Create context. Help people come around to your perspective by explaining the situation to them in a way that clarifies why it is important to them.
Demonstrate authenticity. Do you practice what you preach? People trust leaders who demonstrate the behavior they expect of others.
Build your brand. If you have a blog or Twitter where you share valuable ideas and make lots of connections, that makes the people who believe in you look good. Knowing that you are taken seriously by others can make the people in your office take you more seriously too.
Make your words matter. In other words, think before you speak. Don’t get so excited to be the one people are listening to that you don’t say anything of value. Make sure when you speak, your words have impact.
Be willing to pivot. When you’re assigned a leadership role on a project, it’s easy to get really attached to it. But projects get cancelled all the time — even *your* pet project — and handling it tactfully and maturely will mean you get more opportunities in the future. People don’t like to reward temper tantrums.
Build relationships. Don’t let power go to your head, and assume you no longer need to consult with anyone on anything. The more rapport you have with your peers, the more likely they are to go along with you. Connect with people 1:1 and be their supporter.
Look the part. It’s human nature to judge people on the way they look; it’s how our brains have developed to help us quickly identify the world around us. Having a professional appearance does have an impact on how seriously people take you. It’s not impossible to be a leader if you come to work in sweatpants every day, but you’re most likely making it harder for yourself to be seen as a powerful influencer.
Think about how the small ways you impact the people. I love this look at something crazy simple like punctuation, and talking about how much impact it can have. Always think about how your emails will be read. Not just the words you say, but how you say them. Are you being overly apologetic? Too curt? Unprofessional? This translates to so many other things like how you present in meetings, how you interact around the coffee pot in the morning, how you behave at social functions — all of which can impact your ability to be taken seriously.
Always be credible. Being transparent and authentic goes such a long way in building trust.
Ready to start influencing? This is your guide.
Influence is all about empathy. You can only attempt to get someone to change their mind if you understand where their mind is right now. In order to get that kind of perspective, you have to empathize with them. Here’s how you can start getting to understand people on a deeper level and make a bigger impact in their lives:
Ask questions to get inside someone’s head. Asking questions does two things: it demonstrates interest in other people, and it also helps you begin to see things from another person’s perspective. And that’s the only way to effectively problem-solve for another person — to see what they see as problems, and to come up with a solution that they think it reasonable and worth choosing. Find out what motivates them, and where they think they need help.
Listen to how you listen. “We are not aware that the movie playing in our heads is just a movie. We assume that movie is reality. The fact is that the stories we have in our heads prevent us from listening clearly.” Are you really listening to people, or are you just hearing what they say and letting it fall into the category of “I knew he’d say that”? When you’re talking to someone, give them your full attention. Put your phone away, make eye contact, and let yourself pause to absorb what they’ve said before you speak again.
Don’t assume “no”. There is some risk involved in attempting to influence and build relationships with people, but the actual consequences of someone not being receptive to your ideas are relatively small. People are more receptive to others than you might think. And you’ll never know what you can accomplish if you don’t try, so don’t assume you’ll get a negative result from your efforts. Look for good reasons to do something, instead of reasons *not* to do something.
Get active about relationship building. Influence builds like a snowball; the more you roll it the more snow it picks up, and the bigger your influence gets. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people who inspire you, as well as to people in your own office or network. Relationships at any scale are valuable. People like to know that you like them, and they want you to want to know more about them — plus, the risks of sending an email to Seth Godin or asking your peer out to coffee are pretty low, in the grand scheme of things. The more proactive you are about relationships, with everyone, the more powerful you become.
If you’re hungry for more reading about influencing others, here are a few article I like (in addition to the ones I linked to in the post!):
And be sure to check out my keynote at Velocity on June 20th in Santa Clara if you’re there!