Beyond just management
Let’s look beyond the on-paper job description of a manager for a second. Indeed, if you are leading a team then you have responsibility for the performance of those that report into you. And yes, you are also accountable for the quality of work that is being delivered and its timely arrival.
But, I would posit that those are merely the hygiene factors of doing your job. If you want to be truly exceptional, then you need to seize the opportunity as the leader of that team to influence others to create the organization that you wish to see beyond that which is under your immediate control.
Now being influential isn’t about office politics or being manipulative. It’s about being a role model for others, encompassing those on your team and those in the wider organization. It’s about having the right connections to the right people and the rapport you need to get what you need done.
Influence opens doors for you and your team. Being more influential has a net positive effect on everyone that you work with. For your team, having an influential leader is motivating and inspiring. It can also make your team more impactful and as a result give them more interesting and fulfilling work to do. For others in the organization, it demonstrates where you set the bar, and this mandates what you expect from those that you collaborate with.
Let’s explore how you can grow your influence inside and outside of your team. But first, what actually is it?
Leadership and influence
Take a minute and think of some people that you would consider to be influential leaders. If you look away from the screen and maybe look at the ceiling, or sky, or train carriage roof, depending on where you are, of course, who is it that springs to mind? Is it Barack Obama? How about Bill Gates? Elon Musk? Somebody in your family?
OK, that’s an interesting choice that you’ve made. What is it about these people that makes them influential?
I tried the exercise and here’s what I thought were characteristics of an influential leader. These thoughts are by no means comprehensive, but I imagined people that had:
- A track record of notable achievements: They had achieved some impressive feats, such as being elected to public office, building a company, or demonstrating amazing service to humanity.
- Appropriate public persona: My imagination conjured a combination of charisma, seriousness in their cause, class and an understated confidence.
- A clear moral compass: These people were transparent in how they felt about big issues, and acted in a way that was congruent with how they felt. There was no manipulation or coercion.
- Experience of running large companies, projects or initiatives: Typically the people that I imagined were responsible for leading many people, and in turn those people had confidence and trust in them.
What doing this exercise highlighted to me is that it’s not enough to just inhabit a particular leadership position. In addition to that a leader needs to make sure that they absolutely deliver on their work and promises and that they, in parallel, seek to improve the portrayal that others have of them through building trust and practicing transparent communication. After all, the view that people have of you will be the view that they have of your organization, whether you like it or not.
Those that succeed at being a strong influential leader are able to align their own motivations with that of their teams and use their influence to make their organization a better place. Good leaders have people that enjoy working for them and others that want to work for them. Beyond their immediate peers they are seen as an asset to the company through their actions.
So how can you begin to grow your own influence?
Growing your influence
Nobody starts out influential. It must be earned. We’ll start by looking at ways that a new team lead can begin to build their influence with the goal of improving their own team.
Your corner and how to fight it
Step one: position yourself.
Running a team for the first time can be eye-opening as you are now in the middle of the chain of command: you’re effectively making the team do something that someone else is telling you to do. At first, it can feel weakening, so it’s important that you begin to build your influence so that you and your team can become more autonomous.
How can you do this?
- Deliver. If you’re running an engineering team, the most important thing you can do is ship software on time. If projects are extremely large, find ways that you can ship increments and demonstrate progress. This is absolutely paramount.
- Communicate. Speaking as an engineer, I feel that by default we don’t communicate enough about our success. During times when I have made an effort to communicate more about my team’s achievements (e.g. via a talk or email newsletter) I have worried about over-communicating or being boastful, but in practice, others like to see success and celebrate it.
- Fight their corner. There will always be situations where there is an unreasonable ask from your team, or where your team are struggling in a situation that is outside of their control. In these situations, you need to assume a leadership role and protect their best interests whilst being affable and cooperative.
Focussing on delivery, communication and the best interests of your team, with time, will make you an excellent manager. Importantly it will also grow your influence, making your staff want to stay with you and give their best.
Expanding your influence to the department
Step two: grow your influence outside of your team.
Be default, running a team well will already make you influential. But how can you work on growing your influence so that can begin to positively affect the entire department?
- Keep delivering. This theme runs throughout. The more projects you deliver, the more influence that you hold as a trusted member of the department. Continual reliable delivery allows you to…
- Take on higher stakes work. By delivering constantly, you become a more trustworthy pair of hands for critically important projects. By continuing to better yourself, you attract higher value work that has a greater impact on the whole department. It’s a virtuous circle.
- Be selfless in helping other teams. As much as you have a duty to protect your own team, you need to work for the greater good, or else you will project the image that you are cosseting towards your team and hostile against others. Give your time and resources reasonably to help move things along for the department.
- Grow others in your team. Great leaders typically have great staff working for them. Ensuring that your staff grow on the right trajectory means that they will be an asset to the department via their interactions.
Now, think even bigger. You don’t need to be the CTO to do so.
Influencing the whole company
Step three: think even bigger than your department. How can you become an influential asset for your whole company? It might be easier than you think.
- Keep delivering high stakes features. Did I mention that you need to keep shipping? Oh, I did already? If you’ve grown your influence to attract some of the most important work that the department is doing, you still need to be sure that you ship on time and that it is of high quality. Get this right, and the rest will follow.
- Give talks. Speaking is a fantastic way of growing your influence. You don’t need to go and talk at an A1-grade conference: to begin with you can make sure that you and your team are giving internal technical talks on how you built your features, and you can open the attendance to anyone in the company who wishes to attend. You can see whether you can get a slot at the company meeting to show what you and your team have been working on. You can offer your time to appear as a guest at other meetings such sales kick-offs and Q&As in order to raise your profile.
- Grow your network beyond the department. You should consider building a network of peers inside the business. It’s a great way of beginning to experience what is going on at the periphery of the company and being able to offer your opinion and influence there. Having connections in sales and marketing is a fantastic way to ensure that what you and your team are producing is of significant impact.
- Be a role model. Always act professionally and sensibly. With the use of tools like Slack, the public stage is no longer a talk in front of the whole company; it can be a discussion in a public chat channel. Before throwing yourself headfirst at a conversation, take a step back and think whether you’re representing yourself properly and contributing to the greater good. Sometimes it’s better to not get involved and to break off into a face to face discussion. Treat others how you would wish to be treated yourself and you will find that more doors open for you.
Growing your influence within your role is hard and takes time. Don’t expect change overnight. But, with continued practice, you will find that the business is becoming more like you through your positive influence and your autonomy, and your impact and enjoyment in your job will increase.