Introverted Leadership Series: Influencing Gently and Genuinely

Making each other better

I had spent a large part of my life teaching and mentoring others. It has always been a theme in my life. Much of this is due to the help that my parents and I were given, which gave us the opportunities to build a life in America (I shared some of those personal details here). Here are some examples of how I taught and mentored through my early lift:

  • In elementary school, I helped teachers in the earlier grades by being a TA for math and science. I also taught students and teachers how to use computers.
  • During high school, I taught AP computer science for a few weeks while the school found a short-term teacher for the courses.
  • In college, I tutored students from non-technical majors so that they could pass their programming courses and graduate.
  • At this time I also started helping some of my friends through their decisions around navigating their academic careers and their college/summer jobs.

I realized through these experiences that I really loved helping people to become better versions of themselves, or gaining clarity into what their next steps for success were. When I first started my professional career, I wanted to learn how to do these things in an unstructured work environment. There was only one problem…

You’re not ready

Like many companies, mine had a policy that you needed to reach a certain career level before you could start managing people. It would likely take at least 4 years for me to reach that level. I totally understood that — you could cause some pretty serious damage to a lot of parts of an organization if you aren’t well-equipped to handle people management challenges and discussions. However, I really felt like I could grow those skills quickly and wanted to be given a shot to do so.

So I decided to be a little tricky about it. 2 or so years in, I started looking for engineers that were interested in helping me out with some of the projects that were on my backlog. Specifically, I wanted to find people interested in moving on from building apps with the XML-based inhouse language that my team created, and developing in C++ proper. I found an engineer who was both interested and who I knew was a hard worker. We asked our managers if we could work on this side project — creating a build and deployment system for the inhouse language — and they approved it as long as it didn’t affect our main work.

Over the next 6 months, I worked with the developer and we had weekly 1:1s, adhoc project meetings, and set up a few stakeholder project syncs. It took a lot of upfront teaching and mentoring, and a good amount of initial handholding, but she was a quick learner. Eventually we were able to deliver the new build system. The new system had far fewer incidents and rollbacks, and also allowed us to apply optimizations which allowed us to scale faster.

Thanks to the success of that project, that engineer was allowed to start branching out into C++ projects, and eventually leading her own C++ development team. For me, this 6-month project was enough evidence for my management chain to believe that I could be an effective manager. Just about 3 years in I was fast-tracked to take on my first two direct reports, which quickly grew into a team of 18-20.

So… What does this have to do with influencing?

This experience taught me a lot about how to convince someone to do something that seems high-risk, low-reward to them. Looking back at how I was able to do it, I think there were three main things that were important in helping to influence the outcome I was striving for:

  1. I brought them along on the journey from the very beginning: I started by telling them what I was looking to do, how I was thinking of doing it, and asked for them to help me to improve the plan and sign-off on it. This created alignment from the very beginning.
  2. I looked for the overlap between my incentives and their incentives: I made sure that I answered the WIIFM — What’s In It For Me — for everyone involved:
    • For our managers: They would be involved in shipping a “free” project that would have a big impact on the company’s success
    • For the engineer: She would be able to get her career to the next level and take on bigger roles in the company
    • For me: I can determine if I can manage people or not, and potentially make it happen faster
  3. I showed my work: We gave frequent updates to our managers and the stakeholders of the project to let them know how things were going. We built transparency into any pivots we were deciding on or making in the plan, and made sure that we were all continuously aligned on the success criteria. When the project was complete, we gained a lot of trust from our leadership team, which helped with future influence.

Find the overlap

In any situation, the easiest way to convince someone of anything is to find that overlap between what you want and what they want. If you want someone to be influenced, it’s less about making someone think like you do and more about helping them to see why your perspective makes sense. Pushing someone to think differently will often cause them to hold their ground — no one likes to have their values and opinions challenged. Instead, understand where they are coming from and how your decision/opinion/etc. aligns with that.

Although it took a bit of trickery, I was able to work within the system in order to become a manager sooner. If it weren’t for the support of my leaders and the talents of that engineer, my career might’ve taken longer to accelerate. I’ve used this system ever since to help to align entire organizations to common goals, and I hope it helps you out too!

Change the World,