Expanding your influence
A quick quiz: do you remember the Andy Grove equation (which I harp on about so much) that expresses how a manager’s output should be measured? If not, then check back on our previous article. Even if you do remember, then let’s recap:
The output of a manager = the output of their team + the output of the organization under their influence.
It’s simple yet concise.
Most of the articles written so far on this blog concern themselves with how to improve the output of one’s team: through building effective relationships with direct reports and with one’s own line manager, and how to focus one’s time and conversations so that they benefit both parties equally. We’ve also touched upon how to exert influence on the rest of the department: by getting involved in hiring and being a role model for how you believe that the department should be. Yet, most of this focus has been on Engineering alone. The company itself is much wider than the department. How can you begin to expand your influence there? Should you?
The snow melts at the periphery
We work in organizations of varying sizes, from the very small (e.g. start-ups) through to multinational corporations with tens of thousands of employees. As a manager in the engine room, you have some idea of the general pulse of the business, as you are developing features that serve a business need, as guided by your product manager. You may also involve staff from other areas of the business in sprint demos and have a chance to engage with them there. Yet, this doesn’t really give the whole picture. The context of your work and conversations is likely bounded by the project that you are currently working on and the specific stakeholders who are keen on it getting built.
It’s very handy to begin to experience a more rounded picture of how the business is doing. A concept, also from Grove in another of his books, is that the snow melts at the periphery. What does this mean? Well, in the context of Only The Paranoid Survive, it is framed to portray that the employees on the periphery of the business – e.g. the salespeople going up against competing salespeople – see the real situation in the market with the products that you pitch much quicker than you do; you’re simply further away from the action. It follows that having good lines of communication with key periphery staff can make a business react quicker to market conditions. The larger the business, the larger the void between the periphery and the creative core. This means that smaller competitors have a speed advantage by default. This is exactly the subject of Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma.
So, as a manager who is performing well, how can you further increase your influence across the company? It’s time to build relationships with those who stand where the snow melts.
If you were to imagine a situation where you have regular contact with others in the business, then you have many opportunities to expand your influence, and thus increase your own output:
- You can experience their challenges firsthand and speed up or lobby improvements to the product, especially if you identify that there are quick wins (e.g. small UX changes, or features that require little engineering effort for a large amount of customer impact).
- You can build rapport with staff in other departments that can become influential stakeholders in your future projects.
- You can be party to strategic discussions as a stakeholder from Engineering, which again gives you a chance to offer your opinion and nudge decisions, feeding into the latter part of the equation at the beginning of this article.
- You can increase your profile in the company and be considered for new opportunities that can grow your career.
- And guess what, you can make some new friends. Who’d have thought it?
There is no standard process for being introduced to the right people within the business. You’ll need to get creative here. When I began to do this, I had the benefit of being with the company through a period of extremely fast growth via venture capital, and a lot of the staff that I knew well personally when we were much smaller had been promoted to more influential positions, so I could increase my interactions with them. If you are new to a company and don’t have a clear network, then you can ask your peers or your line manager who they typically interact with and why.
When conversing with your peers, you can ask for a list of staff in other areas of the business that they have had a positive experience with, either informally, or through being stakeholders on their own projects. Also ask them who they think are the main decision-makers in other departments, and who they see as particularly influential and interesting.
When conversing with your own line manager, ask who their own personal network is outside the department and whether there are people within that network that you should be introduced to. Try and find a diverse set of individuals with differing interests. For example, my own network of contacts spreads over most departments and multiple geographic locations; it helps act as a sounding board where everyone’s interests are not necessarily aligned, often giving multiple sides to any particular discussion.
If you haven’t met these people yet, then you can always introduce yourself via email. That’s what I did. In fact, here’s an almost word-for-word representation of the email that I sent out. Depending on the kind of organization that you work for, you may want to get your own email checked over by anyone that you think is necessary first. Fortunately, I don’t work somewhere that makes me feel like I have to do that. Additionally, communication between Engineering and the rest of the business was a hot topic at the time that I sent this email, so I used that as an opener.
I’m beginning a practice where I’ll be frequently checking in with others within the business, with the aim to extend another hand outwards from Engineering. If you’re receiving this, I’d love to know whether there is anything that I can help with or discuss.
Here’s a starter for ten to get the conversation flowing:
- Do you feel that there is anything we can do to improve our communication outside of the department, notably on what we’re planning, working on, and shipping?
- Is there anything pressing that you would like more information on, or any issues that you’d like to raise?
- What could we do better as a whole?
- Additionally, for those closer to the Engineering coalface, are there any projects or discussions that could use my input?
If you don’t reply I won’t be upset – I’ll just assume that everything is going wonderfully right now.
I had a great response from this, which opened up a number of longer dialogues. Some of these exchanges were simply things I couldn’t do anything about, however, I was able to make the right introductions between the right people: a great way of exercising my existing connections and expanding my own influence within other areas of the business.
Checking in regularly
Once you have a list of folks that you have created an initial rapport with, it’s up to you to decide how you would like to interact with them. There are options for the regularity and formality of your check-ins.
A formal way is to get in contact via email once a quarter, then follow up with all of the points that are raised. It helps to offer a leading question to get the conversation going, as demonstrated above. There may be a new product launch to discuss or an announcement of the upcoming roadmap. It’s easy to capture and distribute the information when using a medium such as an email.
However, it’s also extremely valuable to hear the softer side when interacting with your contacts. Informal meetings with those that are geographically closer, such as grabbing a coffee every month, can be a great way to inform each other, vent a bit, and learn something new. This information can feed into your own decisions and make them better informed.
Give it a go: get in contact with those outside your immediate circle and see what happens. I think you’ll be surprised.
I’ll leave this post with an addendum: an equally important way of expanding your influence is to just do great work. Word will spread. But if you’re doing great work and working on your outreach, then you’ll be doing even better.