Influencing Without Authority

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There’s a path in career advancement that isn’t always easy to navigate. It’s the spot between individual contributor and seasoned manager. And for some, the path never appears and for others, it’s as if the path was clear all along.

There’s some mystique to who finds the path and runs up it quickly and who turns a different way and misses the path altogether. Maybe some were given specific landmarks and guidance so they wouldn’t miss it. Maybe some knew where to turn and chose not to.

And it begs the question: who picks the path and who guides the turns?

Sometimes an earnest employee does it on their own. They jump in and seek guidance and can find their way. Sometimes it’s circumstances around a project or a big initiative that forces someone into management. But most often, it’s a mentor, a sponsor or a leader who sees something in someone that signals manager potential:

  • Where do they see it? In everyday meetings or quarterly presentations.
  • How do they evaluate it? Group reaction and response.
  • And what do they call it? The ability to influence without authority.

It can be as subtle as someone who gains alignment with conflicting perspectives or as bold as someone who knows how to set options and impose action. It’s a skill that, once learned, will follow you throughout your career. And it’s a differentiator between an individual contributor and a management candidate.

The most common feedback employees get as they begin to gain visibility is: “You’re in the weeds. You’re sharing too much detail.” It’s feedback that means we’re asking you to recognize the difference in what you’re actually doing and how we’re asking you to communicate about it.

Let’s take two employees and consider what they missed.

First, John, a product supervisor. John has responsibility for upgrading a product and getting it back in the market in six months. John scoped the project in order to get buy-in and financing. And now, every day, he leads a huddle with the five developers working on it. He has a project manager who works with him to manage the flow of changes and incremental sets. Most days, John’s time is spent problem-solving with one of those developers.

John’s Mindset: John is in the weeds. He understands where he started on the project and he understands the end game of what he’s trying to deliver. He was a part of the conversations when the decision was made to invest in upgrading this product and why it matters to customers.

How John Communicates: If you ask John to attend a meeting and report on this project, you’re going to hear the play-by-play steps of what they’re changing, how they’re changing it, where they’ve gotten stuck, and what they’ve done to solve it.

Your experience of Emily will be similar.

Emily runs a lead gen process for a B:B sales team. She sits within the marketing organization, but her customer is sales. She runs weekly campaigns based on targeted personas, implied needs, and new verticals. She has a team of four, and they are deep in the weeds of watching website activity, tracking outbound mailings, and making real-time changes to adjust to activity.

Emily’s Mindset: She meets with her team daily, and she works with each individual on the specific campaigns they manage. Emily is deep in the weeds and close to the adjustments made on each activity or data point.

How Emily Communicates: If you ask Emily for an update, you’re going to get the play-by-play of each campaign’s activity and adjustments.

So, let’s go into meetings and see how others respond to them.

Assume you’re the VP Product and, quarterly, you meet with the VP Sales to let her know how things are progressing, so that her team can communicate what’s coming to customers. You invite John to give an update on the product upgrade and within five minutes, the VP Sales is shaking her head. After the meeting she says to you, “I didn’t understand any of that. What am I supposed to do with that information?”

John provided an update on the workflow and progress behind the update. He didn’t provide the strategic message that the VP Sales hoped to hear. She wanted to know how the update would impact the company’s customers, not how it was literally taking place. John was not effective in that meeting.

Now assume that you’re the VP of Sales and you have your regional directors coming in for a meeting. You’ve asked Emily to provide an overview of lead generation. At the end of Emily’s presentation, your district leaders were confused by the amount of data and didn’t understand what to plan for next quarter.

Just like John, Emily approached this visibility moment as an opportunity to showcase the work of her team. Her audience wanted to align her actions to their opportunities. Emily was not effective in her meeting.

In both meetings, the listeners’ impressions were:

  • Too in the weeds…
  • Misses the point…
  • Unclear on the takeaway…

We describe it as the difference in talking about what you’re doing versus talking about the outcome you’ll deliver. But if you’re John or Emily, they would say that’s oversimplifying their biggest challenge. And the challenge is they don’t always see the difference in doing the work and communicating about the work. And it’s a skill that our team calls communicating and influencing without authority.

It’s communicating from the listener’s perspective and thinking about the value your listeners will take away from your insights. It’s worrying less about reporting on what you’re doing and putting in the context of a strategic mindset. This is the skill that allows some people to climb the manager path early. They’ve learned to speak someone else’s language so that communication aligns to what someone else is trying to accomplish.

Employees like John and Emily need help understanding the difference in supporting outcomes versus partnering on outcomes. It’s a shift from communicating activity to communicating outcomes.

When we coach that skill, it changes an employee’s momentum within a company. It improves their ability to influence conversations today, and it increases high-visibility moments, which leads to the next steps in their career faster.

And as we continue to see companies ask managers to step up quickly, we know this skill belongs in their toolkit. And that’s why we’ve packaged it as a new program for 2024. If you’d like to help one person step up for a promotion or your entire team partner more effectively with internal groups, give us a call. We’ve got the solution you need.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates