I Quit Writing For 3 Months
Influence, according to Google is the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself. Influence is the essential key to the enrichment of relationships, leading people, and orchestrating business. If influence is so essential, then it would be reasonable to assume that influence is something that is easily attained. Reality paints a frustrating story of pursuit and frustration, often stained with regret. I’ve found that, the better I can influence people, the better leader I am.
In the early days of The Penn Group, I found myself in a room full of people who had signed themselves up to help me start the company. My job as the leader was to convince each of them to work with no promise of return, with the hope that we could make something out of nothing. I was simply amazed that those people were willing to take a chance on me. I joked out loud that I was either a great manipulator or a great communicator. I was probably somewhat both of those things. What I really exhibited was a strong sense of duty to deliver on what I was promising. I wanted this new thing to succeed so badly, my passion radiated from my bones. The people who knew me knew I was the guy who could do it. Over a long period of time, I had built up trust with these people. The dividends were starting to pay off.
I’ve taken the past few months off from writing in order to recalibrate some of my ideas on this topic. Since 2019, I’ve fought my own self-preservation to write at least 2 articles a month as a matter of discipline. Writing, my primary method of decompression, is something that I discovered later in life that I enjoyed doing. When speaking to someone, you don’t have the opportunity to hit backspace. When I write, I focus on trying to tell the story the same way that I would if I were in person, telling you the same story. I’ve spent time, trying to connect the dots over my experience in how to actually influence people to do what you’re leading them to do. I’ve boiled this down to a few ideas:
- Disagreement isn’t Disrespect
- Influence Isn’t easy
- Perfection isn’t Excellence
Disagreement isn’t Disrespect
By the time I had talked myself out of being fired for the third time, I had to seriously evaluate my approach to solving my problems. Burning with passion and intensity to do my job to my fullest ability, I found myself at odds with many of my peers and leaders. My chief problem came in my approach to disagreeing with my leaders. As someone who has sat on both sides of the table, it can be disjointing, frustrating, or downright maddening as a leader/manager when a subordinate disagrees with you. Often, you’re stretched incredibly thin, exhausted from constant politics, and you just want your team to do what you say to do. As an individual contributor, if you don’t disagree with your leader, then you’re almost certainly never going to make it to leadership. There is a balance between a healthy disagreement and distrust of your leader. As a leader if your team isn’t disagreeing with you, then you don’t have their trust. If you’re open, treat people with respect, and you’re open to feedback, your team will be exponentially more effective.
Execution Isn’t Demanding
As a leader, your ability to communicate is hands down, the single biggest delineator in success and failure, and communication is an input to influence. Influencing your team to do something can be accomplished in one of two ways:
- With a threat
- With a promise
While threatening a subordinate is effective in the short term, you’re depleting from your tank of influence in the process. The more effective approach is to ask with promise. When I was growing up, my mother never made a promise she couldn’t keep. The wording there is key she never made a promise that she couldn’t keep. She wasn’t superwoman, she was just careful what she promised so that she could ensure that she delivered. Approach with promise means that when influencing others to do something, you come through on your promise as a leader.
An input to influence is trust. If your team/group doesn’t trust you, you’re not going to influence them to tie their shoe.
Influence Isn’t Easy
As the pandemic appears to be winding down, at least for the time being, the shift from crisis management to retrospective has begun. While the full effects of COVID-19 will be studied for generations to come, I’ve spent a great deal of time focusing on a particularly divisive subject: Masks. Full disclosure, I’m not here to debate the merits of masks. There are people who are way smarter than I, who recommend wearing them. I trust my leaders, and therefore I wear my mask.
The mask “debate” is a repeat of the same similar debate from the early 2000s. When automotive seatbelts were first introduced, there was a considerable about the efficacy of seatbelts. From Wikipedia on the history of seatbelts:
Nash was the first American car manufacturer to offer seat belts as a factory option in its 1949 models. They were installed in 40,000 cars, but buyers did not want them and requested dealers to remove them. The feature was “met with insurmountable sales resistance” and Nash reported that after one year “only 1,000 had been used” by customers. Ford offered seat belts as an option in 1955. These were not popular with only 2% of Ford buyers choosing to pay for seatbelts in 1956. — Wikipedia, on Seatbelts
In the end, it took nearly 60 years from the first seatbelt until a seatbelt was required by law. In today’s pandemic, we see a chorus of public health professionals and leaders calling for the mandating of masks to be worn in all public places. The question is: why is a portion of the populous resistant to adopting something that could save their life?
I’ve been in the information security business now for 5 years, and I hold the equivalent of a master’s degree in cybersecurity via certifications. Arguably, my biggest task is to convince people that if something isn’t done about security practices, then a catastrophic data breach could happen to the detriment of the organization’s customers/clients. I can cite all of the data in the world, but in reality, there is only one thing that truly changes the minds of people. Experience. A first-hand account by someone who is trusted will change the hearts and the minds of someone in the room. From a security perspective, I can yell from the rooftops about what could happen, but stats do not break laps.
Stats do not break laps — Austin Harman
What I mean by laps is the concept of neuroplasticity. Ultimately, what we do every day is a collection of habits. Our minds simply prefer to continue what we have always done. The more laps (days) we do, the more used to doing that same pattern we get. Changing our minds requires us to consciously do something different for a period of about 21 days. We are, more or less, designed to be resistant to change. That isn’t such a bad thing, because consistency builds trust. Trust is an input to influence. If you’re going to influence people, you must recognize that change won’t happen overnight. Consistently selling the right idea, over a long period of time, will eventually change the hearts and minds of the people around you.
Perfection Isn’t Excellence
Over my career, I’ve had the fascinating opportunity to work in many organizations over the years. Of those organizations, the best ones had one consistent quality across them: Excellence. The organizations that captured the heart and the minds of those who worked there, retained exceptional people, and truly changed their industry/niche boiled down to the organization’s ability to resist the tendency towards comfort. Organizations, and by extension culture, naturally drift. It is the jobs of leaders to continuously demand excellence. At The Penn Group we insist on excellence. It isn’t a talking point, but it is who we are. Excellence isn’t equal to perfection. We, as humans, are incapable of making something perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist because everyone perceives a situation, product, or initiative differently. Some people may love the new BMW 4 series. Some people hate it. Is the car perfect? In my eyes, it is close to it. See you in the comment section. While the car may not be perfect, it is without a doubt excellent. Years of engineering brilliance went into designing the car. It is excellent because, while the car was being designed, a continuous iterative process was utilized to make it great. Different angles were attempted, questions asked, conflicts observed. In the end, after the pursuit of perfection, the car came out excellent.
In my career, the best people have been people who are bent towards demanding excellence. Excellence requires discipline. In order to be excellent, you have to reject the tendency to ship before it fits. In order to be excellent, your teams must be able to have conflict. In order to be excellent, you have to have influence. Your team, organization, or group will never achieve excellence if you or your team doesn’t first understand how to influence. People would rather follow a leader who is real than a leader who is perpetually right.
Influence is Possible
In the end, your ability to influence people comes down to your ability to build trust, change behavior, and insist on excellence. Influence is among us. If you’re not pissing people off with your passion, then you’re not leveraging your influence to move the organization forward. Fighting to get better is a continuous slog, but in the end, you’re left with excellence that will capture the hearts and minds around you. Until then, keep on disagreeing.