This is a transcript of Episode 4 – influencing. You can also listen to episode 4.
As a leader, I sell vision; vision and motivation.
I’ve definitely done some things that are kind of Machiavellian in some ways to influence people.
Nobody likes to be changed. No-one likes to be told what to do. Everybody loves an idea that they came up with themselves.
Welcome to Feel – a podcast about leadership. My name’s Andy Kelk. So far in this series we’ve looked at culture, developing talent and motivating teams. If you’ve not heard those already, you can get them from iTunes or feelpodcast.org.
In this episode, the focus is on influence. How do you sell an idea and make it happen?
Dwight Eisenhower once said that “You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.” This raises the idea that being a leader isn’t just about simply forcing others to adopt your ideas. It’s much more subtle and it requires a two way conversation.
I spoke with a number of leaders who spend a lot of their time trying to change organisations and get ideas to work. Em Campbell-Pretty, an enterprise lean and agile coach agrees that forcing people to do things isn’t the best approach:
Nobody likes to be changed. No-one likes to be told what to do. Everybody loves an idea that they came up with themselves. And sometimes it’s just a lot of talking. A lot of talking, a lot of ideas and just let people simmer on them and come back to you in three months and they’ve had a brilliant idea. That sounds a little bit familiar.
People need to digest information. There’s a lot of stuff in the brain science world that talks about how we process information and what actually happens when we sleep. We really do need time to process information and make connections. Sometimes they come easy; sometimes they don’t.
The neuroscience, if you’re that way inclined, centres on memory consolidation and a process called long-term potentiation. Essentially, there is a research which shows that sleep is essential for information to be moved around from short-term to long-term memory in the brain. Without adequate sleep and rest, the brain struggles to process new information.
Trying to change people by telling them what to think is a mistake that Neil Killick, Portfolio Manager at MYOB has made much earlier in his career:
To be honest with you, probably in my earlier agile days, I think a typical pattern is when people become aware of agile and start to understand it, their natural tendency is to want to evangelise about it. They go “this is brilliant. This is the way you should do things.” And you start trying to go on this path of convincing people who might have been working in a particular way for 30 years and be actually extremely experienced, knowledgeable business people. And basically you’re coming along and going “Oh, you’re doing it wrong.”
It took me probably a few years to really realise that trying to convince people, change people is just a path to hurt and failure. So influence for me is not about trying to change people’s mindset into what my mindset is; it’s more about helping them with what needs they’re trying to meet, and really understanding it and having empathy for it and via things like leading by example, and the way that you approach your work and the way you address people and do things in meetings that can show that there are alternative ways of doing things and alternative ways of thinking about things.
Plant little seeds where people then… you might have, in your mind, been very adamantly against something then all it takes is one particular visualisation or some word or sentence that then makes you go away and think about it. It’s not like you’re just suddenly go “oh, you’re right. I was wrong for 30 years.” But you go and read more about it. You then realise that there’s more than one point of view on it and that’s a starting point.
And you might learn everything there is to know about the other point of view and still believe your own point of view. But the important thing is you’ve gone out and realised there’s other alternatives. Even that step means that you might ask different questions and approach things in a different way when you’re with people rather than just always asking the same questions.
So rather than an exec saying “when am I going to get this?” for example, they might start understanding a bit more about how typically agile software development works and lean thinking and systems thinking and then start asking more about “what are the customer outcomes we’re going to try and achieve in this next few months.” So you’re framing things in a way that’s more about the outcomes rather than just “when am I going to get this thing?” You can only really do that once you’ve acknowledged that there are different ways of thinking about things.
Being challenged is all part of influencing people. It’s part of the process of having an open dialogue. Once we accept that this is not a one way process – not “Do as I say”, we need to embrace the other side of the conversation as well. People have acted in certain ways for many years and won’t just change because you say so. So you need to listen to what they’re saying to you. Em Campbell-Pretty:
I have been challenged at all levels by all individuals. I think it’s so personality based. People on the ground doing the work always say “Buy I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I’m an experienced IT professional. I’m a data-warehousing expert. I’m an Oracle expert. I’ve never had any problems before. Why do I need to change?” That’s really really common.
There’s “I’ve been doing agile and it isn’t working.” You get that a lot as well. In some ways, the senior leaders go “OK, so what you’re saying is if you do things differently I’m going to get better results?” “Yes” “OK, well, I don’t have to do the hard work. So go forth, get me better results”
I’ve been running a bit of a dialogue about the frozen middle because, of course, I was middle management or thereabouts at Telstra. And middle management have this really awful position in many ways. You’ve got some senior leader goes “That agile thing, that lean thing, that’s brilliant, people are getting real results with that. You should go do that with your team.” “Great, thank you”. And eventually the team gets on board and goes “actually, this is kind of fun but the organisation is getting in my way. can you help me?” The middle manager runs back to the senior exec and goes “the organisation’s getting in my way, can you help me?” “Oh no, you need to work that out” “OK. Good. Thanks”
One way of effecting change is to demonstrate its importance through actions. One person who’s done that is Steve Hardisty, a senior engineering manager at Etsy:
I would say, certainly, the way I’ve influenced people as I’ve got older and as I’ve got more experienced has changed an awful lot. It’s a much more subtle art than I think I appreciated when I was programming. When I thought it was just you tell people to do a thing, you use reason and you use logic and then you shout at them. And that’s clearly, in hindsight, completely ineffective.
I’ve definitely done some things that are kind of Machiavellian in some ways to influence people. Machiavellian’s perhaps not the right word but where I’ve influenced the people around them to influence that person. These kind of indirect tactics of manipulation to get the result I wanted from someone else.
Actually, a really good example is using peer pressure as a powerful tool. We had, on one team, no culture of testing. no culture of unit testing, integration testing. There’s manual testing but that adds time, it’s still a valuable thing but you can clearly gain confidence and speed through writing automated tests. The way we went about instilling that in the team was to get someone. There was one guy on the team in particular who was very enthusiastic about it. when we started talking about how you get better at your job and testing was one of those things, he was very enthusiastic about self-improvement and, through him, I influenced everyone else on the team. So I didn’t necessarily have to work hard on all of the people in that team, I just worked hard on this one guy. and then his infectious attitude helped everyone else upskill and now he does it across the company. So he’s spent time with teams who are nothing to do with his core area of expertise and helped instill a culture on that team of testing.
The key can be in what you ask for and how much change it requires. After all, if people can’t conceptualise a change they are much more likely to be resistant to it. However, if the change doesn’t seem that big then people are more willing to give it a go. Em Campbell Pretty certainly advocates that approach:
Always ask for something small. So ask for something that people can give you. So don’t go and say “I want you to launch SAFe and agile release trains” unless they’re asking for that. That’s a pretty intimidating conversation. Instead, “what’s the problem you’ve got?” “I’ve got a prioritisation problem, I’ve got a delivery problem, I’ve got a whatever” and go “OK, well here’s a little something that we can do that might help you a little bit with that.” “OK, that was good, that worked. Got any other ideas?” “Here’s another little thing we can do” “Where are you getting these ideas from?” “Oh, you remember that SAFe thing I mentioned? The agile release train thing I mentioned?” “Oh, OK, so if we put all these pieces together, we get more of that?” “yes”
People have got to come to their own realisations. I think that’s really really key.
Of course, this is all a lot easier when what you’re trying to influence people to buy into is something that you believe in yourself. This is certainly something that has helped Kerri Rusnak, formerly of the REA group, be successful:
I think anybody is a good salesperson when they’re coming from a place of honesty about something they believe in. And I think that’s why you want to work for great organisations is because, when you work for a great organisation that has an authentically valuable product or service, the sell is easy because you’re coming from a place of inspiration and you’re motivated. And people are attracted to that. So if you want to be a good salesperson, be those qualities and then the sale will happen and all you need to do is basically open your mouth and let the words fall out. It almost becomes very easy.
When I’m at my best, I’m a great salesperson in terms of whatever I’m selling. As a leader, I sell vision, I think is my asset that I have to sell; vision and motivation. You guys are ultimately responsible for doing whatever needs to happen. Don’t ask me to write the code. That would be a very bad idea. But that’s my sales job that I have to do and I think I am quite good at that.
Influencing and selling are really two sides of the same coin. Author Dan Pink, who we met in the last episode on motivation, argues as much in his book “To Sell Is Human”. Whether we’re selling a product or service for money or selling an idea, the skills required are the same.
Pink has repurposed the old “ABC” initialism – made famous in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. No longer does it mean “Always Be Closing” but instead it stands for “Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity”.
Attunement is the basic skill of empathy – mimicry, if you like – and showing the other person that you are engaged. Buoyancy is the ability to come back after a knockback. And there will be challenges in influencing, as we’ve seen. Clarity is the ability to help others see their needs and identify their problems and then to show them how you can help.
Stories are a great vehicle for achieving clarity of problem and solution as Em Campbell-Pretty explains.
People tell me my stories are very compelling and I am a storyteller. I’m very passionate about what I believe in so I think that comes across and I’ve had a lot of success. So I can sit down with people and they can say “Well, here’s my problem” and I can say “Well, I don’t know, but here are things I’ve done in the past and they’ve worked and you might want to try them.”
Really, for me, and I was having this conversation with a client yesterday when I was training : “How do you sell this? How do you convince people?” I said “Just get them to try something. Anything. Just a really small thing. Something you know works.” Get them to try a really small thing that’s all you generally need to do. Get them to try a small thing. Nine times out of ten, that thing’s going to work and that creates the opportunity to have a further conversation about doing more innovative stuff.
Start small. Try something. And once you try it, get someone else to try it too. Build a snowball one flake at a time. Neil Killick:
Finding your sphere of influence and then trying to, step by step, increase it by maybe one person. So if you know you’ve got a bit of an alliance of four people that have a similar vision to you then it’s like “let’s try and find someone else who can also join our coalition of the willing and find a way to really expose the problems we’re facing and the people in the company are facing and how we can move them forward by thinking about things slightly differently.”
The more people who get behind you, the easier it is to make a change. The more evidence you can point to and examples of how things could work, the easier it is as well. Em Campbell Pretty:
I think it’s nice to be able to point at things where there’s a lot of empirical evidence for. The class I was teaching yesterday, I was talking about team sizes and why small team sizes work and : “It feels wrong. It doesn’t seem right” and I said “well, here’s the science.” and I drew them a little diagram and said “Google it. There’s heaps and heaps and heaps of empirical evidence and… I don’t know. Otherwise, just try it. You don’t have to believe me. Just try it. Try it’s always my thing. Here’s your problem, here’s your story. Try this. Try anything.
Try things, use evidence, empathise and be honest, listen and converse, work through the challenges. Changing an organisation with new ideas is never simple, but then what worthwhile activities are?
Next time on Feel; remote and distributed working – do you need to be in the same room to succeed?
If you like what you hear in this series, please consider rating and reviewing the show on iTunes – it gives valuable feedback and helps others find out about it too. And if you want to discuss things directly, get in touch on twitter – @feelpodcast, or contact me via the website – feelpodcast.org
I’m Andy Kelk, this has been Feel. A big thank you to Em Campbell Pretty, Kerri Rusnak, Neil Killick and Steve Hardisty. The show’s music is by audionautix.com and our website is feelpodcast.org