Plays Well With Others – Influence versus Authority

Influence Maps are all the rage these days

You’ve probably found that the prefix “lead” is a fairly common occurrence in the technology world.  We have “lead developers”, “lead DBAs”, “lead architects”, and “lead consultants”.  Yet, we don’t have “lead managers”, “lead directors”, or “lead VPs”.  Why is that?

Well, there are probably a number of different reasons for having “lead” technologist titles depending on who you ask.  For example, the HR department might say that adding “lead” to a technologist’s title justifies the better salary that the company had to pay to acquire that specific talent.  The IT department chiefs might say that adding “lead” to a title is a way to designate the most experienced and skilled members of staff.  While people actually holding these titles, I think, are likely to say that “lead” is in their title because they informal leaders of their respective teams.  And I say informal leaders because they drive opinion and help set priorities, but very few of them, in my experience, actually have neither the outright power to hire and fire team members nor the power to grant raises, promote or demote, etc.

Compare this situation with managers, directors, and vice-presidents, all of whom have the explicit authority to hire, fire, promote, demote, and otherwise make life wonderful or miserable for their subordinates.  Because their authority is explicit, there’s no need to toss in a “lead” with their title.  Ironically, people in these positions are expected to manage the operation of their team but very few of them exhibit qualities of leadership (more on that in another post).

The authority inherent in these two categories of jobs, lead technologists and managers, similarly breaks down into two broad categories, influence versus authority.  Management has authority.  The boss can come in and simply tell you what to do.  But technology leads must get things done through influence.  And while authority is something invested in the manager by the company, influence is something that is earned.

So here are some tips on growing your influence in the organization.  Influence is a direct outgrowth of credibility.  So if you’re not yet the lead on your team but want to be, or if you are the lead and want to enhance your influence, remember these few tips:

  1. A technologist’s credibility stems first from his or her competence with the technology.  You’d better have a better than average skill with your technology.  You will not be viewed as competent without it.  If you’re not competent, you also aren’t credible.
  2. An influencer is also a communicator.  If you’re the silent type, or you don’t much voice your opinions, you can be the most competent person on the team but have no influence and, generally, be ignored.  You’ll need to formulate opinions readily and voice them frequently.  What d’you think about moving the architecture to 64-bit?  If you have no opinion on the important questions, then you’re not ready to be the lead.
  3. Be a good listener.  Every technologist knows there are a dozen ways to solve a technology problem.  Just because you have an opinion about how to tackle the problem doesn’t mean that the rest of the team’s opinion doesn’t matter.  Give everyone a hearing and even allow team consensus to settle on the best solution.
  4. Build up your team.  Work to get the most talented people you can and then work to get them training to keep them on the cutting edge.  The competence and credibility of your team enhances your own credibility.
  5. Always be fair.  Fairness heightens your credibility, which in turn leads to greater credibility.  Give team mates equal time to speak their mind and don’t be arbitrary.  Praise publicly and discipline privately.  Never snipe a team mate or even people on other teams and, if you disagree, do so publicly but rationally and based on quantitative reasons.  Going on gut feelings will reduce your credibility.  And if you don’t win your argument, politely “agree to disagree” then move on.  Dredging up the past also reduces your credibility.

Strongly credible lead technologists are then able to use their influence to set the course of their team, assign tasks and jobs to people, drive projects, and implement policies and procedures.  Have you ever worked on a team where the team lead lacked credibility?  How well did they accomplish these and other tasks they were responsible for?

These tips are just the tip of the iceberg.  There are tons more ways to enhance your credibility and, in turn, your influence.  If you have another story about how you built up your own or your team’s credibility, lay it on me.  I always want to hear your feedback!

Of course, I’m always open to your questions about soft skill questions and will try to address them in future posts.


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