This article was the foundation for a talk at the UC Berkeley School of Information Master of Information and Cybersecurity (MICS) immersion on April 20, 2021. Tailored to cybersecurity students in the MICS program, the intent was to reinforce three practical “soft skills” that can be woven together with technical expertise to lead and influence stakeholders.
As a technologist, we often expect people to easily see what we see and quickly get behind our ideas based on science and logic. But that is generally not how the real world works in practice. Even the best technology ideas must be “sold”, to refine and improve the idea, acquire funding or earn the hearts and minds of people throughout an organization to adopt the technology. The skill of influencing people becomes just as important as the idea or technology.
In a world where technical competence is often a given, what separates good technologists from great technologists, are those that embrace and acquire the art of leading and influencing to see their ideas come to life. While some may downplay its relevance to the sex and sizzle of technology, change management and adoption happen through people. Influencing people and engaging them in a collaborative process to refine and get behind your idea is key to preventing your technology or product from becoming a science project.
But how do you learn to lead with influence to persuade stakeholders inside and outside an organization? Learning how to lead and influence, regardless of your title, is acquired through practice and experience. It’s unlike reading a book, writing code, or learning concepts through online courses or the classroom. You must be willing to adopt a mindset that these soft skills are just as important as your technical skills. It starts with practice to build a foundation and then mastering the techniques over the course of your career. I strongly advocate role-playing as a practical technique for developing these skills and then integrating that experience into your daily work to compound expertise over time.
As an individual contributor at the time, one of the best pieces of advice I received from an executive early in my career at Microsoft was to learn how to lead and influence colleagues without a direct reporting structure. Building expertise and relationships to influence my colleagues required more effort and time than direct authority. It was clear that the ability to lead and influence without direct authority was a prerequisite for becoming a leader within the organization. There will always be situations throughout your career where leadership through indirect influence will be required.
Leadership and influence are wide topics, so in this article, I share three practical techniques you can put into practice this coming week. These are techniques that I have leveraged as a product and technology leader throughout my career. Think of these as three superpowers that complement your technical expertise.
These superpowers are leading and influencing through:
- Writing – conveying ideas in memos and engaging stakeholders in a collaborative refinement and buy-in process.
- Listening – focused, intentional listening to build trust, lower resistance, and change the attitudes of people.
- Observing – learning to detect and decode unspoken cues and personality traits to shape your persuasion approach.
The good news is that there is a deep body of knowledge on the topic of influence and how to become a skilled persuader. Before we dive into a few of my recommended techniques, let’s review the fundamental principles of influence.
The Six Universal Principles of Influence
The seminal book, Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D., outlines six principles for why people say yes – and how to apply these understandings.
- Reciprocity: When we receive something, we feel obliged to give something back.
- Commitment and Consistency: We feel compelled to be consistent with what we’ve said/done in the past.
- Consensus (Social Proof): When we are uncertain, we will look to the actions and behaviors of others to determine our own.
- Liking: We are more likely to say yes to people we like.
- Authority: We follow the lead of credible, knowledgeable experts.
- Scarcity: We perceive something to be more valuable when it’s less available.
It’s important to keep these in mind as you function throughout your workday and collaborate with others.
Other influence books on my shelf include Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade by Robert Cialdini and Never Split The Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss.
1 – Leading and Influencing Through Writing
It’s not uncommon for technologists to rather write code or technical content than to express their ideas or findings through creative writing that engages a broader, less technical audience. But writing is an essential skill for a technologist such as a cybersecurity professional that translates complex technology into recommendations or findings for business leaders.
Influence through writing is a collaborative process that starts a conversion. It engages stakeholders to respectfully challenge, refine, and build on your ideas. This is how high-quality decisions and buy-in generally happens in an organization. Your purpose may be to align stakeholders on a small project or business venture. Leading the conversation through your writing and engaging stakeholders is an essential part of driving the technology agenda forward.
One technique that I have found effective to share my ideas and influence stakeholders is writing a clear and concise written narrative often called a memo. It becomes challenging to communicate your ideas and the depth of your thinking if stakeholders do not have a written storyline. It is the quality of your thinking and introspection that can be persuasive to move people “from” the status quo “to” a new paradigm you envision. Key decision-makers are busy people so synthesizing your idea into a memo makes it practical for them to engage.
Most executives I have worked with often require a pre-read to digest and think about the topic before engaging in a deep discussion. The written narrative can be applied to align a team on a project or a larger initiative. The key is first synthesizing your ideas into a written artifact and then engaging stakeholders in a collaborative process to refine and build on the idea.
Companies such as Amazon, have mastered the art of articulating any type of idea, process, and business using a written narrative. The recently published book, Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, describes the history of how Amazon evolved its meetings to use six-pager narratives to produce clear thinking and stimulate discussion. You can also listen to the authors discuss narratives on the a16z Podcast: Amazon Narratives — Memos, Working Backwards from Release, More.
Memos offer the following value over other communication artifacts such as PowerPoint presentations:
- Eliminates the need for the presenter to create, memorize and rehearse slides. Preparation can be time-consuming and conveying ideas through slides can be inefficient given that it’s very likely that your audience will take you off track with questions and feedback.
- Creates a level playing field for ideas by neutralizing factors such as formal title, personality, or biases that could influence the discussion or willingness to explore ideas of a particular person (e.g. a new hire).
- Amazon views six-pagers as a “Narrative Information Multiplier” given they communicate 7-10x the information density over a presentation. This streamlines productivity for readers across the organization.
- Forces the writer to think deeply and synthesize the story into a concise and coherent format of interconnected ideas, facts, and hypotheses. Challenging these from an opposite view can also show the breadth and depth of your thinking.
- Cloud-hosted documents enable stakeholders to easily engage with questions or comments on specific words or sentences. This can streamline collaboration and the revision process.
- Serves as a system of record for the topic or decision with a lineage of comments and revisions. This can be valuable to accelerate the onboarding of new employees and reduce churn when someone in the future asks the question of how and why that decision was made. This can also reduce the pockets of tribal knowledge across an organization.
Memos are not unique to Amazon and have also become part of the culture at many successful companies such as Netflix.
Memo Format and Content
Written narratives can take many forms and each will have its unique content.
The old essay-writing adage “State, support, conclude” forms the basis for putting a convincing argument forward. Successful narratives will connect the dots for the reader and thus create a persuasive argument, rather than presenting a disconnected stream of bullet points and graphics that leave the audience to do all the work.Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr
Best practices from the Amazon culture include:
- Six Pages: the written content that the stakeholder is expected to read is no longer than six pages.
- Bulletize: short, concise sentences in the form of bullets.
- Prediction: make a decision about the future by predicting likely outcomes and choosing a path based on sound reasoning. This generally requires an understanding of the current state and what may happen next based on data, experience, or intuition.
- Tenets: these serve as guiding principles and the foundational element of the reasoning that led the writer to make the recommendation. “Tenets give the reader an anchor point from which to evaluate the rest. If the tenet itself is in dispute, it’s easier to address that directly rather than take on all the logical steps that derive from that position.” [Working Backwards]
- FAQ: the frequently asked question section is where the writer can actively anticipate counterarguments and the reasoning behind why those ideas or solutions were inferior. It also offers an opportunity for the writer to show the depth and breadth of their thinking by answering questions they expect stakeholders to raise.
- Appendices: this section provides supporting information such as data, graphs, and visual mockups.
Here are some best practices and content sections that I have used in memos:
- Engage a small group of colleagues as co-authors with diverse backgrounds to shape the memo.
- Limit the use of jargon and acronyms (define terms in the appendix if needed).
- Introduction: a clear and concise purpose of why the memo was written and the desired outcome. This is ideally a few sentences.
- Goals: a bullet list of outcomes and strategic priorities for a particular initiative with success measures and due date. Think about your audience and ensure they can relate to these from a business perspective.
- Problem Statement: a precise definition of the problem and the implications of not solving the problem. Articulate the impacts in business terms that are easily understood by the business stakeholders.
- Solution: the recommended solution and the reasoning why this solution and not the alternatives you evaluated. My experience is that stakeholders like to see options to compare and contrast their merits. It’s generally the case where you have multiple solutions that can be stack racked based upon what you are optimizing for (e.g., schedule, cost). Brainstorm objections that may be raised and address them head-on. This can be helpful when there is a solution that may be politically motivated without the details to back it up.
- Assumptions: conditions that you have taken as truth in formulating your thought process and recommendation.
- Risks: critical conditions that if materialized would have a significant impact on the viability of the idea or realizing the desired outcomes.
- Conclusion and Next Actions: a summary of the narrative including the problem, the solution, and the decisions that are needed as next actions.
- Definitions: this can be an appendix section for a glossary of terms that ensures there is a shared interpretation of words used throughout the document.
Business and Technology Strategy Memo
In a recent role as a Chief Product Officer, I authored a memo that synthesized the company vision, strategy, and priorities for a six-month period. The memo served as an input into the planning process where colleagues developed detailed memos for their areas of responsibility. This enabled us to quickly mind-meld and define a portfolio of projects that aligned with the strategic priorities of the foundational memo.
In this scenario, BE 2.0 (Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0): Turning Your Business into an Enduring Great Company by Jim Collins and Bill Lazier, provided an excellent process map and example for synthesizing deep strategic business thinking into a format that was easily communicated to the company. There was a flow to the memo with sections that provided a connected narrative.
1: VISION: Core Values -> Purpose -> Mission
2: STRATEGY: Internal/External Assessment -> Strategies -> Strategic Priorities
3: TACTICS: Projects (specific milestones, dates, people for each strategic priority)
- Core Values and Beliefs – a system of guiding principles and philosophy that shape our culture and the concrete actions we take to conduct business.
- Purpose – the fundamental reason for our organization’s existence that we always work toward but never fully attain.
- Mission – a bold, compelling audacious goal with a clear finish line and a specific time frame.
- Strategy – the methods we will use to achieve the mission (the “how”). I number this and start each strategy with “we will”.
- Internal and External Assessment – strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats.
- Strategic Priorities: 3-5 actions of who is to do what, by when, and how.
The tactics were composed of a portfolio of projects to deliver on the strategic priorities. These were not included in the memo per se, but each project definition has traceability back to the strategic memo.
Writing the narrative is the essential first step, but it’s how you engage the stakeholders you are seeking to influence that can dictate how effective you are turning them into a “yes”. It’s important to leave your ego out of it and create a collaborative, trusting environment for feedback.
These are a few ways that you can engage stakeholders in the refinement process:
- Share a web-based document (e.g., GDoc) that enables your stakeholders to read the narrative and provide comments. This is especially effective when stakeholders are in different locations, and you need a way to keep the refinement going.
- Share the document and then meet with stakeholders one-on-one to build relationships and get their candid feedback that may not come out in a larger group setting.
- Use the Amazon technique where stakeholders use the first 20 minutes of a meeting to read the narrative. Then engage in a collaborative discussion.
As a contributor reviewing and improving the work of your colleagues, there is also an opportunity to grow your authority through the richness of your questions and written feedback.
Sharing Ideas Across the Internet
I won’t go into too much detail in this article given its focus on memos but thought leadership writing is essential to becoming a recognized expert in your field. I recently met and interviewed world-renowned professional hacker, WhiteHat Security founder, and Bit Discovery CEO, Jeremiah Grossman. On his website, you will find an extensive list of writing that features his expertise on his blog and major media publications.
For technologists who cannot reveal their identity or discuss what they work on, you may want to consider a pseudonymous identity (learn more at Balaji Srinivasan: Pseudonymous Economy).
2 – Leading and Influencing Through Listening
Everything in life is a negotiation and selling your idea, product or initiative requires you to influence key decision-makers one-on-one and in group settings. In 2020, I landed a job as a Chief Product Officer where building technology products was a given, and influencing executives was the most important part of my job. I was unprepared to sell and had a lot to learn about the art and science of persuading executives to buy software technology. I was fortunate to have a professional sales coach to train me on the fundamentals and practice sales techniques through role-playing. One of the most basic, but highly effective learnings was to talk less and practice active listening.
“Always Say Less Than Necessary”The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
Active listening is a technique of careful listening and observation of non-verbal cues, with feedback in the form of accurate paraphrasing [Wikipedia]. It requires the listener to pay attention, understand, respond and remember what is being said in the context of intonation, timing, and non-verbal cues (body language) [Wikipedia].
It’s common for people to be so focused on establishing their authority and expertise that all they do is talk when trying to persuade people. In the absence of hearing their perspective, they lose the opportunity to understand their concerns, fears, and ideas. They also fail to establish rapport and a trusted connection.
Active listening can:
- Lower emotion and resistance to your ideas by showing them you are engaging them in a collaborative discussion.
- Build liking for you and trust by intently listening to the point of view of others.
- Elevate your authority as a trusted expert through the questions you ask.
Here are active listening techniques you can put into practice at your next meeting:
- Listen more, talk less – show stakeholders that you are attentive to their needs. It’s critical to get them talking and sharing their point of view. Otherwise, you may miss the opportunity to hear their concerns with your idea or project. Decisions may be made behind closed doors.
- Ask open-ended questions – this establishes space for your stakeholders to share their points with you. If you are presenting an idea or making a point, pause and then pose a question to invite stakeholders into the conversation. The clarity and curiosity of your questions is your opportunity to demonstrate your expertise and credibility.
- Observe non-verbal cues – study and take note of facial expressions, body language, and gestures that people emit. More about this in superpower 3 below.
- Address the concern underlying their question – as technical people, we want to have an answer for everything and respond quickly and logically to questions. But generally behind a simple question is a concern they have. Before answering the exact question, pause and think about what may be behind that question. You can always “reverse” and ask the stakeholder a question to tease out the concern.
- Request clarifications -to ensure you have a shared understanding of what someone is communicating, you can them to clarify the statement and provide additional information. This may also help others in the room.
- Ask probing questions – to explore a topic in more detail or challenge a specific point, ask questions that begin with ‘what,’ ‘why’ or ‘how.’
- Paraphrase and restate – playback what you heard in your own words to ensure there is a shared understanding of a stakeholder’s position. Your ability to restate content based on your understanding will show your expertise and interest in the speaker.
- Summarize – as a discussion comes to an end, ask any final questions such as if anything was not covered, any final thoughts, etc.
3 – Leading and Influencing Through Observing
Throughout many years, things happened in my personal and work life that I could not easily explain through logic. As a math and science person, I understood the laws of physics but there was a deep body of knowledge that I was unaware of in a formal sense – the laws of human nature. Instead of learning a new programming language, I learned the value of understanding how humans are programmed.
Your personal and professional success will be dictated by your ability to interpret, motivate, and influence people. The book, The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene, is the definitive guide. While the book offers an extensive set of guidance on the topic of human behavior, learning to decode the “second language”, non-verbal communication, is a practice you can easily put into motion to improve your influence.
Monitoring nonverbal cues is essential in your attempts at influencing and seducing people. It is the best way to gauge the degree to which a person is falling under your spell.The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene
Based on my experience, it’s my belief that becoming a master of the unspoken is a superpower to leading and influencing people. These are the undertones and meaning of how people think or feel based on the information they leak out with non-verbal cues.
It is estimated that over 65 percent of all human communication is nonverbal but that people pick up and internalize only about 5 percent of this information.The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene
Almost all of our social attention is absorbed by what people say, which more often than not actually serves to conceal what they are really thinking and feeling. Nonverbal cues tell us what people are trying to emphasize with their words and the subtext of their message, the nuances of communication. These cues tell us what they are actively hiding, their real desires [The Laws of Human Nature].
To miss this information is to operate blindly, to invite misunderstanding, and to lose endless opportunities to influence people by not noticing the signs of what they really want or need.
To develop the skill of decoding non-verbal communication, first you must recognize your state of self-absorption and how little you actually observe [The Laws of Human Nature].
Here are a few techniques you can easily put into practice to decode the unspoken:
- Stay attuned to people when you or others are speaking. Our real feelings continually leak out in the form of gestures, tones of voice, facial expressions, and posture.
- Observe how people carry themselves in different settings. This will give insight into how they adjust their role-playing with different people and conditions.
- Establish a baseline and take notes of your observations including any patterns that may emerge.
- Mirror people by making a comment on something they have mentioned during a conversation. This will have a relaxing effect and the conversation may leak out more nonverbal cues.
- To build up your observation skills, casually observe people in public spaces or meetings to pick up cues based on their facial expressions, level of engagement, and how the tone of their voice may change.
For a more in-depth discussion on observation skills, see my notes from the Laws of Human Nature.
The curiosity in observing people has heightened my self-awareness, and it’s now something that I do unconsciously during my workday and personal life.
Using Personality Traits to Persuade the Unpersuadable
In the March 2021 Harvard Business Review article, Persuading the Unpersuadable, organizational psychologist Adam Grant shares science-backed research on how to persuade people based on their personality traits. The lessons are relevant to technologists given that these findings were based on Steve Jobs while at Apple.
Grant offers persuasion approaches for the following personality traits:
- For arrogant, overconfident leaders: let them recognize the gaps in their own understanding. Methods include requesting they write out their understanding of a complex topic or give them the opportunity to explain it verbally.
- For stubborn people with opinions set in stone: these people need to shape ideas so ask open-ended questions to plant seeds for your idea that will lead to lowering their defensiveness.
- For narcissists with unstable self-esteem: appeal to their desire to be admired by first showing respect for them in a particular area that is unrelated to where you are seeking to change one’s mind.
- Argumentative people who are energized by conflict: stand up for your ideas and stay persistent over time by refining the idea, addressing weaknesses, and engaging supporters. This approach may earn you more respect and eventually lead to persuading those that are often disagreeable.
In this article, we explored three non-technical superpowers that are essential to leading and influencing stakeholders. I view these as superpowers because they are rarely mastered with intention and their strength are greater than technology alone.
- Writing displays the depth and breadth of our thinking with a collaborative process to engage people to refine ideas.
- Listening enables us to be seen as a recognized experts with carefully crafted questions and insights when engaging in discussions. Listening carefully also provides clues and new information that can be used to influence outcomes.
- Observing human behavior enables us to understand how people really feel and adjust our persuasion approach based on personality traits.
As technical people, we love our technology but change and adoption of technology require us to bring people along on a journey. Your success as a tech leader depends on fusing together technical skills with non-technical superpowers such as the ones we explored in this article. The good news is that these three superpowers can be easily learned and mastered with practice. Those that embrace both technical competence and the art of influence are unstoppable.