Effective business Leadership without authority

So what’s influence got to do with my IT career?

It could be said that influence is the art of saying “Nice doggy … Nice doggy …” to the snarling Rottweiler, long enough to get a big stick….. or is it?

Information Technology is having a profound influence on almost every walk of life, and is disrupting entire industries, companies and therefore individual careers by reshaping job prospects on our increasingly globalised job market.  Why is it, for the most part, that IT professionals and IT leaders within organisations have a constant struggle to influence others in their organisations?

Leadership and Influence

It is a well known fact that one of the foundational attributes of effective leadership is the ability to have an influence. However, if you are employed as a technologist, and not in a managerial or leadership role, why then is influence still important?

When it comes to dealing with multiple powerful stakeholders across the organisation, your perspectives have the potential to directly contribute to the ultimate success of the initiative, or help steer the initiative from falling off a cliff.

In his book Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, Allan McDonald, director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project, provides valuable insights into the importance of legitimate influence.  He had refused to sign the shuttle launch recommendation over safety concerns relating to the O-ring’s low temperature capabilities. The rest, as they say, is history.

As a skilled IT professional in your organisation faced with implementing or supporting high value, high risk and/or high cost enterprise IT initiatives, your well considered perspectives (and ability to communicate these in terms others can relate to), will shape your ability to operate with influence

Let’s explore influence from a number of angles.

Influence with authority

Power and authority do, of course, influence outcomes.

  • In the military, soldiers salute those wearing the officer’s uniform, not the person. Whether the officer has real influence or not, is another matter.
  • In the business world, direct or delegated authority is what is needed to get things done in most instances, and is intrinsic to the structure of organisations. If the CEO has the authority to decide your fate, so be it.

Influence without authority

One of the fundamental challenges facing the contemporary IT leadership cadre is in your organisation, how do you influence those over whom you have no direct authority?

In these instances, influence can arise from a number of sources, such as:

  • Expertise: You have the knowledge, skill and capability that others do not. Hopefully, your expertise is in demand. The key, however, is being able to communicate your expertise in terms others can understand.
  • Coercive: Expertise couched in terms of a threat is not helpful.  “I know better than you, therefore you had better listen to what I have to say” is a conversation you should avoid.
  • Information: Only you have the information that others need.  However, this may undermine your ability to have influence after the information is passed onto others.  Conversely, any attempts at withholding legitimate information would be seen as destructive.

Situational influence

You may feel comfortable that you have the appropriate level of visibility and influence in your current situation and working environment.  However, if there was a significant change (eg: Merger, acquisition, new CEO, change in legislation, seismic shift in the marketplace or sudden threat to your organisation’s viability) your ability to influence others could be drastically diminished.

Influence with integrity

For technologists and functional specialists, workplace ‘politics’ can present a real challenge. The melee of management structures, differing leadership styles, perceived incompetence and the opacity of why decisions are made they way that are at times rather confusing.  Where does your integrity play into this equation?  The key to maintaining an robust and resilient professional reputation is to ensure that you have a clear perspective on your values when faced with ethical dilemmas. I would recommend visiting the St James Ethics Centre website – a free public resource for applied ethics, the only one its kind globally.

As a career IT professional or manager, consider carefully where you should draw your ability to influence others from, and do so in such a way as to sustain an build on your reputation, or put another way, is it time to talk turkey, not tech?