I believe that for technologists to be truly effective they need to not only have great technology skills, but they also need to be influential. Indeed, I believe that influencing is so important that we need to view it as a technologist’s second expertise. That’s all very well, but how influential do you need to be and how do you go about building influencing skills.
The Needed Geek
The needed geek is the entry level of influence for a technologist. The name itself is somewhat disparaging. At one level technologists should embrace their geekiness, it’s what makes you different and special. However, you also need to recognise that others can find your geekiness hard to deal with.
The needed geek is a technologist who is good at their core job. You love technology and know how to make technology work. If a person has an issue they know that they can go to you and you will most likely be able to help them to put it right. When things do go wrong (which isn’t that often) the very best technologists will obsess about why and do whatever they can to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
As good as you are at your core job people from across the business find the geek difficult to work with. You speak a different language, one that they consider to be indecipherable “techno babble”. As a result, while people don’t purposefully avoid you, they do tend to leave the interaction for as long as they can because they anticipate a strange and difficult conversation.
Getting a lot of last minute urgent requests is a typical sign that you are viewed at this entry level of influence. Depending on your role these requests maybe a simple “this isn’t working can you please fix it” or they may be more complex requests like “We are implementing system X with vendor Y and we need data from this other system that we don’t have access to. Can you get it for us? Oh, we need it in two weeks.”
The requests are last minute as people will often try and work it out themselves and only engage you when they are stuck. They are engaging you because they need your particular technical expertise. The reality however is that they have probably already defined the solution they want and are working towards it. What they want from you is for you to work your technical wizardry to help them get it. In this scenario there is often little room to add real value and if you try you are likely to be perceived as making it hard to progress as they already know their preferred solution.
If you find yourself in this situation do the following three things to begin to change the conversation.
- Be easy to engage. You are much more likely to be be sought out early if you make it easy for people to engage you. Consider going to their workplace, sit with their team and be available to support them when they want and need it. They are much more likely to ask for support if you are right there than if they need to go to the other end of the building or spend 5 minutes using the hated online portal.
- Ask how you can help. As well as being available offer to help. Proactively asking gets you ahead of the game and provides an early warning that something is going to come your way. This in turn makes it easier for you to plan to meet their deadlines and perhaps even to have some input on how best to achieve their goal. Depending on your specific role and mandate consider asking the following questions:
- Do you have any technical issues that I can help you with?
- What projects are you doing (or considering) that we may be able to support you on?
- Deliver your expertise. Whenever you are asked to do something make sure you do it well. They have come to you seeking your specific expertise make sure you deliver on that. Consistently delivering to them what they request sets up an expectation that you are in fact very good at what you do and this perception of competence means that they will be more likely to engage again in the future.
If you do these three things consistently well, then you will begin to progress to the next level of influence, the technical advisor.
A technical advisor is a person or group whose views are actively sort out because people know that you will likely have a positive contribution to make. At this level of influence you are increasingly consulted on how technology can help the business to solve a problem or grasp an opportunity. You are being engaged in a way that allows your technical skills to begin to add value across the organisation. People are no longer simply bringing you technical problems and solutions that they need you to implement. Rather they start bringing you their issues and opportunities and are engaging with you around what the potential solutions could be.
A good indication that you have become a technical advisor is that instead of being engaged at the last minute you find yourself being invited to planning and evaluation sessions because people trust your technical judgement and value your opinion.
As an advisor you are getting the opportunity to make a difference, but on a “transactional” basis only. That is, you get to make a difference when you are invited in by your business peer to work on an issue or opportunity that they have identified. Even though you work for the same company this looks a lot like a preferred supplier relationship. You are working on their issues, on their time frame and at their request.
Becoming an advisor is a watershed moment for most. As an advisor, working collaboratively across the business as one team looks real for the first time. To make it real and to become a genuine partner do the following three things:
- Be relevant. You have made it this far by being a great technologist and by being able to work out how to apply technology to the issues that you have been presented with. To go to the next level you need to also show the ability to be a good “business person.” You do this by demonstrating an understanding of the business issues and opportunities that your users / customers are facing. You need to be able to think and talk about business problems from their perspective as well as provide a technical solution.
- Suggest alternatives. Having gained and understanding of the issues and opportunities begin to suggest potential solutions. In some cases this will be as simple as developing a business focused options analysis. In others it may be a more proactive. “If we could solve this issue then we would achieve the following benefits. Here are some ways we could make that happen.”
- Deliver outcomes. Up until this stage your focus has been on delivering the technical solution that you and your customers / users have agreed to. To move into the partnering space you not only need to deliver the technical solution but you need to demonstrate that you are as invested in delivering the business outcome as your partners are. Partners don’t simply deliver what is asked for they are fully invested in creating the desired outcome.
Do these things well and you will begin to be seen as a partner, an equal in creating the future of the organisation.
A partner is a person who is actively sought out by others to provide support guidance and advice. Their opinions are highly valued because past interactions have taught others that you have valuable, often unique insights that will help them with their current dilemma. If you are a senior technology leader and have achieved partner status it is probably because you have been able to consistently solve important business problems through the smart use of technology or information. Typically the partner can:
- Clearly articulate a business problem or opportunity in business terms.
- Successfully position a technology enabled solution that will solve the problem or deliver the opportunity.
- Clearly articulate the business benefits that will be realised as a result.
- Successfully deliver the agreed solution and support the business to realise the benefits.
As a partner not only will you be engaged on specific issues that your colleagues want your support on, but you will play a full role in strategy formulation and planning for the organisation. You will lead discussions with your fellow executives about emerging technology and how it will impact your business model and your industry’s competitiveness.
Often true partnering as I have described here is seen as the pinnacle that we should aim for and it is certainly a great place to be and one that few ever truly achieve. There is however an opportunity to progress past “partner” and for you to become not simply a member of the leadership team, but a member of the CEOs inner circle. In this role you are not only a member of the team that develops strategy, rather you are looked to formulate strategy and lead widespread organisational change. If you are interested in progressing to this role then focus on the following:
- Be visionary. Demonstrate how technology can and will shape and create various possible future(s) in your industry and lead discussions on how and where your organisation should be positioned to take advantage of these futures in an increasingly digital world.
- Architect the future. Begin to create the future organisation by thinking architecturally, designing the organisation of the future and bringing the design to life progressively as capabilities are built and technologies mature, create value, commoditise and are replaced.
- Fulfil purpose. Focus your vision on understanding how you and your organisation can fulfil the organisations purpose and reason for being and on what role technology plays in enabling you to make that happen, always ensuring you remain true to your reason for being while deploying and replacing whatever technology and capabilities are required to bring that purpose to life.
This is true influence. Not only are you influential within your own organisations, but across industries and maybe even changing the lives of your customers for the better.
Something to ponder and aspire to, but in the meantime consider these questions to get you started on your quest to build your second expertise.
- Where are you today in terms of your level of influence and how do you know?
- If you were to ask your customers and non technology peers what would they say? (now actually ask them!)
- Where do you need to be effective in your role? Where do you want to be?
- Are you doing the 3 things you need to do to get you there?
- What can you do differently today to begin the process?
If you would like to learn more about my Influence training and mentoring programmes click here.
I’d love to hear your answers to the questions and hear about the successes you are having as you seek to build your second expertise.
To help answer this question let’s look at three typical levels of influence that cover the vast majority of technologists and how you can move from one level to the next.