How do I influence others?
As I’m starting this substack, I am reposting blogs I wrote from 2019-2021 published on Amazon’s internal wiki. As I continue to publish here, I will publish a combination of fresh content and reposting older content.
A common question that comes up in mentoring 1:1s is “How do I influence others, especially without authority”? Influencing others allows you to have a significant impact outside of the work you produce. You can influence how others think, how they behave, decisions that are made, their career trajectory, or how they approach their work. Early on at Amazon, I focused on my work and how I could make that work as impactful as possible. As I’ve grown, I’ve focused more on how to influence others over just producing the best work. Being aware of your influence and having an influence on others is critical to the promotion process at most companies. Today, I’ll share an overview of how to influence others.
What is influence?
To ground what we’re talking about, let’s define influence. Influence, according to Merriam-Webster, is “to act upon (a person or a person’s feelings) to cause a response.” We’re likely influencing people throughout the day without realizing it. Influence can be small, like convincing a PM of rewording a phrase in a requirements document, or large like getting executive buy-in to fund a new program. Even small influences that feel inconsequential at the time can become significant. For example, you could suggest a process improvement that the team organizes A/B testing results in wiki – something that may feel fairly inconsequential. However, the result of this could be another team seeing the results and influencing their decisions. Or someone seeing a mistake made in the experiment analysis that changes the results. You don’t need to only need to influence decisions that feel large to make a major impact. As you look for opportunities to influence, consider that you can influence someone’s decision, mental model, how they spend their time, or broader like a team culture.
One story that comes to mind as an example of influence is when Frodo exclaimed “I will take it! I will take the ring to Mordor!” Sometimes influence starts by just stepping up and owning a problem. I’ve seen a lot of examples at Amazon where there’s a problem, large or small, that many people are acknowledging and even discussing, like what was happening at the Council of Elrond, and yet no one was willing to own the problem. One way to find opportunities to influence is to be mindful of these problems and then take the initiative to step in and drive it. You don’t need to ask for permission to be part of the solution. We also can’t know the mental models other people are working against like “that’s someone else’s problem” or “that’s too complex to solve”. For example, if you are part of a project and see an inefficiency that could make the team more productive, you have a responsibility to bring your suggestion to the table. Step up and politely say “I need to fix this”.
Be strategic in how you want to influence
I find some of my most impactful work comes after a moment of reflection. Have you stepped back and considered who you want to influence? While we likely influence the people we spend most of our day around, you can also be purposeful about who you are trying to influence. For me, I consider the ratio about 30% my immediate design team, 30% my organization (Alexa Experience), 20% the Alexa organization, and 10% the Amazon design community. While this doesn’t immediately translate to the ratio of how I spend my time, I use this to understand if I’m putting the right effort in to meet my goals. When I’m working on a project, I try to be mindful of who I’ll need to influence to be successful in the work. Just as important, I’m also mindful of who I need to be influenced by to expand my understanding of a topic. Getting multiple points of view, especially from diverse perspectives, and being willing to change my mind has been essential to be “right, a lot”. I’m a big believer in having many mentors that you can get a fresh perspective and advice based on the situation. So, as you think about who you want to influence, consider how you spend your time expanding your influence to parts of the organization and who you are going to get influenced by with their point of view.
Bring good ideas to the table
One of the easiest ways to broaden your influence of others is to just bring good ideas to the table. By doing great design work and bringing your ideas to the table, you can inspire others. However, it’s not just important to have the idea; you must share a solution to a crucial problem to the right person with a compelling story. Here’s an example. In 2015, I saw an opportunity to improve the Mobile Shopping app’s navigation. There wasn’t a clear owner at the time, but I also saw a lot of head-scratching on how the menu was organized. After organizing a brainstorm, I created a prototype but wasn’t sure how to move the work forward. I hadn’t found the right story or the right person to share it with. My mentor, Amit Bhattacharyya, suggested I schedule a meeting with our VP at the time Chee Chew. I nervously scheduled a 1:1 to share my prototype. Looking back, I wish I had at least written a one-pager to explain my thinking. A few months after the meeting, we formed a new team to work on improving the apps’ navigation. In this situation, it took a bit of luck on the timing, good advice from my mentor who understood Chee’s goals, and a bit of courage to schedule that meeting. If you see something that could be improved, use your design powers and show people what that would look like. Bring your good ideas to the table! But also realize that sometimes it takes time and patience for those ideas to get developed.
That's all I got for today. To summarize, my suggestion to influence is to consider:
Influence is anytime you help someone think differently about anything.
Be tactical in who you want to influence and why. Influence can happen on any size decision and on an individual or group basis.
When you see a problem, don’t assume someone else is going to fix it. Influence starts by stepping up and owning a problem.
To be a better influencer, make sure you take multiple perspectives from others influencing you.
Bringing good ideas and designs to the table can influence the rest of the org.