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Influencing Others as a Leader

Internal Communication
Impact
Convincing

20 July, 2021

Tina Cessna, Senior Vice President of Engineering at Backblaze, prides herself on her ability to persuade when conflicts of interest impede the work of her Engineering team.

Problem

As an Engineering leader, I’m part of the executive staff of my company — we’re really small, no more than two hundred people. Being influential as a leader is something that’s really important to me. This includes both within my company, as well as across the other organizations that we work with.

Earlier this year, I was working with a couple of highly-regarded engineers within the company. They were both feeling demoralized; they were providing a lot of manual support on top of their actual responsibilities, their growing technical debt being something that concerned them in particular. One of them was actually considering leaving. I was very worried.

Actions taken

Being influential is not equivalent to simply telling people what to do. There is a big difference between leading and issuing commands from above.

To get to the heart of the matter, I first approached the managers and a few key people on the team. I started a conversation with one of our architects about what was going on within the department. Morale on the team was at an all-time low.

In Q1, we started to lay the groundwork for a plan. I presented a proposition to my executive team: in Q2, we would give our engineers time to focus exclusively on reducing our technical debt. Stabilizing the system would make their work much more efficient in the long run.

This would entail suspending feature work for the entire quarter. This, of course, was a very big deal. Thankfully, I was able to convince them to approve this plan by emphasizing the problems that the department was experiencing. Attrition was something that I brought up a lot as leverage.

This plan ended up being very good for morale. The engineers were finally feeling like their concerns were being heard. They didn’t believe that we, as executives, cared about their problems until we actually started to do something about them. We ended up with zero attrition, all because I was able to influence my organization to move in a more progressive direction.

Q2 ends in two weeks, and we have already felt the improvement that this initiative has brought about. The work continues, and things have only been going up from here.

Lessons learned

  • This counter-intuitive proposition was a really big ask of my executive team. I needed to convince them that attacking our technical debt was a worthwhile use of our time for the sake of our Engineering team and business success.
  • When faced with conflict, you need to do what you can to bring everybody into alignment over what is best for the company. I learned that, especially in a working environment, in order to succeed, you need to present the proposition as a win-win for all parties involved. What was in it for them? That’s worth explaining. I try to focus on how the other side stands to gain with us.
  • Compromise gets things done. Finding common ground with others will always look different on a case-by-case basis, but it all comes down to listening intently to what the other side is trying to communicate to you. What do they need? What do I need? We propose and negotiate and have an honest conversation about the problem together. I do not dictate. I try to make everybody feel like they’re part of the solution.

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