Influence Over Authority

My role exposes me to a lot of career conversations. I meet a lot of people pursuing roles that they perceive to have a lot of authority. They want to be the decision makers. It sounds good on paper but in practice I think the goal of gaining authority is misguided.

Facebook rejects authority. It is perhaps our most evergreen cultural trait. Conventional wisdom? Ignored. Industry best practice? Not today. Expert opinion? Nope. This approach forces us to rediscover a lot of wisdom we could have taken for granted. That's expensive. But that rediscovery is also meaningful to us. It allows us to understand our work better. And our approach does allow us to innovate from time to time in ways a conventional approach might not.

As a consequence of that, people who want authority generally aren’t allowed to have it here. It’s a devilishly clever cultural test.

I’m an example of someone who was caught by this test. For most of my career here I openly sought authority. I was a good manager with strong feedback but real authority eluded me. After six years I was an engineering director but was put in one role after another with little freedom to operate. I resigned myself to the possibility that I would never achieve my goal. It was a hard time but also freeing. I switched into an individual contributor role to develop a strategy around mobile advertising. I enjoyed the work. I found it easier to maintain strong relationships without my ambition clouding every conversation. When that role grew into a management role -with a lot of autonomy- I was adamant that it was temporary for me. That was how deeply I had convinced myself I didn't really want such a role. Three months after that I was offered my current job. I declined it — twice — before ultimately accepting. I was genuinely enjoying the freedom available to me by not being in charge.

The above are admittedly Facebook-centric points of view. Lots of organizations in the world do work on the basis of authority. But even in those places, I assert there is a far more powerful force we should aspire to: *influence. *At its core, influence is the property of people wanting your help. Not needing it. Not being required to have it. But wanting it. If you can establish that, then you have something of evergreen value. Authority can be taken away. Influence cannot. The truth is that positions of authority don’t confer you influence. Positions of influence make you much more likely to be given authority. Of course gaining influence is hard. It isn’t awarded. It is earned in very small increments. Every interaction people have with you makes them either more or less likely to come to you for help in the future. It is Pavlovian.

So, how does one become influential?

You must be kind. People should feel good after they work with you. They should feel respected. If you help them but they feel bad, they won’t come back. They won’t tell their colleagues to work with you. They might even do the opposite.

You must be competent. People should leaving thinking that talking with you was worth their time. This is actually much more about setting expectations than it is skillset. The most important aspect of competence is telling people when you can't help. Trying to help when you can't or when you aren't willing to invest the time will just disappoint them. This is the most common mistake I see people make. They want to be influential so they say yes to a lot of requests and then let people down.

You must use authority only as a last resort. Using authority is the opposite of being influential. It’s declining to engage in a helpful process and just taking a shortcut. People can agree or disagree with your decision but they credit that wisdom to themselves and not to you. And make no mistake, everyone reading this has authority. You can decline to accept a diff. You can decline to even review it. You get to decide when and how you engage with your work. The only proper time to exercise your authority is when those affected by it are clamoring for you to do so.

In that light, my eventual move into my current job was ironic but not random. As an individual contributor I was just focused on building something good. The people I was working with were indispensable to that, so I treated them with great respect. As a manager I was focused on making sure the team could handle the work without me. Aren’t those precisely the qualities of the people you would want as leaders? Those are all behaviors that are hard to manage if deep down you see yourself as competing for a zero-sum resource like authority.