Increasing Your Sphere of Influence as Women in Tech
Part 3 of 5 in a series on leadership, community investment & decisive career growth from Capital One’s Women in Tech
According to a recent LinkedIn survey, we are starting to see gender parity across many of the top 15 rising job categories. However, some of the hottest new tech roles are not on that list. How we, as women in tech, lead over the next few years will be crucial in bridging the gender gap in these technology fields. To help answer how we can make these changes on both a personal and industry level, I’ve talked to some of my colleagues at Capital One, to create a five-blog series on how to lead as women in tech.
Why does increasing your sphere of influence matter for women in tech?
Would you want to encourage and motivate someone to take on or complete work? Would you like to take a collaborative approach including your team and various stakeholders in decision making? Would you like to leverage feedback systems where everyone involved has an opportunity to send their suggestions? If you answered yes to any of these questions - you are essentially thinking about the Influence competency.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Influence as the power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways. Influencing the people around you in the right way boosts associate morale, creates highly engaged team members and increases employee retention - all the more reason for women to consider broadening their sphere of influence.
How to increase your sphere of influence as women in tech
1. Target your conversation to your audience
Communication is key at all levels and in all roles, but particularly so while influencing others. Do you tend to go into every detail of decision making in conversations - be it about architecture, code reviews, strategy or resource discussions? If so, you’re not alone. But as a leader, you may have to back that up and explain the why, the how, and the tradeoffs to your decision making. Sometimes deep details matter. But you don’t necessarily need to go over all of them all the time.
Gauge your audience and the situation. Are you looking to address a group of engineers, product owners or a combination of both? Does the discussion entail long term strategy or short term implementation? Start with explaining the aspect(s) best suited to the audience and situation, going over the other details as needed. For example, if you are seeing a spike in your cloud costs for a couple of months in a row - your VP may be interested in the root cause and a path to bring the costs down whereas your peer may be interested in the infrastructure details to check if their team was impacted as well.
Having targeted conversations helps reduce confusion and increases your chances of influencing your team, peers, leaders or partners. An important piece of feedback I got very early on in my career was around my written communication. The feedback provider indicated I had too much detail in my email that made my request unclear. I’ve since then learnt (and am still learning) to be very explicit with my asks, craft an executive summary for status emails and include a bulleted list for additional details or action items. Here are eight communication strategies to be an Influential Leader.
We live in a highly matrixed organization and the number one skill you need here is ‘collaborative problem solving.’ The real currency in negotiations is trust. Build trust with your peers and others, by listening to them, understanding their goals and finding that intersection between your goals and theirs where all the win-wins and successes live.
2. Understand the deeper meaning, and impact, of confidence
Nailing your communication style can help you confidently voice your opinion. Confidence vs. competence is like the chicken and egg situation. It’s hard to find your confidence when you are not competent, but you’ll never be able to build up competence without confidence. The good news is that being confident doesn't mean you always make the right choice. Instead, confidence is demonstrated by how firmly you believe you can make the right choice.
In other words, it’s not about having all the answers, but it’s about knowing that you can find the right answers by leveraging your resources and network. There’s also an element of knowing when to ask for help. Competent people have a good understanding of when they are out of their depth and need to tap in for help. Per the famous African Proverb - “If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together” giving others a vision of the destination gets their buy-in for the journey.
Let’s say you are tasked with migrating an app to AWS, but your understanding of batch jobs that are required to perform the migration is limited. A confident person isn’t going to let their relatively low level of competence with batch jobs come in the way of a successful migration. Instead they are going to lean on the subject matter experts in that space to collaborate over a successful migration strategy. Collaboration techniques might include joint design sessions, transparency in the ownership of tasks and shared recognition and appreciation for meeting the set milestones.
Here are 8 things to do to look confident even when you aren’t. And here are ways you can bring out other’s self confidence as a leader.
3. Leverage your network
And that brings us to another important aspect of broadening your influence - your network. A spider’s web comes to my mind when I think of networking - I understand the benefits it can bring, but I’m also scared to kick off casual conversations just because they might serve me well over the course of the next few years. More often than not, networking events made me feel like a fly trapped in the interaction model without a way out.
At one point in time, I had resigned myself to not being good at networking. It comes so naturally to people like my brother, who can spin up a network easily wherever he goes. That just didn’t feel like me. Desperate to make progress in this space, I recruited that brother to coach me on networking. Surprisingly, the advice he gave turned out to be quite simple - Speak to a random person everyday about a random topic. As I started to implement this, what once scared me wasn’t a big deal anymore and I was able to start thinking about intentional networking. Now, I try to think of myself as the spider weaving a web, making connections from one on to the next.
It’s important to figure out how and why networking is important to you and what approach best fits your personality style. There are several forums that support intentional networking - be it Lean In circles, developer community meet ups or fireside chats with leaders. There are also several platforms like Lean In, MeetUp, Advent of Code to name a few, that bring engineers together in the hope of strengthening their networks and overarching goals of building better communities. And as always, there’s a wealth of information on how to influence others at your workplace regardless of your position available on the web.
Women seem to lose their voice when they get talked over or cut-off mid sentence. That may lead to them playing a supporting role on the team rather than be a driving force. Advocate for other women within or outside of your team and find ways to help each other out.
4. Mentors aren’t just for junior engineers
Mentorship isn’t just a fad. It can have a long lasting career impact in terms of improved professional identity, increased career satisfaction, and of course higher promotion rates and salaries. According to a study, individuals who’ve had mentors are 90% likely to become a mentor themselves.
It turns out that we all could use five types of mentors in our lives. Here’s a quick paraphrased rundown of the five types:
- An expert - who you’ve always wanted to learn the secrets of trade
- The advocate - who can champion your cause and has your back at higher ranks
- A buddy - someone who you can talk about your projects, bounce ideas off of or even vent out over a coffee
- A career coach - someone who has the overall you in mind and can help ground you in situations where you feel anchorless
- A mentee - someone who can give you feedback on your leadership style and can help you gain a fresh perspective.
I will add that you should make sure to have at least one woman mentor, if not more. This can help you validate your thoughts and experiences as a woman in tech and get over any “It’s probably my fault” type feelings. This can especially help you out when you feel stuck.
I was fortunate to have amazing mentors across all these categories. Here’s some things my mentors and mentees helped me with and it made all the difference when they believed in me more than I did in myself.
- Making time to help me debug an issue with the code
- Matching me up with the right opportunities to challenge my thinking
- Being my cheerleader when I needed some motivation
- Reminding me to ground my priorities
- Introducing me to the concept of hard core hacking
If you wish you had help along these lines, here are 10 ways to find and keep a mentor to help you get started.
Consider having multiple mentors with strengths in different skills and competencies. Make a clear request to the mentor including why they identified the mentor, what they expect to achieve, and how the mentor can help. Don’t be discouraged if a mentor request is declined or if finding a good fit takes some time.
5. Talk to your leadership to elevate your work
Ensure you have conversations with your skip level and other organization leaders at a recurring frequency. Have an agenda for your discussion and make sure to elevate your work and your career interests. This is a way to advocate for your own work and overcome the misnomer that your manager and leadership is aware of your awesome work.
Make the best use of your one-on-one time with your manager and leaders by focusing more on the long term. This helps understand your leader’s vision and gives you a chance to ask questions, clarify assumptions and elevate risks. As you bring up the top concerns or problem areas you and your teams are currently facing, make sure to also offer potential solutions. By doing so you demonstrate your problem solving competency in the process. And if you don’t end up using the solution you offered, it is still an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t within your org in addition to your leader’s leadership style.
Check out these tips for having a successful one-on-one conversation with your manager or other leaders.
Speak out for yourself. Keep in touch with your leaders and seize any opportunity to understand their expectations and showcase your work.
I want to thank Lakshmi, Shanda, Janene and HimaBindu for their help with this article. Stay tuned for the next installment in this five-part series - Supporting the Next Generation as Women in Tech.