Blog Post 11-10-15

Influencing Up: A Key Skill for Federal Leaders

Wesley was frustrated. His agency was reorganizing again, and he had ideas about how to make the transition smoother for the administrative unit he oversaw. Many of the agency’s offices would be restructured in order to align with their programs instead of their geographical regions, and one of the challenges was to figure out how to maintain consistent administrative support at the same time. Wesley could see a clear path to aligning his people with each of the new structures they would be supporting, but despite the confidence Wesley had in his idea, he didn’t believe he was likely to get anywhere with it. The last time he’d tried to propose an idea it seemed like it had dropped into an abandoned well. In the hectic, overloaded environment of his branch, he didn’t even know if anyone had actually read his emails.

One day during a leadership development workshop, the subject of influencing up the chain of command was raised for discussion. Alana, a well-respected colleague of Wesley’s who worked in IT, told the story of her recent attempts to make suggestions about how her own people could be reorganized.

“I used a technique I learned recently in another class,” she explained. “It’s called ACT, which stands for: Be in Alignment; speak with Conviction; and Take courage to sell your ideas.”
“Tell us more,” the instructor urged, echoing Wesley’s own thoughts.
“Sure,” said Alana. “So in the first step, I recognized that I would probably be best heard if my ideas were in alignment with the new vision our senior leaders have laid out for the reorg. The purpose of the realignment is to harness the power of subject matter expertise (SME) rather than geographical efficiency, because having more SMEs on a particular project will eventually save money through better solutions and fewer mistakes, and will make up for the increased travel expense. So I couched my suggestion in terms of how we could best support groups of SMEs in their specific technological needs.”
“That makes sense,” Wesley said. “And then you make your proposal with confidence and conviction, right?”
“Exactly. I figured if my supervisors heard the passion in my message they would understand that I truly believed in my ideas, and they might take me more seriously. I didn’t rely on email; I asked for a meeting, and then I made sure to convey passion – but not frustration! – through my words, facial expressions, body language and tone of voice.”
“So I guess I see where the courage comes in,” Wesley commented. “Depending on who you were requesting a meeting with, it might be a pretty intimidating experience.”
“Yes, but it’s not just that,” Alana replied. “We all have that inner critic in our heads, the one that whispers, ‘Who are you to suggest such a thing?’ Taking courage means stepping into the mantle of your personal integrity and competency and recognizing that you have an informed perspective which needs to be heard. You didn’t get where you are in the agency without that integrity and competency, and from your boots-on-the-ground perspective you can see things others may not. So put on the cowardly lion’s medal of courage and trust your own ideas!”
“And did your ideas get implemented?” the instructor asked.
“They did!” Alana said proudly. “But I can honestly say that even if they hadn’t, I would have felt better about myself for making the effort and having my ideas be heard. I felt that I was demonstrating real leadership to my supervisors, and I knew they would take note of it.”

Wesley could hardly wait to get out of the classroom and start working on his own ACT plan.