What can you really influence?
Find out by taking a look at your Sphere of Influence
Originally published at https://www.kateleto.com on December 6, 2023. Illustration by artinker.com for Kate Leto
In a recent coaching session, a director of product was telling me about the re-org that her organisation was going through. Again. It was the third re-org that had taken place in as many months. Not surprisingly, it was distracting her and her team from the work at hand, making any progress on teaming and actually building a product come to a standstill. Plus, with all of the uncertainty was building high levels of anxiety and stress for her and her entire organisation.
She came to the session feeling overwhelmed and unsure of what her next step should be. Was she doing everything she could to help her teams? What was she missing?
I asked her to start by writing out what changes were actually being introduced by the executive team. She listed out:
- Changes in roles and accountabilities
- Changes in portfolio ownership
- Changes in management structure
That’s a lot of change, and this wasn’t a one-off “re-org.” These new announcements were just the latest in what seemed to be a continual cycle of poorly consulted, planned and communicated decisions by a group of executives and investors. Not surprising, my client felt helpless, disappointed and frustrated at the decisions that had been made and how they were impacting her teams. Even though she had no input or previous awareness off what was going to happen, she felt accountable.
I shared a drawing on our Mural board of a coaching tool known as the Sphere of Influence (SOI), a concept originally introduced by Stephen Covey. As you’ll see in the diagram below, it actually consists of three areas: Control, Influence and Concern.
Control: The sphere that’s all about YOU
Using the tool to talk through the complexities of the situation, I asked my client: “What’s within your control here?”
Her first response … “not a lot.” Instinctively, she felt these changes and opaque decisions were coming from an executive team and new investors and were simply beyond her control. But after talking through her actions and behaviours since the announcements, she realised that her response to the decisions was indeed in her control.
So, I asked again … “Since you heard about the latest org changes, what is really within your control?” She responded:
- Her presence with her teams and how she communicated with them.
- Supporting her team by trying to create a safe space for them with as minimal distractions as possible to actually focus on their work.
- Being as transparent and timely as possible with the information she had.
You’ll notice that these items represent her actions and behaviours — no one else’s. No matter how high on the leadership ladder you might be, what’s within your complete control is smaller than you expect. Why? Because the only thing you can truly control in life is yourself: your actions, your decisions, your behaviours and words. Not your manager’s, not your teammates.
In realising this, we could shift the conversation and explore what external items she might be able to influence and actually take action on.
Influence: The sphere of action
The next largest sphere includes all areas where you can affect outcomes and engage with others, but where you don’t have direct control (because it’s happening external to you).
There is a lot in our world as Product leaders that sits within this sphere and it becomes more acute as you move up the leadership ladder, because that influence needs to impact audiences across the org at different levels including:
- Downward: Influencing people on your cross-functional team with different competencies
- Peer: Influencing with other people at your same level and/or making similar types of decisions
- Upward: Influencing up to anyone above, which for a CEO is often the board.
As you all know, as Product Leaders, we’re constantly trying to influence things like:
- Getting stakeholder buy-in to your product vision (what’s in and what’s out)
- Aligning on prioritisation across functions
- Agreeing what delivery might look like (what and how)
- Team topology and hiring
- OKRs that you and your team sign up for
- Much more …
It is tempting to assume that the ability to influence means increased control, but while increased influence may mean that your impact extends further, it doesn’t mean that you actually have control. What sits within this sphere are things we can actually take action on in your organisation.
In the case of my coachee, her identified actions included reaching out to the CPO to try to better understand the decisions being made and to work toward two-way communication channels to bring her a better understanding of decisions and timing, and also enable her to share upstream the feedback and concerns coming from her team.
Concern: The sphere of anxiety
The biggest sphere refers to anything that might be of interest or concern to you, but is fully outside of your control and your ability to influence. I call this the sphere of anxiety because it’s those things that can keep us up at night and make our shoulders tense, but that we really can’t do anything about.
This will vary depending on your role, but can include things like hiring decisions in other groups or at the exec level, vendor selection for org-wide initiatives, how the weather might impact an event or product launch, or even market conditions. You may be concerned about how inflation is going to impact customer adoption of your product, but that’s not something you can control or influence.
Put It Into Practice — for you and your team
I’ve recently written about the importance of writing things down — old school paper and pen. Inline with that, I’ve created an SOI worksheet that you can print out and write on. You can use it as a tool for self reflection and influence-action planning. You can also encourage your team to use it and define their individual SOIs or do the exercise as a team to better understand what might be holding you back from being a more empowered product team.
Ask yourselves, “Are the blockers something in your team’s control? Something team members can take action on and influence?” Once you’ve mapped out the situation with your team, talk through each item and brainstorm whether or not there’s a way that something that is sitting outside of your influence could be moved in. How might you grow your sphere of influence? It’s not easy to do, but it is possible and worthwhile to think through options.
After identifying all the areas under your control or influence, allow yourself to let go of anything that is sitting in concern — those external limitations exist for every role, and allowing frustration to creep in over these things will only prevent you from having the energy and time to focus on the what you really can take action on.
The SOI is a coaching tool that I often use with clients — both individuals and teams. I like it for its simplicity and immediate impact. I can see shoulders (and a penny) drop from clients after thinking through a few seemingly simple questions about control, influence and concerns. If you or your team would like some guidance with mapping out your SOI, please get in touch!