We all know that one person who joins a team and thinks that they have the answer to everything. They could be a new graduate; they could be a C-level executive. The only thing that we know, is that 9 times out of 10, they’ll fail.
Assuming that the team knows about the problem (and if it’s a big issue, I can guarantee that they’ve already discussed it a dozen times), why would they ignore it? Surely, we can find some time in our schedule to fix a major pain point for the team.
Sadly, it’s not that easy. These types of issues tend to be more systemic. It takes a group of people, aligned and moving in the same direction to fix them.
So how do we solve them?
By building consensus! But building consensus is hard. It takes time, patience, and it usually involves a lot of trust in you as an individual.
That’s why your reputation matters. The stronger your reputation, the easier your life is going to be.
You need to build and maintain many relationships to be successful. Although building a reputation is time consuming, it isn’t hard. Keep reading to learn how to do it.
Building a reputation
Your reputation won’t come to you. You have to go out there and build it yourself, and that means being proactive. We’re trained to focus on our specific areas of responsibility. If there’s a problem in another area of the business, we shouldn’t interfere. Except, that’s not true at all. People remember when you proactively offer to investigate and resolve tricky problems.
Here’s a quote from Jason Warner, former CTO of GitHub about a meeting he had three weeks into his time at GitHub:
And I asked a room of people that reported to me at the time what was happening, and not a single person had an answer or looked like they were going to take any sort of responsibility, and Sam said "I know exactly what the issue is. I know where it is. It's just not on our team and we'll dive into fix this and figure it out."
Via Developing Leadership, Episode 9 - Building High-Performance Teams with Sam Lambert
Working across multiple teams to deliver a valuable outcome is the best thing you can do to build a reputation within your business. These projects give you the opportunity to meet people you wouldn’t usually interact with on a day-to-day basis, and usually have visibility from your manager’s peers and your skip-level boss’ peers too.
Most people do what’s asked of them in their role. Very few seek to identify opportunities to step up and solve problems for others. People remember the ones that do.
Commit and Deliver
So, you’ve stepped up and said that you’re going to fix this tricky cross-functional problem. The next step is to make sure that you do exactly that. Understand what’s needed, when it’s needed and commit to delivering a solution a week before the deadline so that people have time to review your work.
Reliability is a key tenet of building a good relationship. Do what you say you’re going to do. No excuses. If you promise to solve a problem then nothing happens, that wide range of people that you’ve just introduced yourself to are going to assume that you’re not reliable.
Don’t start with a huge project (“I’m going to rebuild our pricing model”). Start with something small, like “I’m going to build a demo of new feature X that the sales team can use to show prospects”. Build up some wins with small projects and gradually increase the size of the thing you’re aiming to deliver.
At some point you’re going to take on a problem that you can’t solve, and you’re going to your manager to help. By building a history of reliability, they’ll be conditioned to understand that it’s a tricky problem, not that you’re incapable of delivering.
Finally, be accountable. We’re all human, and we all make mistakes. People will like you more if you own up to the problems you’re facing and work to resolve them. Outline the problem statement, what you’ve tried so far and why it hasn’t been successful. Everyone likes being asked their opinion, and you might get a solution to your challenge.
Even if the project does fail, people will remember your methodical approach and that it wasn’t just you that couldn’t resolve the issue. They’ll look at the people you asked too, and conclude that the issue is with the project, not with you as an individual.
The majority of the projects that you’ll be working on to build a reputation will require building consensus across multiple teams, many of which have their own (conflicting!) incentives.
The only way to be successful is to pre-wire meetings by getting everyone on the same page before you meet. It takes time to meet with all your stakeholders, but it’s worth it. Involve them early in the process, and spend time explaining why you’re tackling this project now. Paint them a picture of how the world could be if you were successful, and ask them to provide any objections so that you can address their concerns.
Start small. Don’t pitch your idea to your CMO straight away. Pitch your idea to your peers, then take the feedback they provide and use it to improve your presentation. Then pitch that version to your boss, and listen to their feedback. Next, pitch to your boss’s peers and listen to their feedback. By the time you get to your executive sponsor, you’ll have heard most of the objections and have pre-written answers for their questions.
Walking into a room knowing that 80% of the attendees there agree with your assessment and plan of action removes the risk that your project could stall or be cancelled. If you take the time to make sure your audience sees what you see and understand why you’re taking the path you plan to take, they’ll stick with you even when the going gets tough.
“With people, slow is fast and fast is slow.”
Via Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Writing is the best way that I’ve found to communicate ideas to a varied audience. Put together a document (no more than 2 pages long) explaining the problem you face, potential solutions and most importantly, what is not in scope for this project. Run through the pros and cons, and the risks associated with each approach.
Having something written down reassures people that you really are thinking about the problem, and that you have concrete ideas about how to resolve it. People find it easier to support a concrete plan of action rather than a nebulous idea.
When working with people that you don’t have a close relationship with, how you say something is as important as what you say. Joining a conversation and immediately leading with your opinions and ideas is a sure-fire way to leave people thinking “who does this guy think he is?”
Listen first, talk second. Participate in the conversation with affirmations and questions. Use phrases such as “I hadn’t considered that, thanks for sharing. Has anyone else experienced that outcome?” and “Does anyone have any examples where this wasn’t the case?”. Don’t dive in and say “Well, that’s not how it worked in my last job” or “I’ve never seen it go like that”.
One of my peers in another part of the organisation recently said to me: “You know, this is why we love working with you Michael. You never say no”. That doesn’t mean that I say yes to everything, it means that I don’t shut down the conversation immediately. Instead of saying “This won’t work because of X”, say “This sounds really interesting. Do you have more information on how this idea works with X?”. Keep the dialog open and lead people to the conclusions you want them to come to. (As an aside: I probably do around 20% of the things people ask me for, but they don’t remember the other 80% as they identify the issues and reconsider the project themselves)
Finally, write things down. Take notes on what’s being asked for, what experience people have had in the past and any decisions made during discussions. You can use these notes as the basis for your project document mentioned above to show that it’s been a collaborative effort across teams.
Help Your Manager
The quickest way to building a reputation is to find out what’s important to your manager and offer to help. Establish yourself as someone that they can trust, and you’ll find that you get pulled into projects above your current level with increasing frequency.
As with any project, start small and build goodwill. Use each project as a stepping stone to the next. It may start with reviewing a presentation and finding some evidence for the key points in your marketing website or documentation. Then before you know it you’re writing the first draft of your boss’ keynote for your annual company conference.
You won’t be the one delivering the final outcome a lot of the time in this situation. But, if you’re in the right kind of company (and if you’re not, it’s time to find a new one) then your boss will make sure that everyone knows that you did the majority of the work to make everyone successful on the day.
Contributing past your current role and comfort level shows that you’re willing to challenge yourself and grow. It shows initiative, and ensures that the next time there’s a strategic project to deliver, your name is the first one that comes to mind.
Many of the above tactics for building a reputation involve other people. You’ll need others in order to be successful, and it’s worth investing the time to develop relationships with those that you’ll be working with closely.
This section covers the characteristics that people usually value in a business.
This is the most important one - be honest. I’m not saying that you should tell Bob that he looks like a tree when he wears his favourite green top / brown trousers combo (unless that’s relevant to your business), but you should be transparent whenever it relates to the project you’re working on.
As Benjamin Franklin said, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” Secrets are the quickest way to lose trust on a team. If someone learns that you’ve kept something from them, they’ll wonder what other information you have that you’re not sharing.
Rumours lead to misunderstandings, which turn in to full-blown disputes if not dealt with carefully. It might be uncomfortable to say “I made an assumption that we’d get funding for this research, but now I’m stuck with finance and need a week to resolve it. My mistake, but leave it with me”. However, that’s much better than the things your coworkers will invent if left to their own devices.
Share the information you have. Be up front about your mistakes. Tell people if you’re not going to use their idea rather than saying “I’ll definitely consider that!” It might be difficult at the time, but you’ll build a reputation as someone that people can trust.
People are more likely to do things for you once you’ve done something for them. I’ve heard this phrased in many ways:
- Relationships are like a bank. You’ve got to make a deposit before you make a withdrawal
- You’ve got to put cookies in the cookie jar before you can take them out
- Treat trust like a battery. You can charge your battery by building trust, then tap into your reserves when you need people to trust you
The underlying theme is that you need to help others before asking them to help you.
You don’t have to do a lot for people to feel valued. Volume is generally more important than the size of the thing you do. You could amplify the work they’re doing to a wider audience. You could help them reach their personal goals. Take 10 minutes to chat for no reason other than getting to know them better. The aim is for people to recall these positive interactions when your name is mentioned.
It’s important that you’re genuine when doing the above. People know when someone’s just playing the game to get what they need. That’s why you need to also deliver on some big promises too.
The easiest way to do this is to make their goals your goals. Listen to what they’re saying and help them move forward with whatever’s on their mind. There’s usually a way to progress your goals by framing it in a way that also helps them achieve their goal. Here’s a great example from Lenny Rachintsky (emphasis mine):
In one real-life example, I was leading the launch of the Superhost program at Airbnb, and I had to convince the search team to be OK with adding a Superhost badge to the listing cards (see top left below).
The search team was really skeptical, thinking this new visual badge would pull people to listings that weren’t optimal (e.g. lower-ranked listings). Initially, my pitch was around my team’s goals: increasing host retention and host engagement. But after a bit of back-and-forth, I adjusted my pitch to focus on what I knew the search team cared about most: increasing guest-side conversion. I told them this had a good shot at actually increasing conversion, and that we would run a specific A/B test to find out. They finally agreed, the results ended up being positive, and everyone was happy.
By reframing what you need in a way that will help them achieve their goals, you’re much more likely to find a willing partner. Then once you achieve your shared goals, shout about how they achieved theirs. They’ll remember that you helped them get there, and the next time you need something they’ll be ready to dive in and help.
If you say you can or you can't you are right either way. - Henry Ford
Sometimes you don’t have to do anything. People like being heard. If you’re an engineer working with marketing don’t say “that’ll never work” and shut down the conversation. Ask “What are you trying to achieve?”, “What have you already tried?”, “I wouldn’t recommend doing X because of Y, but Z might get your some way towards the results you’re looking for and be more acceptable to your audience”.
No-one wants to work with the person that constantly points out why things won’t work. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be realistic though. Those that can be realistic whilst staying positive are valued contributors in many businesses.
Imagine the following two sentences:
- That’ll never work. We tried it before and it failed for X and Y reasons
- That’s an interesting idea! I think we tried something similar in the past, check out the notes from project ABC to see if there’s anything you can learn
Both sentences lead to the same outcome (the project is re-evaluated), but people will remember that you were negative in one instance, and that you were helpful in the other. If they decide to proceed anyway and you want to avoid the project, try saying “I don’t have the ability to get involved right now, but I’d love to hear how it goes when we next catch up”.
Finally, avoid being drawn into the world of those that love to complain. It’s too easy to agree with something that someone else has said, and your reputation can degrade quickly if people learn that you’re talking poorly about people behind their back.
Flexibility is key to being successful when working with others. What you have in mind for a project might not align with what they’re trying to achieve.
Sometimes you have to compromise on your vision a bit in order to get buy-in. People might not be ready to fully commit and want to see some positive ROI before investing further.
If you have to compromise, figure out what the minimal deliverable scope is that can help create more momentum for further investment in this area. If you can do that and prove there’s value in solving the problem you care about, people will be more likely to expand investment in the future.
Via Sean Falconer - How to influence people to prioritise the Developer Experience
A small win that happens quickly is better than a big win that may never appear. Work towards goals that are adjacent to your own in order to move in the right direction, then leverage all the relationships that you’ve built along the way for your final sprint to the end goal.
The world is constantly changing, and what got us here won’t necessarily get us there. We need to be open to new ideas and different ways of doing things. We should never compromise our values, but we should always be open to trying new ways of expressing them. Being flexible enables us to accept that we’re not always right, and to helps us to understand what we need to do next to be successful.
Finally, make sure that you’re visible. If you blend into the background, no-one’s going to remember that you were present when the project is a huge success.
During the kickoff phase, make sure that you’re seen in every meeting. Ask at least one question. Make notes and share with everyone afterwards. This is especially important if you’re on a project that’s above your current level, as you’re likely the newest member of that audience and the existing people already know each other.
As the project progresses, be the one to chat with all the stakeholders and produce consumable updates that can be fed to your boss and beyond. Be the person to communicate the bad news, and have all of the data about why it happened and what you’re doing to resolve it. As the saying goes, all publicity is good publicity.
Once the project concludes promote the work that you did, but don’t make it all about you. Make sure to mention the people you work with, specifically calling out what they brought to the project. Everyone knows that you were a key participant based on your earlier visibility, so now’s the time to share the credit. It’ll make people want to work with you again in the future.
The Unfortunate Truths
If you follow all of the above, you’re in with a good chance of building a positive reputation at work. Sadly, it’s not a foolproof recipe. Sometimes there are things that are out of our control, and we don’t have any control over them.
That being said, you’re not helpless either. Here are some common pitfalls and what you can do to minimise their impact:
You Can't Do It Alone
You can’t build a reputation without other people. It’s tempting to go straight to the top and try to build relationships with senior stakeholders, but the truth is that it usually doesn’t work. There are a lot of people trying to do the same thing, and those stakeholders rely on their team to know who to encourage and who to brush off.
Start by looking for peers at your level in other organisations within the business. If you’re an engineering manager, try to build relationships with the product management lead. If you’re a sales director, the head of product marketing might be a good fit. Branch out before branching up. Establish trust with peers to secure their recommendations when you start to interact with their boss.
Once you’ve started to build a relationship with your peers, move on to your boss’s peers. Look for projects that your boss can delegate to your and start getting involved in conversations at that level. This way when you’re promoted everyone already thinks that you were at that level already. They’ll continue working with you just like they always have, giving you the opportunity to start networking with your new boss’ peers.
People Belive In You, Not Your Idea
It doesn’t matter how great your idea is if no-one believes in you as an individual. Without the support of others, your idea will never see the light of day.
Building influence is about making people believe that you can deliver on your vision. Believing in the idea is important too, but people take bets on people more than they bet on ideas. This is especially evident in the venture capital world, where a fund will take a known founder with a mediocre idea over a first time-founder with a great idea.
Start small, meet your commitments, and build trust in your ability to deliver. If your first idea is successful, more people will believe in your second idea, and your third. Then before you know it, you’re pitching big, hairy, audacious goals and everyone is on board just because you’re the one leading the project.
I’m sad to say that a non-trivial amount of reputation building is dependent on your title. It’s important to note that you can’t just order people to do things - that’s not how you build a good reputation. In fact, need to be super-careful not to let your role power influence what you get done.
Where it does matter, is the things that you can do for others. If you’re a developer on a team that has an engineering manager and product manager setting the direction, you usually can’t save the day for the VP of Support on your own. You just don’t have the leeway to go out on a limb (in most cases, there are exceptions).
Whilst it’d be great to have a VP on your side, think about who you can realistically help and start there. Good news spreads, and you can be sure that they’re telling their boss how helpful you are (who will then tell their boss etc).
It Takes Time
In most cases it takes a full year of consistency before people build the kind of reputation that lets them make big bets with the backing of their boss and peers.
It can be frustrating that you can’t dive in and fix systemic issues straight away, but taking the time to speak to others and hear why it’s not been solved yet is key. It builds relationships with them and provides you with important context about what to avoid this time to be successful.
Building a reputation takes time to do well. You can’t rush it.
As Carl W. Buehner said, “They may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel”.
The key to building a great reputation is to make people feel good. Whether that’s through supporting them in their goals, delivering what you committed to on time or promoting the work that they do. People will remember your actions more than your words.
Spend some time looking for opportunities to learn more about other parts of the business by working with others to achieve their goals. You’ll learn a lot about how the business works, and which pitfalls you need to avoid to be successful. Then when it’s time for you to pitch an idea, you have a network of people ready to support you on your way to success.
Michael is the Director of Developer Experience at Kong, where he advocates for the community internally, and represents the company externally. He’s focused on enabling everyone to achieve their aims, no matter what experience they have.