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As you level up in seniority, the lines become blurred on how to juggle day-to-day responsibilities and broader impact.

As a relatively junior or mid-level engineer, almost all of your impact comes from your ability to execute: writing code, fixing bugs, and completing tasks. Contrastingly, at more senior levels, almost all of your impact comes from your ability to influence other people in your organization to make bigger changes not only in the product, but the way they work.

Defined expectations at either end of the spectrum make it easier for people to navigate their remit at these levels. But during the “in between” stages – either a little later into being a senior engineer, or earlier on as a staff engineer – there is a messy middleground. While you are still deeply involved in execution, influence is becoming more and more important. How do you navigate that transition? What does it feel like? And how do you know if your influence campaigns are working?

To create change at scale, you need to start thinking about your work more as a series of campaigns than individual projects, working to build momentum, find followers, and promote a cause.

Getting started

Let’s look at an example of navigating this transition using a recent experience within my circle. One of my reports, Karrie Cheng, a full-stack engineer with a front-end bias, was deeply interested in improving the accessibility of our applications, something which had been relatively neglected within our company to date. Other members of the team also indicated interest but didn't have the knowledge to make it happen. I encouraged her to take the lead.

In the beginning, Karrie was doing most of the work on her own. She implemented features herself. She called out accessibility gaps during code reviews. She proactively did accessibility testing on both new product features and existing functionality, filing tickets against many parts of the codebase.

These efforts look a lot like pure execution work, but they were paired with advocacy and many, many conversations. She pair-programmed with other engineers on the team, sharing practical tips and examples. She hosted educational sessions. She gave presentations in our engineering department weekly and answered countless questions. 

During this process, Karrie often felt like she was pushing boulders uphill on her own. For all of the interest on the team, there was little direct action outside of her work.

Unfortunately, this is the norm for projects that require behavior change. In the beginning, the instigators are dancing by themselves. To succeed in influencing those around them they have to sustain the momentum, executing, teaching, and bringing people along one by one.

The first follower

The key to building momentum is the first follower. In Derek Sivers' TED talk about starting movements, he says, “The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.”

For Karrie, this was her teammate Andres Sanchez, a back-end leaning full-stack engineer. Andres pair-programmed with her, encouraged her, and joined her in presentations to the team about accessibility. He was not a front-end expert, but he worked hard to learn, and contributed to testing, educating, and advocating. 

It can be tempting at this point to keep trying to own things and doing all of the execution, because that keeps the project feeling under your control. But doing so would be interfering with your own chances of success.

Having someone to help means that tasks associated with this project are able to be shared, and also puts the effort on the right track toward influencing the rest of the company. As a leader, you want to raise up your first follower even more than yourself. Teach them, highlight their great work, and show that there is a path to success that everyone can follow.

The second follower

After you’ve found your first follower, you’ll slowly start to see the change you have been working towards take root. Suddenly, more people are trying to do the work themselves. It's no longer just the initiator and their first recruit, but it's beginning to feel like a movement. 

At this juncture, the person leading the charge is still deeply involved, possibly reviewing every pull request, planning projects, and giving guidance, but it's no longer all on them to carry the torch.

For Karrie, this moment came when the first member of another team started to proactively implement accessibility changes. She had filed a bug report on a part of the product owned by another team, and instead of marking it as a “for later” as had happened in the past, it was marked as a “must fix” prior to release. Suddenly accessibility was being treated as a key part of the deliverable, and instead of expecting "the expert" to fix it, the team was taking it on themselves.

The movement catches fire

After a certain point, your influence evolves to a point that your direct involvement isn’t required any longer to push along a cause. A project that upholds or furthers your initiative happens that you didn't have any hand in. Someone you taught teaches someone else. Or a code review happens and the feedback you would have given gets given by someone else.

Losing direct oversight of your initiative is a deeply uncomfortable experience. Up until this point it has been your project, so does this mean it has been taken away from you when it eventually snowballs out of your hands and into others?

No! This is an example of success as a leader. You have created something that has grown beyond you and has the potential to sustain itself for a long time to come.

Now is the time to deliberately step back. Any tasks that you have been continuing to execute yourself, delegate to someone else.

As a leader, your focus should shift to building a sustainable structure that will outlive you, which means letting go and allowing the movement you have created to take control.

Summing up

Leading with influence still requires a lot of energy, especially when you’re in the beginning stages of exacting any sort of change. 

It can be hard to see your progress influencing the organization, especially at the beginning. You may have conversation after conversation with no apparent impact, and feel like you’re going nowhere.

It can be tempting to stay focused only on what you can directly control – the execution work. But advocacy and recruiting followers is key to creating a sustainable change within an organization. 

When you finally do succeed, that success feels very different than it might as a pure individual contributor. In addition to being less actively involved in the day-to-day, you'll see changes that you wouldn't have even thought of, much less contributed to directly. 

If you are lucky, people will begin to think of the changes you wrought as their work, not yours. That is when you know it will sustain itself without you, leaving you to move on to your next campaign.