The Looking Glass: the biggest reasons I failed to influence

How to convince someone in <50 words; remember what you pushed for; freedom to decide is an illusion

Julie Zhuo
6 min readJun 15, 2023

Hello dear readers!

Introducing the influence edition — tidbits on the beating heart of collaboration and the art of getting others to agree with you.

  1. How to convince someone in <50 words
  2. Remember what you pushed for
  3. Freedom to decide is an illusion
  4. From the archives: Advisor mindset versus solver mindset

For paid subscribers:

  1. Subscriber mailbag: How do you balance the need for empathy with the pressure to meet performance goals and deliver results?
  2. The biggest reasons I failed to influence
  3. Listening to my eulogy

Become a paid subscriber to get my eternal thanks, access to raw tidbits, and the knowledge that you will be fueling me with caffeine, a midjourney subscription, and editing prowess :) I’m also going to start playing around with the Substack app’s ability to start chats with you lovelies!

How to convince someone in <50 words

How do I convince X that my idea is great, that we should do A and not B, or that I deserve a promotion?

  1. Do you know what X cares about?
  2. Can you be genuinely helpful on what they care about?
  3. If not, try asking:
  4. What do you care about?
  5. What can I do that would be helpful for you?
  6. If your proposal fits #2, then pitch it.
  7. If not, find a different route.

Remember what you pushed for

Keep track of your bets

As a storekeeper keeps her records

Remember what you pushed for

And what you disagreed with

Enumerate your losses

Even if they number the stars

For each one sharpens your eye

For spotting jewels in the shadows

Call out your wins

Even if you hate the spotlight

For they will build your reputation

And invite you into bigger bets

If you get overruled

Note that down in your ledger

And push for new things tomorrow

For the product sea never stands still

You may get your say or

You may lose the battle

Remember that time always reveals the truth

And good accounting forges the judgement of the builder

Freedom to decide is an illusion

I asked a colleague recently, So what are folks in the office gossiping about?

He smiled and said, How difficult it is sometimes to convince leadership of something.

I asked for examples. We chatted about those for a bit.

Then he asked me what was on my mind. I smiled and said, How difficult it is sometimes to convince the team of something.

I remember when my own manager told me something similar, and the surprise that flooded me.

Up until that point, I spent so much of my career thinking about what my managers were thinking — would they greenlight my proposal? Agree with my critique? Support my promotions? Approve my budget? Naturally, I assumed that being the manager would be entering some cotton-candy echelon where life was the exact opposite. Finally, I’d have the freedom to decide on how I wanted things to be!

How wrong I was.

Freedom to decide is an illusion, even at the highest levels.

So long as it takes working with other people to get the outcome you want, the need to influence is like a shadow against the setting sun — it only grows and grows until it becomes the entire job.

Last week, I found myself trying to influence:

  • A handful of prospects to agree to a trial
  • Some existing clients to try out a new feature and give us feedback
  • A candidate to say yes and join our team
  • The company to understand our core focus areas for next month
  • The company to try out a new execution process
  • A few team members to agree on principles for constructive disagreement
  • A few team members to speak up more
  • A few team members to agree on using consistent language to describe some new features
  • An engineer to spend less time on feature X rather than feature Y
  • A designer to try some additional explorations

I say influence because many of these outcomes are outside of our direct control. The candidate or prospective company may or may not say yes. You can’t force them to.

Even when you can force a decision through by pulling out the hierarchy card — just do it because I’m the boss and I’m asking you to just trust me — it’s an expensive card to use. It’s like gambling with $10,000 of trust credit on black — great if right, and disastrous if wrong. Wise managers use this sparingly on the biggest decisions.

For the vast majority of the thousands or millions of smaller decisions that an organization makes every day, a manager’s effectiveness comes down to: How well can they influence?

Let’s break this down further into more concrete skills to master:

  1. Have a well-informed opinion. If you’re wrong a lot or seem to push for crazy things without evidence, you’re going to lose credibility.
  2. Transport others to see what you see. Even if you’re good at being right, if you can’t tell people why they ought to agree with you, you’re asking for blind faith. Great managers know how to weave a compelling story that spreads because it’s easy to retell.
  3. Listen well and amplify other voices. The notion that most good ideas in a company come from one person is laughable. Instead, great managers know that good ideas reside in clients, sales people, team members, advisors, or even other companies. Great managers amplify other voices to encourage independent thinking and to build leadership strength across the company.
  4. Admit when you’re wrong. Every single one of us will be wrong more times than we’d like. But future trust and greater collective learning comes from reflecting on the past bets that didn’t work.

Instead of thinking of the job of the manager as having the freedom to decide, think of it instead as being a marvelous curator and storyteller — the kind of person who can spot good ideas, help them become polished, and land them within the organization to help the team do what it was made to do.

The need to influence will always be at the heart of that work.

From the Archives: Advisor mindset versus solver mindset

1) Advisor mindset: Influence their frameworks / principles for decision making
2) Solver mindset: Prove to them the positive impact of making a particular decision

Advisor mindset looks at influence through:
* Primarily words
* Sharing past stories
* Providing alternative frameworks

The goal is empowering the decision-maker with the best frame of mind to make a key decision

Solver mindset looks at influence through:
* Primarily action
* Experimenting and showing the results of a proof-of-concept
* Narrowing possible pathways

The goal is making the decision seem obvious or easy because a lot of work has already been done to prove it

If your friend is sad after a breakup and doesn’t know what to do and you drive over with a bucket of ice cream and a movie -> solver mindset

If your friend is thinking about which job to take and you talk them through your experiences and learnings -> advisor mindset

Some people more naturally lean towards solving, and others towards advising, but you need to use the right mindset for the right context! Otherwise you won’t be as impactful.

* Teaching -> use advisor mindset
* Building something together -> use solver mindset

Here is a handy rule-of-thumb for a manager-report relationship:

Managers: aim for 80%+ advisor mindset with your reports. You want them to feel empowered to make decisions, not remove decisions from their hands.

A manager who constantly gets in their business and tries to “solve” things makes a report feel untrusted.

Reports: aim for 80%+ solver’s mindset with your manager. You want to reduce decision burden for them.

A report who constantly talks about what should be done but does not take any steps to solve things makes managers feel like they cannot rely on this person because they keep pushing decisions upward for the manager to own. The doers are the ones that get promoted, not the talkers.

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Julie Zhuo

Building Sundial ( Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager. Find me @joulee. I love people, nuance, and systems.