“Buy Him A Coffee”

My first job out of college was as a program manager. Program Manager is one of those job titles that sounds important because it implies that there exists a Program, and you have been anointed to Manage it. Who doesn’t want to be boss!

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As with all impressive-sounding things, program management job descriptions are littered with laughable bullets like:

Must be proficient at influencing others without authority.

Which may as well be written as:

Life is.

Or:

Thing is Thing.

Pretty much every freshman PM ignores that qualification, and interviewers rarely test for it. We take for granted that the ability to influence people is important (true), and that we are all acceptably good at it (false).

For most of us, the first time our ability to influence people is truly tested is at our first job. And most of us fail that first test.

When I first realized I was terrible at influencing people, I projected the problem outward and saw it as a product of the environment I worked in. “It’s not me, it’s them,” I’d tell my friends at work and my management chain. As I wrote in my first column, my boss would say to me, “It is what it is.” This would instantly make me want to either have at the world with an axe or drive my Outback straight up into the North Cascades, hike until I ran into a grizzly, give her cub a wet willy, and submit to the fateful paw of death.

I also blamed my nature. If you are to believe the results of the informal quiz I took in Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, my score of 18/20 suggests I am as introverted as they come. And while I come across as an extrovert now—behavior I’ve practiced over years—nothing about interacting with people feels natural to me. This is not to say that introverts (or I) dislike people. It’s more like like what Dr. Seuss said about children, “In mass, [they] terrify me.”

My first breakthrough came when a colleague at work saw me having a particularly difficult struggle to convince an individual from another team to expedite some work for mine, and suggested, “Buy him a coffee.” The kind of advice that feels like it fell out of a Dale Carnegie book into an inspirational poster of two penguins holding hands. PENGUINS DON’T EVEN HAVE HANDS. But I did it anyway because I was at my wit’s end.

I met him at Starbucks, and picked up the tab for his latte. We grabbed some chairs and awkwardly, wordlessly stared at our coffees.

Panicked at the mounting silence, I tried the first thing that came to mind. What I didn’t know then was that it’s a cornerstone technique of people who are good at influencing others: I asked him something about himself.

“So, are you from Seattle?”

“Indiana, actually.”

“No way. I attended college in Indiana!”

Soon enough, we realized we had far more in common than we’d expected; including cats that, judging by their attitudes, probably came from the same satanic litter. While I still wasn’t able to get him to commit to our team’s deadline, I did walk away with a commitment that he’d do his best to come close to it.

More importantly, I’d inadvertently happened upon a whole new set of tools to help me achieve my goals. I didn’t realize it then, but I had just learned the first important thing about influencing people: it’s a skill—it can be learned, it can be practiced, and it can be perfected.

I became aware of a deficit in my skillset, and eventually I started working on it proactively. It’s been a decade since that first coffee. While I’m still (and suspect, always will be) a work in progress, I have come a long way.

You can’t learn how to influence people overnight, because (as is true for all sophisticated skills) there’s a knowledge component that’s required. It often differs from person to person, but it does take time and investment. Generally speaking, it involves filling gaps about your knowledge of humans: how we think, what motivates us, and as a result, how we behave. I keep a list of the books that helped me along the way, including Carnegie’s almost-century-old classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. But as Carnegie himself wrote, “Knowledge isn’t power until it is applied.”

What will ultimately decide whether you become someone who can influence others is your commitment to practice. Depending on your nature, it will either come easier to you, or be excruciatingly hard. But even if you’re an extrovert, it will take practice. There is no substitute for the field work.

What I can promise you is that learning how to earn trust, be liked, and subsequently influence people will be a worthwhile investment not only for your career, but also for your life. And even if you don’t get all the way there—I am far from it—you’ll be ahead of most people for just having tried.

So my advice to you is: instead of avoiding that curmudgeon at work, go buy them a coffee.

4 Reader Comments

  1. Handsomely written! I think one of the irritating myths we have is that you emerge from college fully-formed like from Zeus’ head ready with the wisdom and influence talents that realistically take a lifetime to hone and develop. Maybe I should finally read the Carnegie. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Witty, winsome, and of course, very, very true.

    There’s a Simpsons where Bart tries and fails to read another kid’s lips. Milhouse says, “I thought you said you could read lips?!” Bart replies, “Well, I assumed I could.”

    As with public speaking (which I’m beginning to realize that most of us, including me, suck at), we assume we have natural gifts of influence. Sadly, we don’t. But the good news is, we can learn. Thanks for this reminder.

  3. Thanks for giving me a little perspective with this article. I think everyone needs to step back sometimes and consider how we interact with others at work!

  4. I’m a freshman at MIT, and my perception is that MIT students can be sorted into two types. The first type of student is the MIT stereotype: more “nerdy”, deeply excited about technology, actively pursuing independent projects, say that going to MIT has been a lifelong dream. MIT fall semester freshmen have a pass/no record grading system, and these students appear more likely to study for their classes as though they are aiming for a certain letter grade (an A), than just the P that will show up on their official transcript for the semester. The second type of student also cares about STEM, but not to the extent that they will pursue independent research or building projects. Their extent of STEM success has been high grades in the high school classroom or on standardized tests, but fewer instances of independent learning. These students applied to MIT, but also to other elite schools, and probably would have been excited to attend any school of equal prestige. Like the first type of student, they’re likely majoring in a STEM field, but ask them why and passion is cited less often. Something I have read in one research by jet writers which is based on thoughts of someone trying to choose a major is that he or she is going to pursue a STEM degree because they go to MIT and it wouldn’t be smart not to. These students are also typically more interested in immediately pursuing a career than graduate school. They also usually have an amazing talent in a non-STEM field, such as art/music, speech, entrepreneurship, or dance. And yes, they’re typically in a fraternity, but that’s not surprising: ~60% of men and ~30% of women are involved in Greek life — it’s a surprisingly large presence on campus.

    As regards to recruiting pressures, I would say the 2 biggest fields at career fairs are computer science/software engineering and consulting/finance. About 1/3 of students pursue a computer science/EE degree, and the popular thought is that it’s versatile for both of those fields.

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