Project Management

Ten Points to be a Better Up and Out Influencer

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Ten Points to be a Better Up and Out Influencer


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The Scenario: 

Alberto has just been hired to head up the program management office for Aspiron Group.

Alberto prepares a 30-minute presentation to replace the organization’s status reporting system for his vice president, Irene.

Alberto and Irene will be meeting each other for the first time.

At the beginning of his presentation, Irene gets an urgent phone call and apologizes to Alberto saying she only has 15 minutes.

Alberto presents slide 1, his view of why the organization needs a new status reporting system.

Irene immediately starts questioning Alberto about his reasons for wanting to replace the current system and why money should be redirected from other priorities to the new system.

Alberto, unable to satisfactorily answer some of Irene’s questions, fumbles for answers and gives a lot of “I’ll have to get back to you on that” statements.

After 15 minutes, Irene again apologizes for having to cut the meeting short and leaves the room. “What is he talking about?” Irene thinks as she leaves.

Alberto is left alone sitting in the room, having never gotten past slide 1, feeling as if he’d blown setting a positive first impression with Irene.

The Message:

Poor Alberto. Not only is it less likely that he will get the new status reporting system, but he has also failed to establish credibility with Irene. Rather than starting from a positive or neutral credibility position, he’s now operating from a deficit position, making it more difficult to influence Irene in the future.

As a leader, there are two vitally important concepts you need to clearly understand when influencing up and out. The first is the five tollgates that I believe leaders must successfully pass to effectively influence up and out (who I will refer to as recipients):

  • Tollgate 1: The recipient believes you’re credible – The recipient agrees that you have the subject matter knowledge to discuss the problem.
  • Tollgate 2: The recipient acknowledges the problem – The recipient agrees that the problem you’re trying to articulate truly is a problem.
  • Tollgate 3: The recipient understands what you want to do about it – The recipient not only has a clear understanding of the problem, but also understands how you think the problem should be solved.
  • Tollgate 4: The recipient sees how this aligns with his/her priorities – The recipient not only understands what you want to do but also agrees with the urgency of solving the problem relative to other problems on the recipient’s to-do list.
  • Tollgate 5: The recipient gets what you expect him/her to do – The recipient is clear on what you want him/her to do to address the problem.

With tollgate 5 comes the second important concept, which is about decision ownership. There are four decision ownership scenarios, as follows:

  • You propose, recipient decides – You expect the recipient to make a decision based on your proposal.
  • You decide, recipient concurs – You decide and look for concurrence and guidance from the recipient.
  • You decide, recipient is informed – You decide and keep the recipient abreast of your decision.
  • You decide, recipient is not informed – You decide and do not inform the recipient because the recipient doesn’t need to be concerned with your decision.

I can’t over-emphasize enough the importance of these two concepts when influencing up and out. The first ensures alignment with how a problem needs to be solved and what you expect the recipient to do, and the second articulates the roles you and the recipient play in any decision-making.

Do you need to be better at influencing up and out? Here are ten points to consider:

  1. Digest the five tollgates – Truly take the time to understand each tollgate, its importance, and what you need to do to ensure your communications follow the five tollgates structure.
  2. Make sure you structure your content to address each tollgate in sequence - If you haven’t passed tollgate 1, your likelihood of making it through the remaining tollgates is drastically reduced. Build your pitch around each tollgate in sequence.
  3. Make your words count - More content isn’t better. Get your point across in as little content as possible. Make liberal use of bullets versus narrative text to better condense thoughts into consumable chunks.
  4. Be manic about watching reactions - If your recipient is signaling understanding and you’re getting the desired result for a tollgate, move on to the next tollgate. I’ve had plenty of pitches where I’ve glossed over content because the recipient was already on board with what I was presenting in a tollgate. The most important thing is to get what you want, not to showcase everything you’ve prepared.
  5. Remember absolute vs. relative priorities - Just because a recipient says, “Not now,” it doesn’t mean the recipient is an idiot or that you’ve failed. Accept that timing might not always be on your side.
  6. Structure content for the time allotted and have a plan if that allotment changes - Plenty of times I thought I had an hour to pitch an idea only to have the recipient tell me I only had 30 minutes. Anticipate what you’ll do in the event your time gets cut short.
  7. Use fewer slides with Harvey balls – Forget the 7x7 rule (7 bullets no more than 7 words each). Put more information organized in sections on a slide and use Harvey balls to walk your recipient through your pitch. It saves a lot of “go back to slide 13” requests and actually facilitates more discussion. It also helps in the event your time gets cut short.
  8. State the ask/advise/inform upfront – Your recipient needs to know whether he/she is being asked to make a decision, is expected to advise, or is just being informed. Be clear on what you are expecting your recipient to do and ensure he or she agrees with the role.
  9. Be bold about telling the recipient what you think and why – This is particularly important when the recipient needs to make a decision. You could frustrate the recipient by asking an open-ended “what do you want to do?” question and then arguing with the answer. Besides, you then have to work from the recipient’s position as opposed to putting yours out there to start with.
  10. Leverage best practice examples that have worked for others – Seek out others who have had to influence up and out to sell an idea, get a copy of their communications (email, slide deck, etc.), talk with them about what worked/didn’t work, and ask them to look at your communication before publishing. You’ll both develop more effective communication as well as build relationship capital with those you seek to learn from.

The Consequences:  Being ineffective at influencing up and out can lead to the following:

  • Others will drive your destiny – Those who influence up and out better control the narrative and get what they want, which could come at your expense.
  • You won’t be helping your followers – Your followers expect you to be able to influence your management and peers across the organization to help them do their jobs.
  • You will be viewed as if you’re out of your league – Your peers who are better at influencing up and out will be viewed as stronger leaders by your management.

The Next Steps: 

  • Review the five tollgates and ten points on influencing up and out.
  • Decide which ones you need to improve.
  • For any points you’ve identified as needing work, put an action plan together to address those influencing up and out areas.
  • Use a trusted advisor who can hold you accountable to be more effective at influencing up and out.


Posted on: August 11, 2022 12:00 AM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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Luis Branco CEO| Business Insight, Consultores de Gestão, Ldª Carcavelos, Lisboa, Portugal
Dear Lonnie
The topic that you brought to our reflection and debate was very interesting.

Thanks for sharing, for the 5 tollgates and for the points to consider

I would add: "Sell the idea"

Stéphane Parent Self Employed / Semi-retired| Leader Maker Prince Edward Island, Canada
Consider tying your ending back to your introductory story, even if it's only to use character names (i.e., don't be like Alberto).

Vinod Tripathi Project Manager| Ericsson India
Superb.. loved it.. Especially "how a problem needs to be solved and what you expect the recipient to do".. Most of the times, it is missing and recipient struggles WIIFM..

Vagner Antonio da Silva São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil
Congrats for the good content, flux of text and enchaining of ideas for the composition of the case, Mr. Pacelli. I sincerely believe that all the points and advises listed are useful and a blessing to the professionals trying to get tips on the influencing, specially, to those hierarchically superior peers. On the other hand, some points of the tolls, like credibility on the solution for the issue, do not seems to me being the initial for this case, once the main character, Alberto, is boarding at the organization with, I imagine, at least the minimum consent of his vice president. Maybe it would be the case for an approach to vice presidents on different solid lines of businesses or dotted lines, depending on the structure of the company the "influencer" is working for. Thanks for sharing this good example, context and admirable contribution to the community.

Latha Thamma reddi Sr Product and Portfolio Management (Automation Innovation)| DXC Technology Mckinney, Tx, USA
Superb.. loved it.. Thanks for sharing..

J SURING Malaysia
Are you alluding to collaborative leadership more than cooperative leadership?

Appreciate the tollgate.

Jihad Hamdan Projects manager| Arrand engineering consultants Beirut , Haret Hrek, Jem, Palestine, State Of

Laurie May Bautista Projects Delivery Engineer| RED SEA HOUSING SERVICES Dubai, Du, United Arab Emirates
Thanks for sharing!

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