When Your Accountability Exceeds Your Authority, Increase Your Influence

When I graduated from college and entered the workforce, I received some good advice from an older executive: “Make sure you don’t end up in a job where you have accountability without authority“, he told me. I nodded sagely as I drunk it in.

I even repeated the advice from time to time to other friends as they interviewed for jobs.

It took me quite a while to understand that as well intentioned as it was, it wasn’t always possible to follow.

It’s actually great advice to keep in mind in your discussions when you’re receiving a new job or a new assignment. You should ask questions to understand how your success will be measured and what the limits are for your authority. Can you replace team members if they don’t perform? Will you have a budget to acquire needed resources? What decisions can you make independently, and which ones do you need to defer to someone more senior?

But ultimately, every job has accountabilities that exceed its authority.

There will always be resources you don’t own, people who report to someone else and circumstances beyond your control potentially standing in the way of your success. Even your CEO can’t control the analysts who opine on your stock, your regulators, your customers, your competitors, or the economy; no matter how important any of those might be to your company’s success.

So what can you do?

Influence.

The best you can do is influence those around you.

Steven Covey talked about the circle of concern and the circle of influence in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People . Your circle of concern can be vast– the economy, existing competitors, the threat of new entrants, your family members’ health, peace in the Middle East. And your circle of control is always smaller than you want it to be. Spend your energy trying to expand your circle of influence, rather than trying to expand your circle of control.

Your formal “authority” is limited to your circle of control. Your “accountability” is your circle of concern. If you’re a financial advisor with the accountability to grow revenue on your book of business by 10% this year, it would be easy to be overwhelmed by the the huge gulf between the relatively few things you can control and the huge amount of things that concern you.

Focus on increasing your influence…

…on your cients.

…on your co-workers.

…on your boss.

…on the world around you.

“The greatest ability in business is to get along with others

and to influence their actions.”

–John Hancock

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2 Responses to “When Your Accountability Exceeds Your Authority, Increase Your Influence”

  1. Stephanie Bennis April 4, 2012 at 6:19 am #

    I definitely agree with this – with greater influence comes greater authority. They’re very closely related. Now owning my own business, I’m learning this first hand. It’s a delicate line between pleasing most and remaining in control.

    • JPNicols April 6, 2012 at 7:14 am #

      Thanks Stephanie. There is a great quote in Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan’s book Execution about how if you are merely empowering people without also ensuring that the right work is getting done in the right way, you are only doing half of your job. Hmmm…sounds like a future blog post..

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