Fleets of Influence

How to create product, engineering, and company alignment without having access to resources.

Molly Sheets
7 min readJul 26, 2022
Image Credit: https://unsplash.com/@william07

I once had my words about the importance of influence quoted to me by a leader who did not know I had written them. When I heard my voice repeated to me, I wish I had not said “Those are my words” and instead practiced the art of uncomfortable silence.

Now, I do even more with even less. I’ve surrounded myself with those who enjoy a great puzzle in hopes they will say, “You’re getting better at this.” I write for those who appreciate the art of influence, the skill of silence, and the craft of making things seem to happen out of thin air.

Influence is not about solving every problem. Rather, it’s seeing how many lives one can improve without resources so that when we have them, we don’t have to use them. Championing others to solve technical and cultural challenges, become partners, lean-in to what you are trying to do, while being a good person, is understanding, that you cannot force people to do things. You have to convince them it is worth their time, their value, their happiness, that it will bring them success, and knowing what to do when they are not convinced to keep your own mental health.

Superpower #1: Principals are Tugboats

There are articles on what a Staff+ Engineer, Architect, or Product Manager should be. They influence products, people, architecture, code, or operating patterns. However, teams cannot copy another company’s model. Principals have to actively listen to the business in order to morph.

I like to compare principals to tugboats. Executive sponsors upgrade them to speedboats. Weighing anchor on the larger ship supported by the whole crew requires an approval of an executive sponsor convinced that the crew already wants to do the mission, not force the crew to do it.

Principals get ships moving as a fleet by moving between all the ships. They push organization-wide ideas in a direction of continued discussion. They connect people. They bust silos. Often they cross-pollinate to find trends, compare data, and make sure conclusions get to the right parties by understanding how the entire business works. They are willing to kill their darlings. They ignore global boundaries, system limitations, and stop at nothing to get objectivity.

They bring clarity by knowing the right questions to ask. At principal, you need to drive missions while practicing putting yourself behind others and getting in front when the ship has stopped moving. You learn to speak last, but in volume. The end goal is to eventually get a lot done with less — to love your job by helping others to love theirs when it is hardest. In fact “getting to staff+” at many companies is about being seen as the primary owner of a project, but actually being staff+, is about getting a project far enough along, to excel at the art of influence in order to practice then, the art of silence.

Directors and VP’s have mastered the art of uncomfortable silence which is a wholly different environment. They get on calls with, not their directs, but those two levels below them and say nothing. See what happens. Throw 1–2 curveball questions. They let their directs practice influencing down and partnering sideways to see what bubbles back up. Directors+ know when they speak, they’ve taken the floor, so they speak only at certain times, but mostly, see if those who report to them (1) can clearly define what they need to get done and (2) manage to achieve the goals they set out to do. They also do not waste time on people who waste theirs.

Executive sponsors can be anyone but usually it is a GM, Director, VP, SVP, or higher, who is willing to put their name behind an initiative, a mission someone else has proposed. They are trusting a lead with their name to give the mission visibility to the rest of the fleet. They are not there to do the work, nor to influence on the lead’s behalf. They give weight to another person influencing. The execution, the ability to convince others, by approving the crew to weigh anchor — that’s on the principal and the crew who still has to move the entire ship. Losing an executive sponsor, is similar to a change in government while a ship is already on mission so make sure you pick one who plans to stay for the duration of the mission.

Superpower #2: Alliances — Building ‘Yes’

For any mission, it is the lead’s job to convince others to board, not to force them. One mistake I’ve seen is an assumption “We can get an executive to force another team to prioritize our asks” which is not the case.

Leads have to incrementally show the value of what naysayers missed through data and updates. The world is filled with opportunity. Find those who need you before those who are harder to convince. It’s not worth sacrificing your mental health to continue to bang on doors that won’t open.

I’m a big fan of getting feedback and then citing those contributions as a credits list. Feedback can come from all kinds of places. You can have feedback on prototypes, narratives, powerpoint decks, speaking engagements, and more. I still keep the credits list for the games I funded live for my former teams. One way to build strong alliances is to live the exercise that is remembering to truly credit everyone in real time, not only after the fact. In architecture decks, put a slide for a list of contributors. In writings, add an appendix for those who gave feedback. Give people something they can point to for where time went. It becomes questionable for 1–3 people who do not believe in a mission to say “No one believes in this” when there are 50+ people who clearly do. They can choose to not come on board. Sharing, collaboration, and crediting are how you ensure a mission lives even as leadership changes for business.

Build alliances, find the crew, by acknowledging them for what they contributed. Credit with every 1:1, every meeting, and ask if they’d like to add anything specifically beyond their feedback. Getting approval isn’t what you need — it’s about validating that the ship is already on mission to the right destination based on a bunch of people who want it to go there and finding the right captains to make sure it keeps sailing even when you hit a storm.

Superpower #3: Anchoring — Encouraging ‘No’

When investigating something nascent, people uncomfortable with ‘no’ often try to push past or won’t pivot for what is best for business. My perspective has always been that leads own the problem, not the product, nor the people. In fact, if you ever hear someone say “You need to ask me permission for my people” they haven’t seen that people do not own people — anyone can walk and leadership is about convincing them to stay.

When I had a company, having a deal close rate of 20% was fantastic. With growth, I learned that approaching projects as if everything is supposed to get staffed, everything is supposed to get funded, every idea is amazing, is dangerous for a business. Invest a very small amount to dive deep into a repository or prototype or pitch. Many get stuck on the fear that comes from “We investigated this. It’s a dud and it was my thing.” It’s better than green-lighting with a full budget, yet for some reason some land at — “You own this product right?” No. Pre-funding? You own the problem. Teams should not over-invest in a full fledge project when 80% of ideas or repositories should end at ‘No.’ Your ‘no’ when put in a proposal could end up giving the right team, someone else a ‘yes’ because you were not the right ones to build it.

I have no shame in saying ‘No’ — Back to the number above, 80% of what was in front of me, I SHOULD have said ‘no’ or gotten a ‘no’ because a true ‘Yes’ with real support, real funding, the right team, with the right expertise is infinitely better than not having all of that. And finally: It is much better to hear ‘no’ than it is to hear ‘maybe’ because maybe leaves you in perpetual indecision. I hate the word maybe. Doors can always open if they are closed, but if you leave them cracked, you manifest a high energy bill paid in your time. ‘Maybe’ is a ‘No’ for me. However, no team can say ‘no’ to everything otherwise they won’t be in business and partners will stop giving opportunities (banging on closed doors). Checkin, but move on to find your ‘Yes’ with people who believe in you and teams who need your mission.

Weigh Anchor

Imagine what you can achieve by (1) Thinking of your company as a fleet, your team as a ship, and principals as tugboats (2) building ‘Yes’ by giving credit to those who say ‘yes, I need this’ and (3) Understanding the word ‘No’ to your advantage and the advantage of others within systems.

You can probably achieve a lot. In fact, you may be able to influence across a fleet of companies to accelerate many missions by simply championing the right people. Perhaps you leaned in because you wanted to prove to yourself you had grown and that the uncomfortable silence of not having one team could be overcome by empowering a fleet that was truly of your own making.



Molly Sheets

Director of Engineering, Kubernetes @Zynga | Former Principal SA, Enterprise Games & Principal PMT, Spatial @AWS | 25 Releases | 15 yrs in tech | ❤s CloudOps