What Makes an Impact Player?

March 1, 2022

This article is the latest in an ongoing series where I cover some of the must-read books on my shelf that I recommend to my clients when coaching leadership development.

Liz Wiseman is a researcher and executive advisor who teaches leadership to executives worldwide. She’s also the author of the NY Times bestselling book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.

Liz recently published a new book, Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact. I've read the book and discussed it with others. The points Liz makes are brilliant and the information makes it as much of a must-read as Multipliers.  I recently listened to her appearance on Ryan Hawk’s podcast and wanted to share a few of the insights I found most interesting.

Liz quoted Niel Degrasse Tyson when he said, "what you know is not as important as what you think," and then she wrote if you aspire to have more significant influence start thinking like an impact player. Don't just use the playbook; adopt the impact player mentality as your ethos.

The Impact Players Ethos

The ethos of the impact player is to bring value. How do you do that? By making the right impact. A lot of people think that being impactful is the result of being forceful, assertive, and working hard. Almost, but not quite. Being impactful is a combination of force and accuracy. Liz compares impact to a missile that's able to hone in on a target and hit it right on the bullseye. You have to identify the right target, though, and that's done by identifying what is important to the people you serve — and then making it essential to you.

Liz talked about how many people get this backward, including her when she first started. She approached her career with the mindset of "here's what I want to do with my talents and skills, and here's what I want and let me see if I can find some people who will let me do what I want." She credits a former boss who opened her eyes when they responded by saying, "that's not the problem we're trying to solve, Liz. This is the problem we are trying to solve. It would be great if you could help us here".

It was then that she realized the difference between being useful and being "important." Making ourselves useful creates value to the organizations of which we're a part. Whether it is a partnership, a team, an entire company, or a community. Being able to identify what's most important and how to add value will produce a huge impact. And we build a lot of influence which allows us to do the kinds of things we want to do anyway. 

"Follow Your Passion" — The Ultimate Junk-Food Advice 

Follow your passion. Do what you're passionate about. Pursue your passion. We've all heard these lines at commencement speeches. And it's not bad advice. You should be interested in your profession and the path you take in life. But when you are part of an organization, this line of thinking can be the opposite of value-producing and lead you directly down a dead-end path. Yeah, it made me say "huh?" too, but let's look at this.

When Liz was researching habits and traits of impactful people, she asked some of the top managers in the top companies in the world what the difference was between people who are smart, talented, hard-working and making a good contribution, versus the people who are smart, talented, hard-working, and doing things of enormous value and impact. The most prevalent response was that impact players are passionate about what's important to the organization, not their own agenda. One manager who was commenting about a specific worker said, "He learned me." Think about that.

Similarly, a manager at Target who oversees risk management said, "It's like Evan just figured out what was important to me and asked a lot of questions about how I think and how my bosses think and what's important, and he's figuring out what I call "the win." He identifies what's important right now and then bites onto that and stays on that."

Try to Fix the Broken Copy Machine

Liz shared a story about Scott O'Neal. He started a very low entry-level job with the New Jersey Nets. He went in on a Saturday, and the copy machine was broken. Instead of looking for a different one, Scott started taking it apart and fixing it. John Spoelstra, president of the organization, saw him and recognized him as one of the new hires in the marketing department. He asked, "What are you doing?" To which Scott replied, "I'm fixing the copier." "Well, why?" "Because it's broken."

John invited Scott to his office and began asking him questions about what he thought of the organization and where things could be improved. Then John asked Scott where he saw himself in the organization. Scott responded and told him he wanted to sell sponsorships. John promoted him on the spot and put him in an office right down the hall. 

This story captures what it means to make yourself useful. Don't just do your job, do the job that needs to be done. At that moment, the job that needed to be done was fixing the copier. The more you work on what is important to the people you work for, the more you'll get noticed and the more opportunities will come your way. Liz described that as an a-ha moment when she realized how creating value for others will bring it right back to you.

Build Your Reputation, Not Your Brand

In business, we have an intermingling of obsession and misconceptions about branding. Everyone wants to build a brand, but that's not really step one. A brand should be (and a successful brand will be) the byproduct of a reputation. When Liz was looking at impact players, she noticed that they weren't as preoccupied with dreaming up a personal brand as much as they were trying to build a reputation.

Building a reputation as a utility player means not just doing your job, but doing the job that needs to be done. When the roles are unclear, and everyone else is waiting for role clarification from senior execs, the impact players step up and look for ways to help while being receptive to leadership from others. That sort of versatility is essential for building a reputation as a leader and a trusted player. 

Think about it. During the game's most critical moments, you want to have a clutch player who you can pass the ball to and absolutely trust they're headed straight in the paint for the score… not someone who is going to call a timeout and question the play. Impact players have a reputation that precedes them. There is no wondering. That's why organizations know they can count on them. 

Seek Feedback, Not Constant Validation

Liz says that one of the key identifying traits of an impact player is that they actively explore the "corners and the cracks" of a project to identify where they can improve, and she'll ask others for their feedback, too. In other words, Impact players aren't looking for someone to pat them on the back for excelling at 80% of the job; they're looking for someone to provide insight so they can make that other 20% shine, too.

Oddly enough, some managers struggle to give that honest, direct feedback. Many feel like they're judging, criticizing, being negative, and not acknowledging the positive. If this is you, brace yourself because you just need to get over it. It's awkward at first, but it becomes a lot easier once you get used to it. And, to be clear, giving feedback is an essential role of leadership, so get used to it. And once you experience positive outcomes in productivity and see that providing useful feedback results in goals being achieved, you won't look back.

There’s a lot that can be said about the essential traits, habits, and outcomes that define an impact player — and those are conversations I really enjoy having. If this message resonated with you and you want to take a structured approach to optimizing your ability to be impactful and intentional, let’s talk.