The Truth About Power

Tracy Cocivera Blog

The greatest lesson I learned about power did not come from a CEO, a board chair or even a senior manager.

It came from a woman named Janice, an assistant for a high-ranking executive at a large multinational consumer product company. This particular executive oversaw the working lives of thousands of employees and made seven-figure decisions on a daily basis.

And yet, when you looked at this executive’s accomplishments, it was clear to see that Janice was a driving force.

Based on her experience and length of tenure, Janice had built a reputation as a key go-to person in her department and a subject matter expert in the company. She did this by making sure she took part in all of the big projects in her department. She enhanced her profile by networking with all kinds of people in other areas of the company.

Janice knew that one of the keys to power and influence is information. As a result, she made sure all the highly important information flowed through her inbox, making her an essential one-stop-shop for updates on the progress of projects.

Over her 25-year career, during which she had made herself invaluable to many senior executives, Janice had acquired a unique insight about the essence of power: It comes less from your position in the organizational hierarchy and more from your potential ability to influence others, regardless of your position or job description.

 As I studied Janice’s modus operandi, I came to a rather remarkable observation: It was the relationship between influencer and the person being influenced that was the key factor in determining who held the balance of power.

When you break power down into its essential ingredients, you can see that it is wholly dependent upon both a leader’s personal and positional power and potential to influence or change a colleague’s behavior. In many cases, power comes from someone’s position in the organization — the higher up the hierarchical ladder, the more power you are supposed to have.

In other cases, however, an individual leader can acquire power by demonstrating valued talents or attributes. Or, from the possession of high-value resources — access to certain people, information, access to resources — that are desired by others in the organization.

What this means is that power and the ability to influence is based more on the perceptions held by the colleague, not solely the leader’s position in an organization or the perception of their own potential to influence or change.

In other words, leaders only have power if a colleague grants it to them.

You can see this dynamic at work when observing the performance of leaders who never live up to their power potential — leaders like Blake, a senior executive I met while working for a large technology company. It didn’t take long for me to see that Blake was all talk and no real power.

Blake had all of the trappings of power. He had a lofty SVP title, a big office, lots of fringe benefits like a company car and a generous expense account and responsibility for several high-priority functions. And yet, Blake had little sway with his peers or influence over the people he was supposed to lead.

In meetings with other leaders, it was painful. Blake regularly spent most of the time complaining about what wasn’t working and how he didn’t have enough resources, without really offering much in the way of useful ideas. He spoke definitively as if he expected his organization to just accept his view of the world without question.

More importantly, Blake didn’t get much done. The teams he oversaw often missed deadlines, or their work product did not meet expectations. When he was challenged about this lack of progress, Blake immediately blamed the people he was leading, his clients or even the woeful state of the economy.

In one instance, Blake was challenged by his CEO to explain why his department had not created any global partnerships to expand their business. Blake was immediately defensive and tried to blame his shortcoming on a wide range of collateral issues.

As Blake rattled off his list of excuses, the look on the CEO's face became increasingly grave. Not surprisingly, the very next day, the CEO contacted one of Blake’s direct reports and asked him to take on responsibility for developing international partnerships.

A few months later, I heard that Blake had been pushed out. Based on what I had observed, I wasn’t surprised. In fact, it seems the only person who was truly surprised was Blake.

To become better leaders, it’s important to take stock of the relationships we have with the people we are leading. We can do this by asking ourselves some tough questions about how our colleagues see us and what they think we bring to the table as leaders.

Do your colleagues feel that:

  • You are a source of sound career advice?
  • You make them feel that they are valued members of a team?
  • You promote them and help them obtain desirable roles and assignments?
  • You are a source of honest, frank information about the organization?
  • Your position is considered more essential than other positions?
  • You have a track record of getting things done and achieving results?
  • You have a lot of contacts within senior management and with key personnel in departments outside your own?

If you answer these questions honestly, you will have a much better sense of whether the source of your power is your job description or whether you have earned it by acquiring high-value skills and resources and building the relationships that will give you true influence.

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