Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University. He recently published a book called Power: Why Some People Have It—and Others Don’t, so I thought I’d get the inside scoop on power and pass it on to you.
1. Q: What are the obstacles to gaining power?
A: The obstacles are mostly self-inflicted. Many people, seeing the power game as essentially unfair and unjust—the most deserving/best performers don’t necessarily advance but instead those with the best political skills—decide not to play. Others refuse to spend the effort—there is no business success, or career success, without a lot of hard work, and some people are not willing to make the trade-offs (for instance, in spending time with friends and family) that the quest for power requires. Still others engage in a form of self-handicapping to maintain a positive self-image—if you don’t really try, then failure has few/no implications for how good you really are (maybe you would have succeeded had you tried).
So some people engage in a form of preemptory surrender—giving up before they start. And just as entrepreneurial ventures don’t succeed without some amount of risk-taking, particularly at the outset, so, too, is the case for people’s careers. Ironically, many people play it safe early—not engaging in too much self-promotion, not asking for help and sponsorship—but than take greater risks later on. This seems reversed—it is early in a career, when there is less to lose, that pushing the boundaries and the limits makes more sense.
2. Q: What personal qualities are necessary to gain power?
A: The personal qualities come under the headings of “will” (or desire) and “skill” (capability or capacity). Ambition/drive is probably the most important “will” quality. Some years ago I wrote a Business 2.0 column about SuccessFactors, where the CEO, Lars Dalgaard, took a failed product on performance appraisal and created a hugely successful company because Lars “refused to lose.” Being driven to succeed, Lars was willing to expend energy and hard work (quality number 2) and persist even in the face of setbacks (quality number 3) until he was successful. In addition to energy (which can be developed), persistence, and drive and ambition, another important quality is the ability to read other people, to be able to put yourself in their shoes, and understand where they are coming from.
Once you understand another person’s point of view, you can more easily predict their behavior and also figure out how to get them on your side. Another critical and surprisingly rare quality is the ability to tolerate conflict—most people are quite conflict averse—and not be liked by everyone. Every leader, or for that matter people on the way to leadership roles, has to make difficult decisions, including decisions about cutting people and initiatives. If you want too much to have the approval of everyone, you probably won’t be able to do the things required to make you—or for that matter your company—as successful as it might be.
3. Q: What is the basic sequence for gaining power?
A: First, figure out what is really important to you—where do you want to goal. As marketing guru Keith Ferrazzi says, “Having a mission is critical,” and that’s just as true for people as it is for companies. Next, set up a personal board of directors or some informal advisors who can, and will, tell you the truth. Have these individuals rate you on the qualities required to get power, and then build with them a personal development plan to work on your weaknesses. Figure out a position that can be a good launching pad on a path to power. Such a position would be in a unit that can solve some critical problems but has yet not attained so much visibility that all the talent wants to work there so you are facing enormous competition.
For instance, Zia Yusuf built the corporate consulting team at SAP and rose to quite a senior level position even though he never was in sales and had no software experience. The CCT helped SAP deal with important strategic issues and brought Yusuf into contact with senior management. Related to this example, build a network of relationships with people in diverse industries, occupations, and geographic locations—people who can bring you into contact with very different information and opportunities. And finally, develop your acting and speaking skills so you can convey authority and power in how you talk and carry yourself.
4. Q: How does a person build a good online reputation?
A: By being persistent and visible online. I know a young woman who began blogging for her money management firm, because her colleagues thought this was an activity that was outside of their day-to-day job (which, by the way, it was). When she interviewed for a job with a large internet marketing organization, those blogs had opened the door because people already knew how she thought. Also, writing helps develop writing and communication skills—which are critically important and in amazingly short supply.
5. Q: What’s more important: what you accomplished or what people think you accomplished?
A: The two are related. But you must chose one, chose the reputation—as perception creates reality. This is sort of “if a tree falls in an empty forest, does anyone hear it?” phenomenon. If you accomplish great things but no one notices or recognizes, so what? I believe that business writer John Byrne did as much to burnish GE’s ex-CE0’s Jack Welch’s reputation as anything Welch actually did. Build a public relations strategy. Yes, this is different from the modest, level-5 leaders described by my friend Jim Collins in Good to Great. But Collins describes the behavior of executives once they are already in power—and moreover, his frame is that of what is good for the company.
As the recent news reveals, what’s good for the company and good for individuals are not perfectly correlated. Lots of financial industry CEOs—and directors—walked away with much money and got new jobs even as their organizations were failing. You need to take care of yourself, as well as taking care of your organization. And that requires building a reputation for being a star. Once you have such an image, talent will want to work with you, you will be able to access more resources of all kinds, and perception will become reality.
6. Q: What are the costs and downsides of power?
A: One of the biggest costs of power is always being under constant scrutiny. As Mark Hurd, formerly of HP, should have known, when you are in power, there is no such thing as a private dinner. Also, everyone makes mistakes. But such mistakes are much less likely to be overlooked or forgiven in a high-profile, powerful position. So once you have power, you give up some measure of privacy and, as a consequence, some degree of control over your life. Another cost of power is the enormous effort required to attain and maintain it.
I know of no CEOs or, for that matter, school superintendents, high-level government officials, or leaders of significant non-profit organizations that do not spend enormous amounts of time and energy on their job. The day has only 24 hours, so time spend on the job can not be spent elsewhere. And finally, the more powerful you are, the more you will inevitably engender envy and rivalry. The bigger the job, the more you will need to worry about others trying to get it. To use Andy Grove’s apt book title, Only the Paranoid Survive. But being always attentive to rivals and potential rivals takes a lot of effort and exacts an emotional toll that not everyone is willing to pay.
7. Q: Does power always have to corrupt?
A: It doesn’t always have to corrupt, but it often does. The research evidence is quite clear that power, even when it is temporarily experimentally induced, causes people to be more attentive to their own needs and goals and less attentive to others. It also causes people to believe that the rules don’t apply to them—power produces disinhibition in behavior as people think they can do whatever they want. And people in positions of power tend to get fawning attention from those who want their favor, so they come to live in a world absent of critical thought where they are always told they are right. After a while, it becomes difficult to know the truth and also to keep one’s bearings.
8. Q: How does one maintain power?
A: The short answer is by never stop doing what got you to the position in the first place—attending to the needs of your boss (or bosses) and recognizing that you are not completely responsible for your career—those who control your fate also matter. Jack Valenti kept his job as the head of the Motion Picture Association of America for more than thirty-five years by always being attentive the needs of his bosses, the studio heads—and by, even into his 80s, working long and hard to do the best job he could to represent the MPAA in congress and around the world. His energy was amazing. He lived in both L.A. and outside of Washington, D.C.—and told me he had made sacrifices in the time he spent with his family as he flew around helping the MPAA and its members be successful.
When you no longer have the energy and want to devote the attention to holding onto power, it’s time to leave—because you will soon be forced out, anyway.
9. Q: Who are good examples of powerful people?
A: Many of the most powerful people are out of the limelight—those who decide what movies get made, who decide on the content of magazines and television, and who control access to important websites. Tina Brown was, and remains, a powerful media figure. CEOs of large companies are obviously powerful, because control over resources is an important, maybe the most important, source of power and senior executives control lots of jobs and money. Bill Gates, Larry Page, Sergey Brin—people with vast wealth, are powerful.
As the current California elections illustrate, if you have money, you have a huge leg up in obtaining other powerful jobs. There are lots of lists of the most powerful people—and many of them are quite interesting and useful in identifying who has been “anointed” as powerful. To the extent that perception does create reality, getting on one of those lists is a path to power, and being on the list creates and conveys power.
10. Q: Does the person make the position or the position make the person?
A: It is a combination. When Zia Yusuf was asked to build and lead the internal corporate consulting unit at SAP, the position gave him a lot of advantages. The job touched many corporate decisions—important decisions. The job brought Yusuf into contact with the executive board, the board of directors, and people from throughout SAP because the consulting unit was involved in a wide range of decisions where it provided analytical support.
The position was, in short, a great one. But, had Zia Yusuf not had his considerable skills in managing organizational dynamics, in knowing how to effectively build relationships with people who disagreed with him, of understanding how to control his emotions, had he not built an exceptional team capable of doing high-quality work, he would have not been nearly as successful, regardless of the positional advantages he enjoyed.
A position gives you a platform. What you do with it is up to you. By the same token, great skills used in a job that does not provide visibility or deal with critical organizational issues will at least partly go to waste.
11. Q: How does one intentionally and effectively transfer power?
A: Many people don’t. If you don’t groom a successor, you don’t groom a rival. However, the best and most enlightened individuals know that eventually they have to give up power—we all get old and eventually die. Very much like teachers with students, or good parents with their children, some executives take people under their wings and teach them the ropes. They also help their potential successors build their own reputations—which requires the senior executive being willing to give up some of the limelight. And, in some instances, they are in a position to choose their own successor—many corporate CEOs and also nonprofit leaders can do this, at least to some extent. So they groom and train and then transfer power, and do so while they themselves still have credibility and power. Or, as my wife is fond of saying, “Leave before the party’s over.”
If you’re feeling wimpy, it’s time to step up to the plate and read Power: Why Some People Have It—and Others Don’t. And soon you’ll be kicking butt.