Thursday, 4 November 2010

Creating your powerbase at work

A lot of people don't like to think of their workplace as somewhere they need to actively build power to improve their influence. But the idea of an organization running like a well-oiled machine, where every employee has their special place, was thrown out by scholars 60 years ago. It just doesn't work like that! This means that the person sitting at the top of the pyramidal hierarchy of your organization - is not necessarily the most powerful.

So organizations are the best thing that we can think of to get a job done - but they don't really work... We all show up eagerly (?) on a Monday morning to slog it out for 8 hours towards some 'shared vision', yet we're constantly pitted against each other. Departments must 'compete' for budgets, resources, staff, office space and equipment. Colleagues work together each day - but will be forced to fight for promotions, raises and status. So is there anything you can do to 'get the edge'?

David Mechanic called it 'impersonal power' - he argued that pretty much everyone in an organization can develop their own power base. How?

Personality - Management theory constantly returns to the idea of the 'charismatic leader'. Someone with flair, confidence and enthusiasm, that always has a smile and time for people - these qualities are attractive to everyone/ everywhere.

Expertise - Is there an area of unique expertise that gives you an advantage? For example: my professional training is management/economics - but, i'm also pretty good with computers (those of you looking at the somewhat simplistic design of this blog might be disagreeing :-) So rather than venturing out to the IT department or paying expensive consultants, senior colleagues would get me to develop databases, troubleshoot, fix stuff and advise on IT solutions on top of my usual duties. Over a couple of years i unwittingly built this epic power base, unfortunately this made everyone terribly nervous when i went on holiday. I suddenly realized that i had control of a lot of the IT. New hires were frequently introduced to me on their first day - just because i was 'handy to know'.

Effort - Is there something that your boss doesn't like doing/ can't do/ not very good at? Chances are that 'thing' is being neglected and not in the 'tip-top' state it should be. You can grow your power by 'being the one who does'. You almost always exercise complete power over the things that you undertake proactively. That's why recruiters like the terms 'proactive' and 'self starter' in a CV. One of my old managers could not get her head around the accounting procedures - she wasn't incompetent or innumerate, she just didn't have time to learn how things were done. I took the time to figure it out, got everything straight and started attending any finance-ish meetings with her. Eventually the two accounts clerks reported to me, who in turn developed their own power bases by doing things far better than i had.

Strategic Location Take for example: secretaries! They are some of the most powerful people in an organization (and don't they know it!!) Being able to 'gatekeep', control access and be party to confidential information gives you power, but also gives you access to a 'corporate memory', increases your personal visibility and making you a 'go to' person.

Combination - 'Team work makes the dream work'. Joining together to exert collective influence. This is the way trade unions operate. Forming some strong alliances can add an extra notch to your powerbase.

Extending your Personal Network - Even when i first started out, I've found that it was useful to get at least one senior person to recognize me and know me by name - regardless of my position. So, when in the elevator with a high flyer - introduce yourself. Park your car next to theirs, if you process their expenses - do it super fast and then send an email advising them that you've got everything under control. Help to organize a work function - so that you get toasted at the end for your efforts in front of all the heavyweights. The senior management team are always looking for ways to tap into informal reporting mechanisms - they'll want to chat! And... look hot. You don't have to be Brad or Angelina, but everyone notices a polished, well turned out, healthy looking person with a sparkling smile. If it's obvious that someone looks after themselves, they're probably going to look after the company. Since I like to bore you with my personal experiences.. here's another one... I have depressingly fuzzy hair - i use an industrial strength conditioner and three styling products to tame my mess and prevent me looking like 'electric shock barbie' - i never really cared about it growing up, but i wouldn't like anyone to say "oh.. sure, I know her... she's the one that looks like Art Garfunkel..'

This might all sound a little manipulative. Understandably a lot of people want their skill alone to propel their careers. But influencing IS a skill - building a power base demonstrates an astute, savvy individual who knows a thing or two about marketing. Interestingly, highly successful managers spend over 4x more time on networking than 'normal' managers - probably because they know the importance of having a personal power base as well as their on-the-job technical skills.

But seriously, you show up at work each day for cash, therefore you are a product - so sell yourself, because no-one else will do it for you!!!

Happy conquering ;-)