The low power trap: many factors can cause a talented executive to be ignored or sidelined within an organization
[Reproduced from MIT Sloan Management Review]
How to Overcome a Power Deficit
[By Jean-Louis Barsoux and Cyril Bouquet | 06.18.13]
At some point in their careers, many executives find themselves short of the power and influence they need to get their jobs done effectively. Fortunately, these problems can usually be remedied.
Many years later, after a successful career as chairman and CEO of the biotechnology giant Amgen Inc., Kevin Sharer would look back on a period earlier in his career when he had a hard time getting all his ideas implemented. Although a talented manager, Sharer had made a common mistake when he started as executive vice president of marketing at telecommunications company MCI: He could see something that needed changing and set right in to try to change it. He had decided within his first month that the company should be organized by markets rather than geography, and he shared his views with anyone who would listen. Before long, however, Sharer discovered that despite his impressive new title, his recommendations went unheeded. The division presidents, on whom he relied to implement his sales and marketing initiatives, came to see him “as an adversary who was trying to reorganize their jobs,” and Sharer spent a frustrating three years at MCI before moving on. Ironically, most of the changes he proposed were eventually implemented. “The fact that I was right didn’t matter,” Sharer later conceded. “What I hadn’t done was build sufficient internal credibility.”
In his experience at MCI, Sharer had unwittingly stepped into the role of what we call a “power-deficient executive” (PDE for short) — a role that most executives, even highly successful ones, will experience at some point in their careers. Power deficits are common and pose a classic challenge for even the most gifted managers. The good news is that we have learned, in the course of our research and coaching of 179 executives who had experienced a power deficit at some point in their careers, that power deficits can almost always be overcome by following one of two basic strategies.
About the Research:
Our research was conducted over a two-year period in cooperation with participants entering IMD’s Program for Executive Development (co-directed by Cyril Bouquet) in 2012-2103. This eight-week program is designed to help midcareer executives transition into a general manager’s position. The participants (sample size =179) came from 46 countries, representing 45 industries and 81 organizations in total.
Who’s at Risk
Anyone can experience being stuck with a power deficit. Many factors can leave executives ignored or sidelined. Demographics (race, ethnicity, gender or age) can contribute to the PDE’s predicament. So can inexperience, poor reputation, personality, background, training or outlook. It can happen to people with high potential, and it can happen to executives who are already high performers. You may be an indispensable part of your team but a PDE within the larger organization because you’re stuck in a specialist position or a peripheral unit. You may be a star in one organization and find yourself seated at the “kiddie table” at your next company. Or you may even find yourself catapulted into the top job but lack sufficient credibility to lead effectively.
For Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, age was the big issue when he took over as CEO of Lego Group: “My big disadvantage in taking on the job, being 34 years old, was I couldn’t showcase the relevant experience.… But what that meant was that I could see some of the things that had been wrong in the company, and that many of the employees knew were wrong.”
On the bright side, Knudstorp’s experience is not entirely atypical. Often, a power deficit is not just a major challenge; played right, it may also represent a major opportunity.
The Low-Power Trap
Our research indicates that the typical PDE lacks one or more of the following power sources: legitimacy, critical resources or networks. The high level of interaction between these three sources of power means that a shortage in one can easily produce shortages in the other two. For example, the executive with more legitimacy in the eyes of the boss can expect to receive preferential assignments and more material support, as well as additional mentoring, supervision and feedback — key resources that all tend to enhance productivity and creativity.
Just as important, the boss’s support affects how other people perceive the executive. Managers granted more decision-making authority are often perceived as more decisive and persuasive; those who receive visible sponsorship are taken more seriously; those privy to strategic discussions are seen as more informed and insightful; and those given wide-ranging assignments have more chances to expand their networks, access key information and advance their careers. Merely possessing these key resources sends a signal of credibility to others, and these favorable impressions can create a virtuous cycle in which high visibility and influence further boost the individual’s standing with the boss.
The exact opposite is true for PDEs. Executives who lack legitimacy with the boss find it harder to be heard. They struggle to marshal the information and resources needed to perform at a high level and make favorable impressions. They may have problems connecting with influential people, thanks to their lack of resources and weak reputations. Because of their impoverished networks, PDEs may be the last to know, and their names may not be forwarded to the top decision makers when plum assignments are being staffed.
Consequently, PDEs may not be given the challenges and exposure they need to prove their worth. Instead, they are given mundane or peripheral assignments that make it harder to disprove the boss’s low opinion of them. If they succeed despite the disadvantages, the boss may be inclined to assume that the assignment was easier than expected.
How can PDEs reverse direction and build their power bases? Assuming they choose to stay with the organization, two possible strategies are available: They can either play the game or change the game. (See “Strategies for Overcoming a Power Deficiency.”) Before adopting either strategy, however, PDEs must pinpoint their core deficits. (See “How Much Influence Do You Have?”)
Strategies for overcoming a power deficiency
How much influence do you have ?
Overcoming a Legitimacy Deficit
It’s difficult for executives to be heard when they lack legitimacy with the boss or fellow team members. Lack of legitimacy may be based on a weak or unproven track record, but it may also stem from a perceived lack of commitment, character or cultural fit. The problem with unfavorable perceptions is that they tend to become self-fulfilling. Research on leader-member exchange (LMX) indicates that the vast majority of bosses tend to treat their direct reports as part of either an “in group” or an “out group.”4 Studies suggest that, once someone has been unconsciously consigned to the “out group,” the chances of entering the “in group” are limited.5 This earlier sorting means that bosses are likely to notice and remember negative results and behaviors because this is mainly what they expect from PDEs. When bosses do notice positive outcomes or deeds, they tend to attribute these successes to situational factors or favorable circumstances, not the individual’s effort or competence. Members of the “in group” are successful. Members of the “out group” get lucky.
For example, when Christine Christian was appointed CEO of Dun & Bradstreet’s Australian operation, she was practically set up to fail. The local operation had been given a back seat, performance was abysmal (the company had lost money for 10 years) and the staff was disengaged.6 To turn things around, Christine was determined to obtain a $2 million capital injection, but her bid was unsuccessful. Australia wasn’t considered strategically important, so the money was invested elsewhere. As the first Australian (and first female) CEO, she was officially in charge, but she could not secure the resources needed to develop the business. Even when she started to turn around the business, executives at headquarters attributed her success to random market dynamics.
There are two ways for the PDE to gain legitimacy: by meeting or exceeding the boss’s expectations, or by redefining those expectations.
Play the Game: What You Do in the Job
As Mark Masterson, former vice president of health-care company Abbott Laboratories’ Pacific, Asia and Africa division, observed, “People need time to evaluate how you run your business. If you demonstrate predictability and results over time, you’ll get the legitimacy that allows you to put more challenging options to the company.” Unfortunately, PDEs sometimes have an exaggerated faith in the value of hard work to secure credibility. LMX research suggests, however, that one’s attitude and perceived compatibility are more powerful determinants of good relationships with bosses.
One reason some executives lack power is that they may not be aligned with their boss’s style and objectives — that is, who the boss is, what he or she wants and how he or she wants it. PDEs must uncover the boss’s preferences — such as for email versus face-to-face discussions, brevity versus depth, levity versus seriousness — and adjust their communication styles accordingly. PDEs must also identify the main pressures and constraints weighing on the boss, as well as his or her goals and interests, so they can provide the kind of support that will help the boss succeed. According to Chuck Lucier, a former senior VP at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., “Managing up … is about understanding your boss’s priorities so you can focus your staff on delivering those objectives.”8 It may also involve seeking feedback as appropriate.
Aligning with the boss’s expectations is just part of the challenge. PDEs must also ensure that the boss notices their efforts. Typically, this requires a certain amount of self-promotion (to appear more competent) or ingratiation (to appear more likable). Unless PDEs find ways of drawing attention to their talents and accomplishments, their good work may slip under the radar. To avoid being perceived as a braggart, however, PDEs should seek subtle ways to advertise their expertise and successes — for instance, by publicly volunteering to help colleagues tackle difficult problems.
PDEs can also curry favor through ingratiation, which can manifest as compliments, showing respect, agreeing with ideas, expressing values promoted by the boss and so forth. In general, people find it hard to dislike those who think highly of them. They feel flattered and socially obliged to respond in kind. Although ingratiation can backfire if it’s interpreted as insincere, the targets of flattery are usually less sensitive to this issue than observers.
Change the Game: What You Do With the Job
Another option is to reshape your role. For example, Christine Christian of Dun & Bradstreet’s Australian operation opted to fundamentally reshape the parameters of her job. She approached the global company with a solid offer to buy back the Australian subsidiary. The company would get funding from private equity and run as a licensed D&B operation. In the first three years, revenues doubled and earnings before interest and taxes increased tenfold. Forging ahead with new products and services, the Australian business regained market share and eventually surpassed its largest local rival. This rapid success earned Christine credibility with the global management team. Within three years of the management buyout, she was invited to sit on the executive board in Atlanta.
Sometimes, PDEs can escape a power deficit by delegating work that their predecessors saw as unavoidable and stretching the job’s boundaries into realms that were once assumed to be “off limits.” PDEs can also reconfigure their job descriptions to emphasize aspects at which they’re most likely to excel. For example, when Neil MacGregor arrived as the new director of the British Museum in 2002, the institution was £6 million in debt and out of fashion. Some commentators felt MacGregor lacked the administrative and financial experience needed to tighten things up and halt the museum’s long-term decline. Pivotal in the subsequent turnaround of the British Museum was MacGregor’s ability to convince the trustees that, as director, he could play a much wider role than the one taken by his predecessors. By leveraging his personal qualities — he was charismatic, media savvy, diplomatic and multilingual — MacGregor recast himself as a “cultural diplomat.” He forged cultural links with countries that did not enjoy warm political relations with the West, which led to subsequent exhibition loans. He was able to do so by delegating aspects of the everyday running of the museum to others.9
Changing the role to play to your strengths is an appealing prospect, but a PDE taking this route should make sure he or she is not simply trying to hide from some difficult issues. For example, a research manager whom we interviewed hated meetings and decided to cut back on them to spend more time in the lab. After taking this step, however, she discovered that she was missing out on big-picture discussions and disrupting information flows.
Overcoming a Resource Deficit
In addition to legitimacy, controlling precious resources also confers power, because resources can be exchanged (or withheld) to enhance the PDE’s influence within a team or the larger organization. PDEs often lack resources because they don’t belong to the “in group.” Consequently, PDEs are unlikely to receive the best people, assignments or sales territories, and they will probably be granted smaller budgets and less decision-making authority. This skewed allocation of resources makes it difficult for PDEs to compete on an equal footing with more powerful fellow executives.
The challenge for PDEs is to find ways to gain control of resources that are highly prized by the people they most want to influence while simultaneously reducing their own dependence on others for such resources. In particular, they must try to accumulate resources that can serve as currencies for reciprocity.
Play the Game: Collect Resources
Managers deprived of hierarchical support or material resources can focus instead on obligation creation as a form of currency. As one senior airline executive told us: “Looking back [to my first management job], a big lesson for me was that you have to give before you get. Having done things for others that are a bit painful for you, you’re then in a better position to ask them to reciprocate.”
Unfortunately, many PDEs tend to focus on their limitations (and feel like victims of circumstance) even when these limitations create opportunities that could enable them to break free of their constraints. For example, because PDEs receive fewer challenging assignments, they tend to be less overloaded, giving them more time and energy to supply advice, assistance and emotional support to others and to enhance their knowledge and skills. Lack of attention from the boss can also allow them to pursue initiatives and side projects. And while PDEs may suffer from limited exposure among superiors, they are not deprived of access to people lower down the hierarchy. This can help them to develop a better grasp of frontline realities that may eventually be valuable to their bosses.
PDEs should also seek opportunities to accumulate credit for modest investments of time and energy. Helping a senior executive solve a high-stress problem, for example, can yield a disproportionate payoff. For instance, David Snow, an executive at AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, recalled his gratitude to a colleague who called to help Snow meet a deadline while Snow was traveling overseas. “I could have hugged him. The call saved me an enormous headache.”
PDEs can build their power bases by easing other people’s burdens. If they become good at this, powerful people will come to see them as valuable allies. Dawn Lepore, former chief executive of Drugstore.com Inc., took this route. “I took on really tough assignments, things nobody wanted, things that people thought were kind of impossible or thankless tasks. So I proved that I could take on things I didn’t know, and learn,” she told The New York Times.
There’s some risk attached to this tactic. PDEs must do things for other people before knowing what they might want in return — if anything. They may never get an opportunity to call in a favor, or may be turned down by beneficiaries who feel no sense of obligation. But taking the opposite approach — trying to influence people only at the point of need — has little chance of working, since it comes across as self-serving and manipulative. The onus, therefore, is on the PDE to kick-start the virtuous cycle of reciprocity by making “good-faith deposits” upfront.
Change the Game: Turn Yourself Into a Resource
Gaining special expertise is another way to make up a power deficit. One approach to acquiring additional perceived expertise is to identify problems that nobody else has noticed or that few people are capable of resolving (a form of gap analysis) and then work to address them.
For example, as CFO, Erich Hunziker at Roche, the Swiss health-care company, felt powerless in the face of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Roche’s plans to take over the biotechnology company Genentech Inc. had been wrecked by the refusal of banks, focused on their own survival, to engage in interbank lending. Instead of accepting this reality, however, Hunziker tried to figure out how Roche could borrow more than $40 billion without recourse to the banks.
Playing a sales role, Hunziker made the business case to nervous bond investors. Not only did he manage to raise a record-breaking bond issue, he reduced transaction costs by over half by cutting out the normal intermediaries. His remarkable success turned him into a much-courted board member.
Career counselors often advise people to shore up weaknesses, but the secret to becoming indispensable is consolidating strengths. As PepsiCo Inc. CEO Indra Nooyi once said, “Anybody who wants to be a future leader should have a hip pocket skill that everybody looks at and says X is the go-to person for that skill. Unless you’re really known for something and not just as a generalist, you don’t stand out from the pack.”
The key question then becomes, “Which competencies will best distinguish me from my fellow executives?” Looking back on his career, Roche’s Hunziker attributed his effectiveness as a business partner, and not just a CFO, to a previous career choice: “Relatively early in my career as a finance manager, I was offered an Executive Committee position. I turned it down. I said to them, ‘Do me a favor and put me in a sales and marketing position — where I have to get money from customers, know products and how they work.’ From then on, I had the full acceptance of my colleagues, and when I returned to finance they knew I respected them and their positions. I did not have to pretend.”
By developing relevant expertise, PDEs acquire more stature and security within the organization. Cultivating specialized expertise carries certain risks — among them, the risk that the PDE will get locked into the position. To avoid this fate, PDEs must walk the fine line between controlling and sharing valuable knowledge.
Overcoming a Network Deficit
Executives who have high legitimacy and control scarce resources may still be vulnerable unless they have built a strong network of their own. Without strong networks of their own, executives may have to depend on their boss’s network. This can prove to be a severe handicap. When an executive reports to a boss with a weak network, she may not be privy to the same strategic information, visibility or learning opportunities as executives with well-connected bosses. Indeed, research suggests that a high-quality relationship with a poorly connected boss may do more harm than good.
One of our interviewees learned this lesson the hard way. A year after joining a leading ad agency as an account executive, another member of the team complained that they had hitched their “wagons to a dwarf star.” Until this time, the executive had no idea that his boss was a PDE and that (by default) the whole unit was effectively part of the “out group.” On the other hand, if the executive reports to a networked “player,” the boss might move up or out so quickly that the subordinate is left with little to show for her investment in the relationship.
We have also seen cases of well-connected bosses who deliberately kept quiet about a top talent in their unit to avoid “sharing” the person with colleagues or losing the employee to another team. While these employees are highly valued by bosses and granted plenty of autonomy, they may be relegated to niche positions that will preclude them from ever acquiring more responsibilities, visibility, recognition or rewards. Kept from the limelight, they stay peripheral specialists in perpetuity.
PDEs must continually seek ways to gain network centrality (internally and externally) and to protect themselves from bad bosses. They must also identify escape routes for themselves in the event of sudden shifts — such as their “good boss” switching jobs. PDEs can enhance their networks in two ways: by building connections with central players in their current work environment, and by forging links between unconnected clusters.
Play the Game: Reach Up
Historically, PDEs have been advised to court “the usual suspects” — namely, the people who are formally positioned to dispense the most patronage. Connecting with a senior figure outside the direct line of authority can offer a private view into the upper echelons of the organization and provide an ally to vouch for your character, performance and accomplishments.
Often, one senior figure can be enough to change the perception. Consider the case of Chris Johnson. In April 2000, Johnson was chosen by Nestlé to lead the GLOBE program — a huge initiative that included implementation of an enterprise resource planning system across the organization. At 39, Johnson seemed to have everything necessary for success: He was charismatic, perceived as a change agent with a bright future and, as a former country manager, he knew what kind of resistance to expect from managers in the field. Most importantly, he had the full backing of the CEO — and was put on the executive board to prove it.
Despite these assets, Johnson was frustrated. He soon discovered that he lacked the network power to make headway. His acceptance among senior managers was lukewarm since his board appointment was only temporary and the other members were a generation older. In addition, he was not a key member of the country managers’ network, since his experience was in Taiwan — a relatively minor market in the Nestlé world. As a weak player in each network, Johnson found himself in a weak position in all three organizational dimensions. Many of the country managers, especially, hoped that the GLOBE initiative — like many others in the past — would simply blow over.
A significant breakthrough for Chris Johnson came when he identified José Lopez as a key opinion leader in the network of Nestlé country managers he was trying to influence. Lopez was forceful, successful and respected by his peers. By getting Lopez to agree to pilot the initiative in Malaysia, Johnson changed perceptions internally.
However, too close an alliance may leave you perceived as a junior leader who constantly needs the help of that senior figure. That’s why Johnson never requested the public support of his CEO, even when he faced strong internal resistance. He understood the importance of showing that he was in charge and not someone’s puppet.
In reality, useful allies are those who exert not just formal power but real influence within a team or a company. It’s important to look beyond titles and formal roles to discover the informal ties and actual dynamics that drive the decision making in a group.
This point was reiterated by Linda Hudson, CEO of BAE Systems, in an interview with The New York Times. She recalled the valued advice of a former mentor, who told her “to spend the first couple of months in this job figuring out how things really work around here, and then go and establish allies with the real movers and shakers in the organization because that’s the way you will be the most successful.”
David Krackhardt’s analysis of power in a small entrepreneurial company revealed that those in the company with the most accurate perception of the power distribution and networks of influence had the most power.18 Diagnosing the political landscape is a vital precursor to deciding where to invest attention and efforts.
“The way folks like me get things done is to get others to help us accomplish our objectives,” wrote Gerry McCartney, CIO of Purdue University. “To do this, I first concentrate my efforts on a small number of opinion makers and work them hard. I’ll target people who aren’t necessarily the ones in charge, but are close to the top and important because they help form others’ opinions.”
Change the Game: Reach Out
The previous approach is designed to help the PDE executive become a central player in an existing network. A more radical approach is to act as a link with other networks — in other words, to become a play maker. PDEs can derive considerable power by playing a boundary-spanning role, creating links between disconnected areas or constituencies. People whose networks span the gaps between groups can reduce conflict and detect opportunities. This networking activity expands their horizons, giving them earlier access to critical information, which, in turn, allows them to adopt good ideas before their competitors. Research suggests that the ideas expressed by these brokers are more likely to be judged valuable by senior management.20 Targeted boundary spanning is best achieved by determining what is scarce and then bridging the gap.
To serve as a strategic partner to Oracle Corp.’s CEO, then-CFO Jeff Henley decided to enhance his credibility with external stakeholders — not just analysts, institutional investors and board members, but actual customers. His efforts were so successful that he became known as “Oracle’s top salesman.” “I often met with at least three customers a day to find out what products and services they needed and where we could improve Oracle’s offerings,” Henley said.21 Thanks to these efforts, he gained a better understanding of where the industry was heading and how Oracle could more effectively compete. These efforts also contributed to his appointment as company chairman.
An alternative to targeted boundary spanning is the “shotgun” approach — an attempt to bring diverse groups together. PDEs can develop their matchmaking abilities by creating forums in which ideas and information can be exchanged. During a training program for one company’s marketing professionals, we asked the group to identify its best-connected colleague. Many attendees turned to Claudio. When we asked why, Claudio revealed that he organized occasional soccer tournaments that brought together units from different parts of the organization, as well as teams from the company’s suppliers and strategic partners — and this gave Claudio a reputation as someone who knew how to connect people.
The chief risk for PDEs who take on a boundary-spanning role is that this work may spark doubts about their loyalty. Boundary-spanning PDEs may be viewed as identifying more with external interests than internal ones, and concerns may arise that they’re hoarding information and using the role for their own gain.
To increase their influence within an organization, PDEs must first undertake a realistic assessment of which power sources they lack. As in recipes, merely adding more of one ingredient cannot compensate for the absence of another. Although it may be possible to restart a career by drawing on a single power base, this is a risky strategy. Aligning yourself fully with the boss, controlling a unique resource or networking like crazy may work for a time, but in a turbulent environment, it can also leave you suddenly exposed. PDEs can focus on a single tactic to provide momentum, but they should address all three sources of power to cast off their PDE status. Cognitive biases in the minds of the boss and colleagues may require the PDE to have a “string of hits” before these people will change their views of the PDE and provide the support, sponsorship and exposure he or she deserves.
Whether that investment is worthwhile or whether you choose to start fresh elsewhere is a critical decision. To make sure you’re making the right move, you must distinguish between dead ends and ultimate defeat. A dead end is a situation that requires you to recognize that you need to mobilize other parts of the organization or change tactics to win. Much rarer is ultimate defeat — a situation where you have no chance to close the power gap needed to effect change. In our sample of 179 executives who wrestled with a power deficit, only four failed to improve their situation.
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