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Acquiring real clout - the kind that helps you get stuff done - requires bare-knuckle strategies.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, is the Thomas D.Dee II Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business in California. His latest book, Power: Why Some People Have it - And Others Don't, is forthcoming from HarperCollins.

When Laura Esserman, MD, MBA, became the director of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Centre at the University of California at San Francisco, in 1997, she had big plans - for both the centre and medicine more generally. She hoped to boost the institution's prominence and patient throughput by delivering integrated care in one attractive setting. Women would not have to go from place to place for the various diagnostic procedures and treatments they needed, enduring anxious, multiday delays as they waited for test results. A woman could arrive in the morning with a suspicious lump and leave at the end of the day with a treatment plan. To accelerate overall progress in treating breast cancer, Esserman wanted to increase the ease and speed of enrolling patients in clinical trials and to build an informatics system that would capture data about treatment outcomes from many sites. All of this represented a sensible strategy, and it has worked out well: The centre now sees many times more patients than when Esserman took over; a new website has led to increased and easier enrolment in clinical trials; and the Athena project, which collects data from multiple UC medical centres, is under way.

None of this was easy to accomplish. For Laura Esserman, as for all executives working in interdependent systems full of strong-willed people with their own agendas, having a plan was only the first step. Although she was the centre's director, she had little say in many personal decisions. Each of the departments she wanted to bring together had their own objectives and concerns. While she and her team were thinking about patients' outcomes and service experiences, the CFO had to worry about the budget and bond ratings. The facility was housed in a state building, so even if Esserman raised private money to refurbish it, she would have to navigate myriad approval processes and constraints. In sum, Esserman was in a position similar to that of anyone who has tried to shepherd a cross-functional project, such as a new information system or product offering, through a large organisation: She had lots of responsibility but virtually no line authority to compel anyone to do anything.

We could soft-pedal what is needed in such situations by talking about leadership skills and emotional intelligence - but why not tell it like it is? What Laura Esserman needed was power.

Strategies don't implement themselves, of course. And not everyone in an organisation agrees about what should be done: As the aphorism goes, "Where you stand depends on where you sit." We all make decisions based on the information we have and the objectives we're pursuing, and these things vary from position to position. Many leaders in both government and the private sector have remarked on large systems' resistance to change. To succeed with her ambitious agenda, Esserman had to develop her ability to build and wield power. This proved at least as important as her considerable medical acumen.

Power is the focus of my teaching at Stanford - and not just power as a spectator sport. I aim to give my students the insights and tools that will enable them to bring about change, get things accomplished, and, not incidentally, further their careers. The learning occurs through studying powerful people, mining social science's understanding of human behaviour, and practicing. In this article, I will outline some of the most important principles involved. I urge you to use them as you seek to implement your own goals.

Make Your Peace with Power

If you're like many managers, you may already be uncomfortable with where this discussion is heading. As the organisational behaviour expert Jo Silvester writes, politics is generally regarded as the "dark side" of workplace behaviour. Researchers have described it, she notes, as "inherently divisive, stressful, and a cause of dissent and reduced performance." Some evidence supports this view. A perception that politics predominates in a workplace tends to decrease job satisfaction, morale, and commitment and increase intentions to quit.

But empirical research shows just as clearly that being politically savvy and seeking power pay off. A study by David McClelland and David Burnham examined the correlations between managers' primary motivations and their success. Some managers were motivated primarily by affiliation - they had a fundamental desire to be liked. Others were motivated by achievement - attaining goals and gaining personal recognition brought them satisfaction. Still others were interested in power - they wanted to be able to influence others. The managers in the third group were the most effective. (See "Power Is the Great Motivator," HBR January 2003.) Consider also the research of Florida State University's Gerald Ferris and his colleagues. They developed an 18 item Political Skill Inventory (PSI) and used it to evaluate school administrators and branch managers of a national financial services firm. The PSI proved to be a good predictor of success in both instances: The school administrators with high PSI scores were more likely to be considered effective leaders by those who reported to them, and the high-scoring branch managers typically had received favourable performance reviews.

Zia Yusuf is another case in point. At the software company SAP, he built and ran the corporate consulting team - an internal strategy group - and an initiative called the "SAP customer focused ecosystem," which linked suppliers, users, and developers. He had a successful career there even though he had no background in software or engineering, because he was skilled at what he called organisational dynamics - the ability to get things done. As Yusuf says, you need two things to succeed: substantive business knowledge, so you know what to do, and organisational or political skills, so you can get it done.


  • Any new strategy worth implementing has some controversy surrounding it and someone with a counter-agenda fighting it. When push comes to shove, you need more than logic to carry the day. You need power.
  • Learning to wield power effectively begins with understanding the resources you control. Money is not the only one. Whatever you have - a valuable network, access to information - can be meted out or denied to gain leverage.
  • You can also push past obstacles through sheer relentlessness. You should avoid wasting political capital on side issues and dispense with opponents in ways that allow them to save face.
  • You may find such power plays and the politicians behind them unsavoury - and they can be. But you'll have to get over your qualms if you want to bring about meaningful change.

The effective use of power is becoming increasingly important. Yes, we have flatter organisations and more cross-functional teams than we had in the past. But getting things done in a less-hierarchical system actually requires more influence. And as strategies become more complicated, the importance and difficulty of effective execution increase accordingly. When he ran SAP's corporate consulting team, Zia Yusuf was able to prevail when recommending difficult strategic changes, such as reorganisations that would cause people and groups to lose power. In putting together the ecosystem function, he had to enlist cooperation across the company. How did he succeed? First, he brought in exceptionally talented people and held them to high standards. Second, he tried to defuse interpersonal tensions by focusing on data and analysis, and by ensuring that the analysis was unimpeachable. Third, them to high standards. Second, he tried to defuse interpersonal tensions by focusing on data and analysis, and by ensuring that the analysis was unimpeachable. Third, he had an extraordinary ability not to become defensive or take things personally when others disagreed with him, which further reduced the emotional temperature of interactions.

Although power skills are important, many people don't develop them. Understanding why is an important first step toward overcoming any reluctance you may have about power. (See the insert sidebar "Do you Shy Away from Power?") And you might even come to relish building and using power, as one young woman I know did. Having long disdained "playing politics," because she thought she wouldn't like it or be good at it, she agreed to give it a try in a low risk situation. She had joined a student committee that was organising the events for a weekend when admitted but undecided applicants would visit her school. She decided to see if she could take control of the committee, and she devised ways to measure her success (for example, tracking the percentage of communications that flowed through her and how often decisions went her way). To her surprise, her little experiment not only worked but caused no resentment - the other committee members were glad someone else had stepped up. By the time the applicants arrived, she was enjoying the recognition and praise she was receiving and had concluded that she liked this power stuff after all.

The Exercise of Power

What constitutes power? Simply put, the ability to have things your way. And having things your way when others' best efforts are also required, and when those others may have their own ideas about what should be done, means that you need some basic forms of leverage.

When push comes to shove, powerful people do several things to advance their agendas:

Mete out resources. Whenever you have discretionary control over resources important to others - things like money, equipment, space, and information - you can use them to build your power. (Think of it as a new golden rule: The person with the gold gets to make the rules.) You can always find opportunities to help those whose support you want. Although the quid pro quo rarely needs to be explicit, helping people out evokes reciprocity - the almost universal principle that favours must be repaid. And your ability to garner support will become self-sustaining. People want to join the side that appears to be winning.

It's important to remember that although money always provides leverage, it is not the only source of power. Access to information or influential people can be even more valuable. Consider the story of Klaus Schwab, who in the early 1970s was a Swiss-university professor with doctoral degrees in economics and engineering. He might well have confined himself to an academic career. Instead he organised what soon become the European Management Forum, a meeting of European business leaders who wanted to help their companies respond to America's growing economic success. Observing the synergies at the meeting, he realised how valuable a global economic organisation could be. If business and political leaders from around the world came together to discuss pressing economic and social issues, the benefits would go far beyond the exchange of ideas: Such a gathering would constitute a one-stop resource for the media and an arena for business deals. (As one person in the organisation put it, "Contacts ultimately meant contracts.") Thus was born the World Economic Forum, which now has more than 300 staff members who run meetings all over the world. Schwab sits at its head and has the ultimate say about who attends. If you don't think that counts as having a powerful resource, you haven't been to Davos.

Do You Shy Away From Power?

You need power to push any important agenda through. So what's been keeping you from assembling your power base? And when a situation has called for a power play, what's given you pause? If you're like many of the students and executives I've counselled, three big barriers stand in your way.

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