People who wish they had more power in their organizations — power to bring their ideas to fruition, power to change policies that make no sense — often try to find the one “big move” that will land them in a position of authority. That’s a long shot, and, in any event, it misses the reality that most power bases start out small. Which means it’s possible for almost anyone, in any position, to begin building one, acquiring growing influence through unspectacular moves.
What’s mostly required is showing some initiative and taking on projects that a) bring you into contact with a wide range of people within and outside of your organization; b) situate you in the midst of information flows; and c) aren’t coveted because they seem mundane or trivial — but not to you.
Take the example of Matt, who joined the office of a large, prestigious management consulting firm that had been talking about doing more public sector work. Matt volunteered to organize a speaker series in which various public sector people would come to the firm’s office — thereby linking the company and its professionals with a sector in which they needed more insight and stronger relationships. Matt got a budget, organized the series, and got plaudits from his consulting colleagues for linking them to an important market opportunity. He also enjoyed the gratitude of the (paid) speakers he brought in to do the talks.
Mike, another relatively powerless person, took on the task of organizing analyst recruiting at a hedge fund. Everyone agreed the fund needed strong analysts, but no one could get very excited about recruiting talent that would just leave in a few years anyway and go back to business school. Mike took on this routine, not very sexy task — and found that it brought him into contact with everyone in the firm as he arranged schedules and recruiting events. He also made connections with a whole network of analysts who would continue to remember him as their primary point of contact with the firm, and someone who had taken them seriously in an early stage of their career.
Melinda started building her power base after she joined a large internet marketing firm, having come from a financial services company. She noticed that the firm’s divisions didn’t have much contact with each other or any organized way of learning about the evolution of the markets in which they were participating. So Melinda organized a series of seminars that brought internet and other subject matter experts into the firm to do briefings. As she recruited participation by people from throughout the relatively stove-piped organization, and built bridges between the firm and possible customers and partners, Melinda became highly visible — and much appreciated.
These tales — and while we’re at them, let’s add Robert Caro’s masterful description of how Lyndon Johnson leveraged a “nothing job,” that of minority whip, to the point of becoming the youngest-ever Senate Majority leader — all share some common themes. The first is the importance of filling a brokerage role. If you’re in a position to bring together unrelated groups of individuals who benefit from being in contact with each other, that’s a form of power. Ron Burt calls this “filling structural holes.”
The second theme is the recognition that everyone wants the glamour jobs, the things that seem exciting and strategic. But organizations — sort of like armies — depend on many mundane tasks to reach their goals. Organizing analyst hiring may not get the blood racing in the way that making hedge fund investments does, but if no one does it, there won’t be any analysts. Taking on these low-profile but vital tasks tends to be easier to do as there is less competition to own them. And you will get lots of thanks for doing them from the people who recognize their importance but are too busy doing high-profile work to focus on them.
Third theme: seemingly administrative tasks often bring you into contact with lots of people inside your company and make you central in the flow of communication. Being central in information flows is a source of power, and becoming known to many people is very useful, also. In the hedge fund, Mike had a reason to be in contact with everyone in the firm about the analyst hiring process. Melinda soon sat at a hub of communication because people, as they became interested in the seminars, wanted to make suggestions about whom to invite. She also became someone with a network of contacts across a largely-disconnected company. As Lyndon Johnson undertook the seemingly routine tasks of scheduling votes on uncontroversial issues and was in touch with people to get information on their voting preferences on important issues, he not only provided an important service to his fellow Senators, he was in regular contact with them — and became the source of information about what was going on.
So be on the lookout for assignments your colleagues don’t want to bother with, but that have these valuable features. Others have built power bases from such small beginnings — and so can you.
Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, where he has taught since 1979. His forthcoming book from HarperBusiness is Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t.