All successful executives are able to get things done because they are skilled in the acquisition and wise use of power. I was recently coaching a mid-level executive who had been told by her superiors that she was not being promoted because she “lacked confidence” in her dealing with her peers and superiors. This client was very skilled in her field with more than 20 years of experience and yet she found herself struggling to gain traction for her ideas or to make her voice heard when decisions were being made about her unit. She was angry and frustrated. “What else can I do?”, she asked. Here are three tips I gave her.
1. Step into the full power of your position. The power of institutional position is the first source of your power; but not the only one. Whether you are the organizational president or a mid-level program manager, your position carries with it a level of authority over your unit. You can hire, promote and fire subordinates. You can establish how resources are allocated. You can structure your team and define roles and responsibilities. You can order certain actions to be taken and hold your subordinates accountable for performing those actions. You have the power to make or at least influence policy decisions. Some leaders are reluctant to exercise their authority out of fear of the reaction of others or because it just seems easier to let someone else do things. The lesson: Check to see if some of your limits are self-imposed. Every time you fail to use your power, you raise the probability that someone else will fill that vacuum. Ask yourself whether you are using all the power you have. Also look for opportunities to stretch the boundaries of that power. It may be better to ask forgiveness than permission.
2. Develop the power of your relationships. Building trusting relationships with peers, superiors and subordinates takes intention, time and effort. Pay attention to both the personal and professional aspects of these relationships. Be curious about others and show appreciation for their roles and for them as persons. This will be easier with some people than others and you will need to develop the emotional intelligence to recognize how people want to be treated. Don’t eat lunch alone when you can use that time to get to know someone better. Be diligent in making and keeping commitments, even ones as small as being on time for meetings or as large as involving people in decisions. Pay attention to building teams, coalitions and partnerships within and across organizational boundaries. The lesson: The best time to make a friend is when you don’t need one. The most precious gift you can give people is your full attention when you are with them. Make it a point to understand before seeking to be understood. Time spent building relationship capital will pay off in greater cooperation and support down the line.
3. Employ the power of purpose. Life is a series of choices made consciously or unconsciously; intentionally or by default. Leaders are most powerful when they are intentional about their choices. Every day is a new opportunity to make a difference. Every day is a chance to move toward our goals and objectives. Someone once said, “You can have anything you want; but you can’t have everything you want.” The first requirement, then, is to be clear about what is important in your personal and professional life. How many times have you come to the end of a day and asked yourself, “Where did the day go?” The temptation is to get lost in any of the many diversions that our world offers like surfing the net, reading unimportant emails or responding to texts. A simple two-minute phone call can disrupt your thinking for many minutes after it is over. And, of course, the greatest disrupters are meetings where nothing gets accomplished. The real problem is that all of the people who report to you are facing this same problem. The lesson: Work to be “on purpose” as a mindset for approaching your work. Your power as a leader will expand exponentially if you can be clear about your vision for the future and you can keep yourself and others focused on that. Ask “Why are we doing this now? How does it advance us toward our goals?”
Leadership power has to be built consciously over time. The three tips I offered to my client were part of a puzzle that she had to assemble for herself and make her own. She worked to clarify how she wanted to be as a leader based on her personality, her values and beliefs. She developed her own authentic style and began to consciously apply that approach in her work. The results were almost immediate. Within weeks people began to comment that she seemed “more confident” although they couldn’t exactly say why. Some of her peers remarked that she seemed more “relatable” than she had been. Members of her team said they liked how she provided a clear and inspiring vision for the work they were doing while giving them the freedom to act on their own initiative to get things done.
Most importantly, my client’s superiors decided she was ready for promotion.
Al Blixt is the Managing Partner of New Campus Dynamics and co-author of Leading Innovation and Change – A Guide for Chief Student Affairs Officers on Shaping the Future.