Wrote this blog post in 2013 (yes, when I was 10% younger). New comments in red color.
Recently, I was reminded that there are three types of power in the workplace. While you might not have all 3 – you better have some. Positional, Relational, Expertise. I first heard this on a manager-tools.com podcast, but please let me know if you heard of it somewhere else too. It’s a simple way to think through the problem, but perhaps the most elegant. This applies to each of us professionally, and also to the client project.
Positional Power: This is straight-forward. It is tops-down power This power comes from the title, budget, headcount and the role that you hold. If it were a math formula it would look like this: COO > VP > Director > Mgr > Analyst
Positional power does work, but it is like a hammer – blunt, short-term and tiresome. It is like telling your child to do something, and when asked “why”, you respond by saying “Because I am your father, and I said so.” It works, but not really the best parenting.
This is fleeting. The command-and-control style of management rarely works anymore, even in more hierarchical Asian work cultures. Heck, the average CEO has his/her job for less than 4 years according to A.G. Lafley in his great book Play to Win (affiliate link). As always, Peter Drucker was WAY ahead of his time. In 1988, he talks about the new way of working in HBR, “The large business 20 years hence is more likely to resemble a hospital or a symphony than a typical manufacturing company.” If you are a student of management, then you are a student of Drucker.
Traditional departments won’t be where the work gets done. – Peter Drucker
Relational Power: This is the primary currency in large organizations. People work together, help each other out, team-up for success, forgive mistakes, and generally stick together in the organization. People are inter-related. History is shared. In Influence (affiliate link), Robert Cialdini writes extensively about reciprocity and other ways that people persuade each other. Simply put, we are social creatures and relationships matter.
Life is about people. Solving problems is about people. Being generous and honing your craft is (a lot more) about people (than you might think). The most challenging problems (read: ambiguous, political, risky, fun) are also the ones that typically cross-functions and try to dislodge people from their vested interests. As an example, just because you are the Chief Marketing Officer does not mean the sales force will snap to attention and adopt your new trade promotional campaign.
For MBAs, the problems that will get you most-promoted, the highest compensation, the greatest visibility and all those trappings of success, will involve people. Get used to it. As the Workplace Therapist aptly says [paraphrased], “IQ may get you the job, but EQ will get your promoted.”
Expertise Power: This is where the individual shines. This is where education, experience and real thinking come together to create expertise. The MBA would direct you to something called the resource-based view (RBV), which states that really competitive advantage comes from things that are: 1) rare, 2) valuable, 3) difficult to imitate etc. . . This is also true for people.
Another way to look at it is how Malcolm Gladwell argues in Outliers (affiliate link) at real expertise takes 10,000 hours of practice. This is based on fascinating research published in HBR called Making of an Expert. As they state, “Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence shows that experts are always made, not born.”
Another tag-on resource is the Freakonomics podcast with Anders Ericsson here. As I often tell my students, don’t want to graduate to start getting good at something. Be deliberate, and put in your 10,000 hours. You can become an expert sooner than you think. One thing Gary Vaynerchuk has right, hustle matters.
“Hustle would be putting all your effort into achieving the goal at hand. For me, that means putting making every minute count. . .Every minute that you can apply to your game, you need to. I am worried that people don’t tap into their strengths. People like to claim that they work hard and smart, but they are not putting in the work and they’re working 9-6, it’s not enough. . . Your talent isn’t enough, you gotta go put it into work. – Gary Vaynerchuk
How do consulting team accumulate power? Whether we know it or not, the consulting process is designed to help consultants accumulate power or influence at the client site. These are the three keys to getting leverage and being effective.
1. Kick-off meeting. (Positional) It is customary to have a kick-off meeting where the executive sponsor formally introduces the consultants to her staff, thereby, “loaning” the consultants some of her authority. This allows the consultants to do work and create change. It’s like being a substitute teacher, it is a privilege and borrowed power.
2. Project plan. (Positional) Consultants like to stay on the project plan. This serves many practical purposes such as organizing activities and scoping the work, but it also has a more subtle effect of giving control to the rhythm of the project. The due dates create project momentum and pressure to finish the work. It’s like being the air traffic controller; you are not flying the planes, but have a lot of say on how the airport runs.
3. Best practices. (Expertise) Consultants bring some objectivity because they benefit from working at multiple competitors, suppliers and customers. Clients like to have that “outside-in” perspective and know where they stand relatively in performance. “What is best practice?” is a common question from executives. Best practices, maturity models, benchmarks, and survey results are all examples of expertise power.
4. Data. (Expertise) Many clients actually don’t know where they stand. They don’t know if they are running a 5 minute or a 12 minute mile. They have a “sense” (which is usually right), but are hard-pressed to show the data. Consultants love data for many reasons – including the fact that data gives the consultants credibility and conviction.
5. Being on-site. (Relational) Generally, consultants don’t have a lot of relational equity. They might know the “buyer” of the services, but often meet the stakeholders at the kick-off meeting. So, it is critically important to get to know the working-level stakeholders as soon as possible. Collaboration is a two-way street. Some of it has to do with being professional, friendly, and helpful. Some of it has to do with the tacit understanding that consultants can help (or sometimes hurt) career prospects. Be likable. Don’t be a jerk.
In my mind, one of the main reasons that consultants are often at the client site Monday-Thursday is for relational reasons. The travel is a beast, but it is an effective way to work with the clients, get to know each other, share meals, and build relationships. The ex-CMO of Deloitte wrote a best-seller on building relationships called Never Eat Alone (affiliate link). Guess what the main point of the book is. . . . . never eat alone.
6. Make clients successful. (Relational) Consultants are in the business of making their clients successful. Full-stop. I know of 2 partners (big 4) who essentially build their entire 25 year practice helping 2-3 key clients. Think about that, 2-3 clients. A.G. Lafley (P&G ex-CEO) met Roger Martin (Dean of Rotman School of Management) met when they were just a P&G manager and Monitor consultant.
Caveat. All of this power and influence is temporary, borrowed, and sometimes fragile. Most of the consultants I have worked with are professional, well-mannered, and show the right level of respect to clients – but that is not always the case. I know of consultants who have shouted, and even threatened working-level clients. Low-class, unprofessional, and abusive.
The patriarch of McKinsey, Marvin Bower, rightly felt that management consultants should have the highest level of professionalism, integrity, and candor. Completely agree.