Influencing Powerful People (“IPP”) 2.0: Does it still matter and do the rules still apply?
A little more than 10 years ago I started organized research into a topic that had been a preoccupation of mine for a large part of my professional career: How to work with and influence powerful people. The outcome of this venture was the publication on Influencing Powerful People (IPP) in 2011 and 16 “rules” of IPP engagement.
IPP: An important topic then …
I had received encouragement that the topic mattered greatly. Powerful people are an inescapable reality in the worlds of business, politics, academia, religion, the military, and even charity, as well as their various cultures and subcultures around the world; and those who work with and for them by and large spend an extraordinary amount of time and energy worrying about them. Yet the “leadership literature” was - and I believe remains - heavily tilted towards what to do when you are a (powerful) leader rather than what to do when you work with and for a powerful leader. This literature articulates the lessons learned from powerful people rather than the lessons learned from those who engage them. On top of that imbalance, Jeffrey Pfeffer, the doyen of power in organizations, points out that much of the advice given to the powerful and those seeking power - namely to be more authentic, modest, caring for others, and the like - goes unheeded or is of little use in the real world. Based on this, I believed, it was time to shift the initiative: Don’t wait for a leader to become easier to deal with, start thinking about better ways to engage them as they are. In other words: Deal with it and be smart about it.
… and now
But times change, of course. That’s why, ten years in, the first question should be whether the topic still matters: Are company founders, bosses, senior political figures and other powerful people still the type of domineering and even intimidating figures who have to be managed with great care or have they (finally) heeded the advice of the abundant literature on authentic, participatory leadership so that the less powerful can finally stop worrying about them and relate to them as to any other colleague.
At first blush, there actually may have been somewhat of a change. The #metoo movement, for example, has brought about a sea change in exposing abusive high profile leaders and has taken down a fair number of them, including those who foolishly dwell in their orbit. The latter instances are a powerful object lesson of IPP rule #9 - we must be careful what company we keep, and we are always responsible for our own actions. In addition, there seems to have been somewhat of a backlash against overly aggressive corporate cultures even when they help propel huge success stories. The New York Times’ reporting on the workplace culture at ride-hailing service Uber and the resignation of its founder Travis Kalanick as CEO make for instructive reading. This is important news for boards of directors: Their responsibility for the corporation does not just extend to strategy and execution but includes oversight of company culture. One is reminded of Peter Drucker’s dictum that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Four insights about powerful people
Based on my work teaching, coaching, and engaging with a diverse cross section of people “in the trenches” of business, political, academic, and not-for-profit life, I believe that shining a light on some of the excesses has been a welcome development; but it has by no means made the topic of influencing powerful people obsolete. Four insights about powerful people have emerged:
- The archetype of the “larger than life”, A-type leader with all their brilliance, charm and steamrolling intensity is alive and well. They are often domineering and can be quite intimidating - even for seasoned professionals.
- There is a crop of “modern” leaders who present themselves as calm, professional, and “rational;” and a number of them genuinely care. But make no mistake: They are no less headstrong, determined and intense when it comes to pursuing their vision and goals.
- As much as people struggle with bosses who are “in your face” others find it more challenging to deal with leaders who are aloof and withdrawn. My teaching session in the Directors Education Program is focussed on engaging A-type leaders yet the feedback from some board members is that a CEO who does not engage can be an even bigger problem.
- Power is not always a top down affair. In some settings people “lower down” in the organization can hold more power than those at the top. They may have highly specialized knowledge, they may be protected by entrenched workplace rules, or other factors may be at play.
Subject matter competence is not enough
The point of all is this: When working with and for strong willed and determined powerful people (or when having powerful people working for you) your “brilliance” and convincing argumentation rarely carries the day. This insight articulated by Henry Kissinger remains as valid today as it was when he first started advising President Kennedy. Understanding who the powerful person is, how to approach them, and remaining realistic with regard to what can be achieved matters as much as brilliant insights. Investing in the relationship and earning their trust are equally important. In my coaching work in varying industries and cultures the conversation will sooner or later turn to the boss and how to engage him or her. Knowing how to do this most often is as, if not more, important than subject matter competence. In one instance a coaching client was able to move from “almost out the door” to “most valuable player” by changing the approach - subject matter competence had not changed. In other instances otherwise capable people decided to leave or were asked to leave.
And so I will answer the first question in the affirmative: Influencing Powerful People still matters.
Context matters: IPP revisited
But times do change and approaches must be revisited. Context matters. Therefore, we will first have a look to what extent the characters and environments have changed. We will then go through the original IPP rules: Which ones still do apply? Which ones have to be modified? Which ones should be discarded? And which ones have to be added? I will do so in a series of blogs over the coming year. In addition, we will invite experts from various sectors to share their perspective on the topic. The plan being that a revised set of rules becomes available on the 10th anniversary of IPP in March of 2021.
I very much look forward to your feedback along the way.