Skip to content
Susan's Business Book Reports


Book Summary, September 2021, Susan Alban
Susan Voiceover
This book is the only one so far where I’ll note here that the notes and summary below are just that, a summary. I don’t necessarily endorse the takeaways and recommendations below.
And now I have to explore what made me write that disclaimer at all! I think it’s because expressing the desire for power, or talking about having or not having power is incredibly uncomfortable. Our society generally eschews the overt pursuit of power in anything other than TV and Movies (Billions or Succession anyone?). It feels cynical, icky, extractive. And it’s counter to the world many of us aspire to live in. Very few people seek an overtly political business organization where they have to “work the system.”
But this author convincingly claims that these power dynamics do exist, whether or not we want them to. And he makes both obvious and subtle observations about who has power and why; and offers us suggestions for accumulating and maintaining power for ourselves and our organizations.
I think the read is also really interesting for CEOs to check themselves and their own organizations on what kind of orgs they have created, and if they’re okay with that.
Hindrances to Power
(1) "Just world theory” (that the world is fair and good people will be okay and bad people will get theirs in the end) can make it difficult for people to try to amass power
Hinders people’s ability to learn from all situations and people, even those whom they don’t like or respect. It doesn’t matter if you like or identify with the person who has amassed the power. Need to pay particular attention to those holding positions you aspire to.
Believing that the world is fair mean people may not pay attention to environmental hindrances, or will assume that “if they do the right thing, they’ll be okay” and vice versa, “that those who do bad things will ultimately suffer".
Just world theory isn’t true.
(2) Self-handicapping
People are afraid of setbacks and implications for self-image and therefore don’t aspire to power.
Single biggest thing to take from the book (according to the author) is to aspire to power.
Success / promotions don’t always follow performance
Manager involvement bias - supervisors who were actively involved in hiring people and supported the hiring decision rated those employees higher than those who they did not support or whom they inherited. (Behavioral commitment)
CEOs who had power because of ownership or because insiders were on the board were more likely to retain power even in the face of bad business results.
Success follows people in power thinking highly of you.
Your boss(es) don’t know what you’ve achieved. You must tell them.
Repeated exposure increases positive affect and reduces negative feeling.
Make your performance visible.
Try to control the criteria used to judge your work. Highlight the dimensions of job performance that favor you.
Know what your bosses care about. Don’t assume. Ask what they think is the most crucial part of your job.
Asking for advice also creates a positive relationship through flattery.
Make those in power feel better about themselves - ie, flattery
Creates reciprocity - by flattering, you’ve “given” them something. May feel like they owe you something.
Berkeley study doesn’t show that flattery ever becomes negative - ie, her study shows it doesn’t become ineffective at any point!
Giving Feedback to powerful people
Don’t bruise ego. Instead of giving people feedback about what they’ve done well and poorly, focus on “feed forward” —> emphasize what people need to do to get ready for upcoming career challenges / positions
Self-awareness - Cornell study shows - people without the requisite knowledge to perform a task successfully also lacked the information and understanding to know that they were deficient and in what ways!
Elements that build power
Will - ambition, energy, focus
Skill - self knowledge and reflective mindset; confidence and ability to project self-assurance; ability to read others and empathize with their point of view; capacity for conflict.
Self-knowledge / reflective mindset - CEO who, after significant meetings/interactions, would make notes in a small notebook about what went well, what hadn’t, what people said/did, and the outcome of the meeting.
Empathy - Too much focus on the end goal and our own objectives can easily get in the way. Leave room for recruiting others to our side and reducing opposition/resistance.
Same company: Recent profile of CEOs of S&P 500 companies found that the median tenure with their company was 15 years.
Same function: genius requires a large number of hours to achieving outstanding levels of competence —> focus narrowly
Focus on the right activities work on the most critical and high impact work that matters to the company.
⚡️Intelligence isn’t on the list
Intelligence is single best predictor of job performance. However the relationship between job performance and power is weak.
Where you go to build power
There are high-power divisions at some companies
Go there for power.
E.g., finance department at Ford in the 1960s; internal strategy group at SAP was high power because it was driving strategy, lots of exposure.
Choose to either go to an established high-power division (downside is there will be competition), or to an area you think will become powerful because of the business criticality (downside is that it’s higher risk and you may not get that call right)
Source of departmental power - ability to provide critical resources such as money or skill or the ability to solve critical problems. (My take - right now that is often engineering or product)
Signals of departmental power
Higher comp
“Smarter” or more pedigreed employees
Physically closer to those who are in power - e.g., offices are closer to CEO
Positions on committees, on the board of directors, and in senior management
Susan note: I’ll mention that this deeply resonates with me in the 1K+ employers I’ve worked with as a consultant at McKinsey, and for as an employee. There were clear centers of power and places where teams seem to just “get more done.”
A few diagnostic questions or signals I’d add:
Where does the P&L sit? (and double click that the P&L “owner” actually has all the levers required; “owning the P&L” in name only is not enviable)
Which teams seem to move the fastest?
Which teams are calling the meetings and making requests of other teams that are getting done?
Which teams’ priorities appear to trump others when there are tradeoffs?
Getting power
Ask for what you want. Asking works even though people think it’s uncomfortable. People are afraid of rejection. But people being asked often help:
Being asked is flattering. Very self affirming to have talented others ask for help.
Show affinity and flatter in your asks - e.g., the young Indian writer who asked for successful Indian entrepreneurs who all went to IIT to write a chapter in his book. Show that you understand their importance and how wise they are in how you frame the request. Emphasize the importance and accomplishments of those we ask and remind them of what we share in common.
Stand out and be memorable. Like brand recognition in an ad campaign.
Negative mindset or attitudes is associated with competence.
Negative reviewers were perceived as more intelligent, competent and expert than positive reviewers.
Do small but important tasks - e.g., organizing new analyst hiring will put the person in touch with all senior people, AND with all new analysts. Do thing that put you in an advantage for making connections, getting information, deepening important relationships.
Be first mover in networking events
Creating World Economic Forum created a single place for all of the world’s most important people to gather. There isn’t space for two.
Bringing people together puts you at the center of social networks.
Networking - definition: behaviors that are aimed at building, maintaining, and using informal relationships that possess the (potential) benefit of facilitating work-related activities of individuals by voluntarily giving/gaining access to resources and maximizing advantages.
(1) Building, (2) maintaining, (3) using both internal and external networks (6 distinct activities) — Two most important from a German study were building internal networks and maintaining external networks.
Can be a flywheel - networking makes you more visible —> more visibility increases power and status —> heightened power and status makes building and maintaining contacts easier.
Weak ties can be more useful because they give you access to new networks. To be useful, must be both willing and able to link you in.
Information and comms - one source of power is to be the hub of comms and information. Physical location can make you more central.
Yusuf / SAP case - (1) do excellent work, including hiring excellent people; (1) understand the organization - understand how different people perceive things, what their interests are, how to make a persuasive case and how to get along with people and build effective personal relationships.
Acting with power
If you feel powerful, you will act that way; and the reverse is true.
For men, anger is often more effective than sadness/guilt/remorse (Oliver North/Iran Contra example)
For women, get *less* status with anger than without.
Can play a part - acting as part of job —> dressing and acting a particular way for a magazine editor.
Be aware that you are on stage more than you think and are always being observed, especially by people with less power.
Put away tech and focus when you’re with someone. Sends a clear message that you value them.
Can use location and room to increase power - e.g., increasing number of meetings to have more familiarity (creates affinity/power) and can use a classroom style where the presenter is at the front “teaching” (higher status than listener/student)
Speaking with power
Take your time replying. Breath, pause, don’t rush.
Pulling forward things that may be taken for granted or seen as obvious can increase status/power
Use us-versus-them references
Pause for emphasis or to invite applause
Use lists of three or enumeration in general.
Use contrastive pairs; contrast helps make a point by drawing attention to what you are not saying as well as what you are saying.
Avoid scripts or notes if possible.
Use humor as appropriate (not self-deprecating)
Build a reputation
Judgments made in the first 11 milliseconds correlate highly with judgements made when there were no time constraints. And short impressions are highly correlated with longer-term assessments (teacher evaluations)
Good reputation creates Halo Effect.
If you find yourself in a place where you have an image problem, it’s often best to leave. Changing people’s minds with take a lot of effort and may not be successful.
Impressions can be based on very arbitrary things over which you don’t have control, so best to try multiple settings until you find your spot.
Build reputation through the press - tight media budgets —> journalists need help doing their work. E.g., create content, take interviews, help them. Then they’ll help you when you need it.
Better to have someone introduce you and sing your praises than do it yourself. Even though people know that your PR person, recruiter, whomever is working for you, it’s still better than you singing your own praises. You will be rated higher and the person’s testament is seen as more credible.
Having a thing or two about you that is negative but unrelated to excellence in your role is not a bad thing — can make you memorable and it means that your supporters are supporting you in spite of this personality difference.
Dealing with opposition
Treat opponents well - if you make it easy and pleasure for your opponents to depart, they will. By contrast, once people have nothing left to lose, they will have no inhibitions or constraints on what they will do to fight you.
Enable a graceful retreat
Co-opt them and make them part of your team or organization.
Move them to another organization where they won’t be in your way
Help them save face - treat people well on the way out the door.
Choose your battles - don’t get involved in issues that don’t help your agenda or are irrelevant.
Make critical relationships work. Your feelings don’t matter, invest the time and make them work.
If you see a power struggle coming, DON’T WAIT. While you’re waiting, others are organizing support and orchestrating their win. And people want to join the winning side, so if you’re seen not fighting, then people who get on your side.
Reward good behavior and punish bad behavior - get over your inhibitions because everyone else has.
Place your objectives in context that compels others to support you.
Talk to as many people as possible as quickly as possible
You probably have more support than you think and other people will want to support you
It will take the emotion sting out of what happened and enable you to more forward.
Many setbacks are ambiguous - Tell the upbeat and positive story that favors you. “People want to associate with winners"
Don’t play the victim. Be the actor / author of your own destiny. Resist just commiserating with other victims.
The price of power
Scrutiny - more than your job performance will be watched. You will be judged by how you dress, where you live, how you spend your time, who you spend time with, what your children do, what you drive, how you act in non-job-related domains.
Lost autonomy/time - your schedule is no longer your own and you need to attend to myriad stakeholders. Solution: block out time for yourself and your activities.
Takes time and energy - seems to be harder on women; “most women have dropped out of the labor force, at least temporarily, at some point in the first 15 years after leaving professions graduate schools.
Trust issues - the higher you go, the harder it can be to get the truth. (Can cut through by relying heavily on data, the what of the problem, not who is recommending the action; can also try to model this honesty by admitting your own mistakes)
Power addiction - can be hard/painful to shift out of a high-power position (may account for why many politicians and leading business people work into their 80s)
How/why people lose power
Booz Allen statistic: the annual turnover rate of corporate CEOs increased 59% from 1995 to 2006 globally. Instances of CEOs being fired/pushed out rose by 318%.
Overconfidence, disinhibition, ignoring others’ interests: people get used to special treatment, flattery, getting their way. Power produces over confidence and risk taking; insensitivity to others; stereotyping; and a tendency to see other people as a means to the power holder’s gratification. The more control the person has over pay and other power levers, the more they saw subordinates’ performance as a result of their control (rather than the person’s own efforts); and the more they sought to distance themselves and not spend time with the subordinates.
Solution - don’t be overconfident; don’t ignore possible risks; stay sensitive to dynamics that surround you.
Misplaced / too much trust.
Lose patience - when you’re in power, you have to attend events, fulfill social obligations, and solidify relationships with people who help you do/keep your job.
Get tired - people get burned out from all this work of building and maintaining power. If you are in a position of power and are tired, you should leave; others will be plotting to ascend and you won’t be able to put up a good defense anyway.
World changes; but people/companies don’t - people and companies fall into competency traps. E.g., US automaker trap - did well making big cars, vans, SUVs, trucks and ignored demand for smaller cars.
Be extra vigilant during times of economic stress.
LEAVE GRACEFULLY - “leave before the party is over” and do so in a way that causes others to remember you fondly. Leave with dignity to influence your legacy.
Overarching case for power
Employees are on their own, in that companies often don’t take responsibility for their careers, retirement planning etc. So you must fend for yourself and should use every means at your disposal to ensure your own organizational survival.
Research suggests that people doing a task prefer hierarchy and will self-organize to create status differentials, including voluntary disempowering themselves to create stable hierarchical social order (people create attitudes and defense of their own inferior status)
Social circumstances in adult life predict health
Michael Marmot British civil service study (18K participants) - all office workers. People at the bottom of the hierarchy had 4x the risk of death from heart disease as those at the top (controlled for risk factors such as smoking, obesity, parental longevity)
Compensation side note
Exec comp research shows connection between size of the firm and CEO pay that accounts for 40%+ of pay variation, which is higher than variation due to performance (<5%). Creates incentive for CEO to expand regardless of consequences.
Job analyses such at the HAY SYSTEM use the number of direct and indirect reports you have, the amount of budget you can spend without approval as measures of your job value.
Want to print your doc?
This is not the way.
Try clicking the ⋯ next to your doc name or using a keyboard shortcut (
) instead.