How to Become More Powerful

power bookGet ready: the art of acquiring and retaining power has been demystified. Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Power: Why Some People Have It–And Others Don’t (based on a class he teaches at Stanford’s business school) is one of the best business books in recent years. No padding here–Pfeffer offers insightful and informative strategies you can deploy immediately. Here are some of the best:


  • People avoid asking for help or favors (such as dinner once a year with the CEO) because they think it’s fruitless–yet it’s one of the best ways to reinforce bonds and people are very likely to say yes. Why? Because 1) people like to think of themselves as generous; and 2) “saying yes to a request for assistance reinforces the grantor’s position of power.” Don’t be afraid to ask – it’ll set you apart.
  • How to build a power base when you’re still low on the totem pole? “Build a resource base”–i.e., cultivate things other people want, which could be anything from money (if your department controls resources) to jobs, information, or just listening. Notes Pfeffer, in a nod to behavioral psychology, “Helping people out in almost any fashion engages the norm of reciprocity – the powerful, almost universal behavioral principle that favors must be repaid. But people do not precisely calculate how much value they have received from another and therefore what they owe in return. Instead, helping others generates a more generalized obligation to return the favor, and as a consequence, doing even small things can produce a comparatively large payoff.”
  • Your ticket to professional success? “Occupy a brokerage position.” In others words, put yourself between groups and fill holes and help transmit information – the additional contacts and knowledge will give you more power. But note that the benefit only accrues to you if you’re in the position yourself – simply knowing someone who’s a broker won’t do you much good.
  • Alpha Dog Redux. Harkening back to a previous post of mine on “How to Become an Alpha Dog” and the research of social scientist Amy Cuddy, Pfeffer sounds a similar tone: “…if you have to choose between being seen as likable and fitting in on the one hand or appearing competent albeit abrasive on the other, choose competence. Self-deprecating comments and humor work only if you have already established your competence.”
  • Rebranding yourself can be tough, as I write about in my recent Harvard Business Review blog post on “How to Reinvent Your Personal Brand.” Pfeffer advises that if you’re developed a bad rap somewhere, the best move is simply to leave –  it’s just too hard to overcome it. He adds that “…because impressions are formed quickly and are based on many things, such as similarity and ‘chemistry’ over which you have far from perfect control, you should try to put yourself in as many different situations as possible – to play the law of large numbers. If you are a talented individual, over time and in many contexts, that talent will appear to those evaluating you. But in any single instance, the evaluative judgment that forms the basis for your reputation will be much more random.”
  • Mild negative traits are not a deal-killer. When someone has a reputation as somewhat difficult (the key is somewhat, not pathologically), that can actually help your power base because people who are “forewarned” and hire you anyway will be more committed to the decision (Pfeffer cites Larry Summers’ well-known truculence).
  • Got an enemy? Be generous and you’ll win in the end. Two good options are to “co-opt them” (create a committee, let them lead it, and they’ll be working from the inside, not the outside) or to help them get an even better job…far from where they can bother you.
  • How to keep perspective when you’re already in power? The sage words of a Swiss executive: “What you have to do is every now and then expose yourself to a social circle that really doesn’t care about your position.”
  • Status is “portable.” How is it that so many high-level business execs successfully run for public office, or so many actors and rappers create fashion lines? And how come Bono is now a prominent humanitarian ambassador? It’s because, as Pfeffer observes, “…people assume that if you are smart enough to succeed in one highly competitive domain, you must be competent in other, even unrelated domains as well. One implication of this phenomenon for you is that the specific organization or domain in which you rise to power may matter less than the fact that you manage to achieve high-level status someplace. The prestige and power that come from achieving a senior position will generalize to some extent to other contexts, providing you with status there as well.”

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.