Your ultimate success in an organization depends on your ability to execute with and through others. But when you’re starting a new job, it can be hard to find out who the true power players are and how to get close to them.
These influential leaders are not always as obvious as the ones represented on the company website, yet remain critical to your long-term success. Research shows that during times of transition like moving to a new role or company, it’s vital to understand the hidden organizational chart of networks that truly get the work done regardless of hierarchy.
Follow these five strategies to recognize the lay of the land so you can not only accomplish what you need to upon joining, but eventually find your own place in the company’s future power landscape.
Understand the different kinds of power.
In order to make an accurate assessment of who has significant influence in your organization, it helps to first understand the different kinds of power that exist. In 1959, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven defined five bases of power that people use to drive others toward desired change: coercive (relying on force); reward (relying on incentives); legitimate (relying on hierarchy); referent (relying on affiliation) and expert (relying on knowledge authority). A sixth base of power, informational (relying on access to scarce resources of data), was added some years later in their research.
As you observe power in your organization, you may see even more factors playing a role in who has influence and who doesn’t. One in particular is the reputation of leaders which affects their power and may go up and down, regardless of their place in the hierarchy or their subject matter expertise.
For example, an executive leading a dying division into profitability due to market changes may suddenly enjoy lots of positive “press” within and outside the company that increases their perception as powerful. Or leaders who are in charge of the flagship product in a company may be positively associated with the “face” of the company and therefore may continue to be seen as influential even during a bad business year.
Identify which people others seek out for authority.
Once you understand the many ways power is attained and employed, you can start making a list of people who have been successful in using it. Take a look at who exercises different modes of power, for instance, colleagues who everyone seems to know (e.g. referent power) or who always get approval to do new projects and have resources to hire more people (e.g. informational or reward power).
Also look for the people who seem to always have others seeking them out for help or advice. Research shows that while you can excel at work by reaching out to lots of people in your network, being sought out by others makes you four times more likely to be successful.
Ask others in your circle questions like, “Who is regarded very well within the company?” or “Who do people need to know here in order to excel?” You may also want to research who has been promoted fast as an indicator of success. And notice the people around you that are being invited to gatherings with high visibility, such as board meetings or external-facing events with access to senior leaders and customers.
Recognize situational shifts in influence.
At times it may seem like the power landscape in your company is fixed but actually, power is dynamic. For example, in just the last two years, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in the power balance at many organizations, given the move to hybrid work. A recent study showed that in this new work environment, relational power often trumps hierarchical power, so those without a certain title still have an opportunity to gain influence and those with senior roles are not guaranteed it. This means it’s important to consider how certain people gain and lose power over time in your company.
For instance, I recently coached a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leader who historically had limited visibility beyond her HR team. But after George Floyd, she found herself fielding offers to take on DEI roles at dozens of companies where she would directly report to CEO.
Similarly, I worked with a director in charge of environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) within her company’s finance division who was suddenly elevated to a C-level role. As more investors, customers, and employees demanded an ESG strategy in recent years, her expertise unexpectedly brought her more influence within the company.
Look beyond the obvious pockets of power.
At first glance across your company, it’s natural to assume that those who have “chief” or “senior” in their titles are the ones that dominate the power landscape. But this isn’t always the case.
I once worked with the executive team of a major hospital system with physicians who were often the only ones who could do a rare procedure for which patients would fly in around the world. You can guess these doctors wielded a great deal of power in the organization. However, if you asked the leadership team who really held the strings, it was the nurses. They were the ones that were seen as the engine of excellence behind the doctors’ work. So if you were a new hire and ignored building alliances with the nursing organization out of the belief that the doctors and the executives were the most important, you would have made a big mistake in your plan to achieve success.
It’s also important to look at the white spaces between departments in your organization where hidden power often exists. Remember that as companies become more customer driven, work gets done cross-functionally, not just through each vertical. As a result, those who are successful at creating networks that bridge gaps between siloes often command significant influence.
I saw this up close with a client who was a newly hired VP managing a multibillion dollar product line. Initially he felt that the people with the most power over his success were his boss, his boss’s boss (the CEO), and the sales leaders meeting with the biggest customers of his business. But over time he recognized that power existed among key internal colleagues who never even met the customer yet were critical to meeting their needs. They were the leaders of supply chain, engineering and other shared services who with one call, could either prioritize the VP’s product line’s needs over others or push them to the back of the queue.
Let relationships with powerful colleagues multiply through curiosity and generosity.
Once you have understood the power landscape in your company, it’s time to get on the radar of some of these influential colleagues. But you’ll need to set yourself apart from the many others who are usually approaching them all the time. The best way to make powerful people willing to spend time with you is to employ a humble desire to learn from them, mixed with an energetic desire to offer something of value with no selfish agenda.
And then, when you do meet with this colleague, don’t try to accomplish too much; do just enough to demonstrate curiosity and generosity to the point where they would enjoy taking your call again. Over time you may ask them who else they think you should meet. And they may even offer to make a warm introduction on your behalf to a powerful person in their circle.
When you join a new organization, it’s important to understand who holds the power because they directly impact how work gets done, but it’s not always perfectly clear. Follow these strategies to better identify where the true power exists and eventually develop your future position of influence in the company.
This content was originally published here.