By Maxim Sytch
A banker in Southeast Asia wanted to allow employees of a car rental agency to buy used cars from the employer. But not a single business unit was able to put together that product. Different units were stopped either by the existing product portfolio, the underlying risk, or regulatory guidelines. One of the banker’s colleagues, however, was able to facilitate valuable introductions across the company. That led to the solution being co-designed and jointly offered by two business units.
Credit the success of this new financial product to the banker’s informal power. Informal power — which is unrelated to your formal title — can enable you to mobilize resources, drive change, and create value for the organization as well as yourself. And in the modern workplace, informal power is increasingly pivotal and can secure your place within your organization.
Why? Nowadays, workflow is migrating from specialized verticals to the white spaces between the verticals as companies respond more precisely to customer needs. This trend matters in organizations with cross-functional teams, account managers, or a matrix structure. Even smaller organizations are increasingly project driven.
And more and more, work is done outside the organization in collaboration with suppliers, distributors, and customers. Companies are crowdsourcing ideas and work. We engage with freelancers and third parties. Sometimes we even collaborate with competitors.
The fact is, your formal title, direct reports, and formally granted authority do not always carry you far when working across your own organization and with outside stakeholders.
Do you have the informal power to generate value and get things done? Here’s how to do a power audit:
Step 1: List your top 10 contacts that enable you to get work done. These contacts can be either internal or external to your organization.
Step 2: For each contact, assign a score from 1 to 10 indicating how much you depend on them. If a contact provides a lot of value and is also difficult to replace, assign a high score. Think broadly about the value your contacts offer. This includes career advice, emotional backing, support with daily activities, information, and access to resources or stakeholders.
Step 3: Do the same in reverse. Assign a score to yourself from others’ perspectives. Approximate how much value you offer your contacts and how difficult it would be to replace you. Be honest.
Next, look for red flags in your power audit. These could indicate that you lack informal power and are replaceable.
Do all of your contacts work in one team, function, product unit, or office building? This could indicate a limited ability to generate value beyond the basic requirements of your job description.
Do your contacts provide you with more value than you return? Such relationships are difficult to sustain in the long run. Asymmetries in dependence indicate others hold the power in a relationship.
Are your dependence scores low throughout? This could indicate the prevalence of transactional relationships, ones often driven by quid pro quo. In contrast, high-dependence relationships can be imbued with values and relational dynamics that are not simply calculated.
Is all of the value you give or receive concentrated in a couple of contacts? You could be vulnerable if you lose these contacts or your relationship changes. One senior executive shared with me that two key contacts drove the value in his network. Unfortunately, one passed away and the other moved to a different region. This executive’s informal power shut down overnight.
So, now that you’ve conducted your informal power audit, how can you improve your standing?
First of all, a prime way to rectify unfavorable power audit scores is to earn relationships by delivering value to your contacts. Ask yourself: what value can you deliver to them? One way is to develop and continuously improve upon a skill set that leads others to value your contributions. Then proactively use your skills to help others, well beyond the demands of your formal role. You don’t want to be the expert whom nobody knows.
Second, let your job help you. Manage your job description so that you can contribute to the workflows of multiple functions inside the organization as well as customers, outside partners, or regulators. Volunteer for cross-functional initiatives. View lateral transfers as a move up. By positioning yourself at the intersection of workflows, you position yourself to meet, learn from, and deliver value to a variety of diverse groups in the organization.
Third, get to know your stakeholders and collaborators better as individuals. You may be surprised how something that is rather easy for you to do carries significant value for them. Sometimes we freeze because we believe that we have to offer really significant contributions or do massive favors for others. Knowing others well can present us with helpful alternatives. And don’t limit yourself to the professional domain.
Outside of work, join social associations as well as professional ones. Shared activities have an underestimated impact on expanding our networks beyond an insular group of immediate coworkers. A friend of mine, an entrepreneur, first learned from his swim club partner about venture capital firms’ criteria for selecting and funding life science companies. That partner ended up being his first investor.
Your value should not be defined solely by your ability to perform a formal organizational role. If it is, you are likely in trouble — sooner or later, a cheaper, younger, and smarter competitor will join the company. By creating value for diverse stakeholders and making yourself irreplaceable, you open possibilities for yourself within the organization and beyond. And, by doing so, you add value to your company.
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