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Jeffrey Pfeffer is Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He is the author or co-author of thirteen books including "The Human Equation: Building Profits by[…]

A conversation with the Stanford University professor of organizational behavior.

Jeffrey Pfeffer: Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior, Stanford business.

Question:  Is power linked to confident leadership?

Jeffrey Pfeffer:  People are going to look at you and they’re going to ask, you know, a very interesting question, “Why should I follow you?”  And if you look like you don’t know what you’re doing, and if you look like you don’t have confidence in what you’re saying and if it looks like you don’t believe in yourself almost no one is going to believe in you. So yes, I think you do have to be able to exhibit confidence and exude confidence.  Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel and cofounder of Intel, has a great quote in which he says something to the effect of: "you need to kind of even if you don’t know what you’re doing you can’t let everybody around you know that because then they’ll give up and become discouraged." So you have to act as if you know what you’re doing and of course change course when you figure out you’ve made a mistake, but you have to act as if you know what you’re doing even if you don’t. And I think that is true in many different contexts.  I mean if you go to a doctor and the doctor comes to you and says you know by the way you have a serious disease and you know I don’t know what to do about it, you’re probably not going to stay in that doctor’s office very long, so I think there is an element of acting and projecting, which is a key element of exhibiting and exuding power.

Should MBAs take acting classes?

Jeffrey Pfeffer: Absolutely and we in fact at Stanford offer an acting class taught by my colleague Deborah Gruenfeld that’s called "Acting with Power."  I teach one of my sessions in my class.  It’s called "Acting with Power" and I bring in a professional actor named Bill English and he teaches these students how to express emotions that they may not feel, so let’s say you’ve shown up one day at work and you’re boyfriend or girlfriend has left you or you had trouble with your kids.  The people in your workplace aren’t necessarily that interested in the bad things that have happened to you.  They want for you to demonstrate to them that you care about them, that the organization is in great shape, and that we have all these wonderful things to achieve. And so you have to sometimes exhibit energy even when you’re tired.  You have to sometimes exhibit good humor even when you’re sad and depressed. So yes, it’s really very important to be able to exhibit emotions even if you’re not feeling them at that moment.  

  How can people network better?

Jeffrey Pfeffer:  Well first and most important networking essential is kind of obvious, but I think it’s something that people find very hard to do.  Most of us like to spend our time with our close friends.  Why not?  Or with our family, why not?  The problem with close friends and family is that they are people that you already know well and if you spend all your time with people that you already know well and who already like you, how are you going to make new friends and meet new people. And also your friends and family probably know pretty much the same people you know and the same information that you already know, so you don’t really get a broadening in your perspective, so there is an argument that talks about the strength of weak ties, that you actually are more likely to find a job from someone who you are very loosely and tangentially connected to than from somebody who you’re really close to.

So it’s very important for you to meet people in a diverse set of industries and a diverse set of companies and a diverse set of geographies so that you broaden out the scope of people that you tie and to whom you have ties even if those ties are relatively weak and then ping them once in awhile.  Just be back in touch with them on an occasional basis to renew the acquaintance, to share a little bit of information.  Send them a Christmas card.  Send them an email occasionally to tell them what you’re doing and keep in relatively loose touch and that way you can have access to a diverse set of information and people, which is much better.  I mean it’s the same idea as in a financial market.  Just as you would not want to put all your financial eggs in one undiversified basket you would not want to put all your human capital eggs in a relatively undiversified basket of just your close friends and family.

How does perception influence power?

Jeffrey Pfeffer:  Perception becomes reality.  You know if I believe you are the most effective person at what you do: Bumber one, the most talented people are going to want to work with you.  Number two, people are going to want to back you and give you resources and over time if you get lots of resources and lots of talent working with you, you actually become more successful.

And I do think if you look at CEOs, including some iconic CEOs, a part of this is a matter of them being very successful in building their public image.  A lot of this has very little to do with the realities of how their organizations have performed or the realities of how they have behaved.  This is really... so perception actually does become reality.  You know if everybody thinks that the Apple products are the coolest products in the world, everybody buys the Apple products and they become the coolest products.  I mean this is fundamentally like marketing 101 and the interesting issue is that you need to market yourself and you need to have a personal brand and a personal brand strategy just as much as Apple or Google or anybody else has a brand and a strategy.  You know if everybody thinks Google is the search engine everybody searches on Google and it has the dominant view in search, then it becomes the dominant search engine and the thing cycles, so there are a lot of self-reinforcing dynamics in getting and keeping power, so I’m a big believer in having a public relations strategy early in your career.  

Question:  How can someone gain power today?

Jeffrey Pfeffer:  Everything we’ve talked about really is something that I think somebody could do today.  You can start today to figure out who are the 10 people I don’t know who if I knew it would be helpful for my career and how am I going to meet them.  How am I going to get out of my comfort zone to meet people in diverse geographies and industries and different positions?  So you can start today to build your network.  You can’t start today to assemble if you will, a personal board of directors to give you honest feedback on your qualities that are related to building power and ask yourself or ask you and ask them what am I good at, what am I weak at and how do I begin today with a personal development plan to play to my strengths and buttress my weaknesses, what do I do today to learn how to become a better actor to act with more confidence, to speak more powerfully and that is something again you can begin today.  You can begin today to understand that if you want help just ask, so ask that you can being today, ask people for help and advice.  So basically everything I’ve talked about you should not only can you start it today, but you really should.  I think we have many ways of putting off for the indefinite future things that we ought to be doing now, and now is a pretty good time to start.

Are Millennials prepared to succeed in the workforce?

Jeffrey Pfeffer:  No, I think the millennials are for the most part—and this is the experience of some coaches, executive coaches who I’ve talked to—I think the millennials are actually amazingly unprepared for today’s world of power.  That is because the millenials have been mostly raised in a world in which competition... they haven’t faced very much. So as one of my former students said to me, “I quit the varsity swimming team because if there were eight people in the race eight people got ribbons.” 

And you may be familiar with the recent New York Times article which talks about the fact that high schools have given up in many instances the idea of having a single valedictorian, so I think the title of the article is "How Many Valedictorians Does it Take to be Number One?" With the idea being that schools think that picking a single valedictorian is much too "harsh" on those people who don’t win and you know we don’t want to single anybody out too much.

And so I think many of the young generation are not really used to the competitive environment and the idea that even though organizations may have flattened out some there is still only one CEO.  There is only one school superintendent.  There is only one congressional representative from each district, so competition still exists. And I think a lot of the current generation has become woefully unprepared for competition because they’re not really placed in these kinds of competitive contexts quite as much.

Is business becoming more competitive?

Jeffrey Pfeffer:  I actually think it’s growing.  Lots of organizations are telling new entrants "Well, you know this is not a really hierarchical organization."  Well, but of course, that isn’t true.  The irony is, is that to the extent organizations have removed layers of management there are fewer and fewer opportunities for promotion and therefore there is actually more competition rather than less and also as the economic environment has gotten more and more difficult—you know, there has been more and more layoffs, jobs are scarcer and scarcer—the competition for the jobs that remain has become more intense, so ironically the resource scarcity and the de-layering have combined to make the competitive dynamics that people face way more severe than they used to be.

  How can companies attract power-driven employees?

Jeffrey Pfeffer:  I think the number one thing that organizations really ought to do and a few of them—Hewlett-Packard being one—have begun to do this, but actually not many, is to give people more training in the skills of power, in the acting and speaking skills we’ve been talking about, in the networking skills we’ve been talking about and how to diagnose social networks and all of these things. Because power is a skill like any other skill—skiing, roller-skating—that can be learned and I think companies to the extent that they want people more effective in their leadership roles and better able to get things done would be very well served to spend more time training people in power.  

  How can the skills of power be taught?

Jeffrey Pfeffer: The short answer it will look pretty much like my class that I teach at Stanford you know.  Literally I mean this is what I’ve been doing for 30 years is training people in the power skills. 

It would be training people in understanding organizational dynamics and why it’s important.  It would be training people in what are qualities, individual qualities that produce power and how to do individual self assessments.  It would be training people in networking and a network analysis.  It would be training people in acting and speaking with power.  It would be training people in how power is lost, so that they would not hopefully fall into those traps.  It would certainly be training people in the tradeoff you know and understanding that if you want to be liked by everybody all the time you probably aren’t going to be able to get as much power as you would like.

So it’s training people in a set of skills and a set of if you will, conceptual understanding of what power is and so that they’re better able and more comfortable with it.  A lot of this is really around desensitization. You know, you need to desensitize people so that they are comfortable with power, so that they can kind of if you will, make friends with power rather than thinking of it as the organization’s last dirty secret and something that they would never do.  

Are power-driven people better leaders too?

Jeffrey Pfeffer:  Well, actually some of what got them there may keep them there.  When people reach positions of great power I think they often don’t really understand some of the downsides that come with that and some of the stresses and tensions that they will face. 

One of the downsides is they’re going to be watched all the time.  You know, take the Mark Hurd thing with Hewlett-Packard.  You become CEO of a major corporation, there is no such thing as a private dinner.  There is no such thing as off-time.  You are in some sense always onstage.  You know Barack Obama, heads of large nonprofit organizations... people are always watching you. And so therefore you have to kind of follow the Andy Grove book title, "Only the Paranoid Survive" and you need to be pretty paranoid all the time. 

Secondly, when you make a mistake people aren’t going to cut you any slack when you’re in that position, so you have to be I think much more attentive and much more on guard and much more paranoid than you do when you’re in a lower level position.  The other thing that happens, people get into great positions and positions of huge power and they say "Wow, the rules don’t apply to me anymore." And they become insensitive to the feelings and needs of those around them.  They come to believe that the rules don’t apply to them.  They become grossly overconfident.  They become consumed with their own ego and therefore they get sloppy and they make mistakes and they therefore lose power. And so the irony is that not too many people are trying to become me, but lots of people are going to try to become a CEO, and so to the extent that you become.. you get into a position of great power you have to understand that essentially everybody who works under you probably believes that they can do their job better than you can, and so you need to be attentive to the threats that you’re facing and the fact that you have much more rivalry and there is much more envy and people maneuvering to get your job.

Recorded September 21, 2010

Interviewed by John Cookson