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Millennials Are “Amazingly Unprepared” for the World of Power

Question: 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.

Question:  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

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