Within organizations it is often called different things — influence, authority or responsibility — but make no mistake, power is a real phenomenon in corporate America. There are many fancy definitions of power, but in reality, it is the ability to influence behavior, change the course of events, overcome resistance, allocate resources and get others to do things they might not normally do. Power is the drive to have more control over one’s work environment.
In my opinion, the reason we don’t see more minorities at higher levels in corporate America is because most of us still struggle to understand power. We don’t know how to acquire it or how to wield it effectively when we have it. We need to teach young minority professionals how to leverage power sooner in their careers. Because minorities tend to lack knowledge about power, we often fail to recognize opportunities to seize it within our organizations. Worse still are those situations when we obtain power but don’t know how to use it, and thus squander it.
In Price Cobbs’ book about African-American executives, Cracking the Corporate Code, he described how successful black corporate leaders learned how power works in organizations. “The amount of power a person has is a major determinant of their ability to get things done. Successful African-Americans are often the ones who have obtained enough power to control their work environment,” Cobbs said.
However, minorities are still learning that every organizational transaction is a statement of who has or does not have power. Another fact minorities need to learn is that the quest for power always involves engaging in some sort of conflict or disagreement. When minorities are conflict-averse, they find it even more challenging to understand power, let alone how to acquire it.
What Cobbs and others are saying is that unless minorities believe strongly in the importance of gaining power, they tend to hang back and respond passively in the power game. When minorities’ hearts aren’t into the pursuit of power, they tend to fall behind others who are actively looking to obtain it.
Those of us in positions to develop and mentor the next generation of leaders need to help minorities demonstrate how powerful they are. This will help discard a victim mentality which leaves minorities powerless. I offer these recommendations to help minorities become more powerful:
• Since the acquisition of power involves conflict, we must improve minorities’ abilities to engage in and, in some cases, invite conflict more effectively.
• Remind our young minority leaders that they shouldn’t rely on their employers to dictate their careers, nor should they believe their company will take care of them. Have them take more ownership. Have them identify what they want, what they are willing to do to get it and what is the least they will accept.
• It’s never too early to teach minorities how to acquire and wield power. Have young professionals examine their relationships with power within their families or in their communities as a way to learn how they have dealt with power situations in the past to shape their power relationships moving forward.
• Have minorities build endurance and teach them how to focus. Powerful people bring energy and strength to every endeavor, and this requires stamina. Also, have minorities develop the ability to be single minded in pursuit of a goal by filtering out diversions.
• Have minorities study the power structure within their organization. Which individuals and business units have power and why? Learn the insider game.
• Finally, have minorities decide what power method suits them best. Some can use expert power; others may be able to leverage charismatic power. Whatever method they use to acquire power, they must then learn how to use it.
As Cobbs reminds us, power is morally neutral. It can be used in positive and negative ways. But let’s not forget that once we acquire power, members of our extended community expect us to use it.
Robert Rodriguez is president of DRR Advisors LLC, a management and diversity consulting firm, and author of Latino Talent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.