Wish You Were Here
Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: May/June 2010
Preparing For Power
By: Michael Bennett
When I sat down to write this article, Barack Obama was one week away from becoming leader of the free world. Obama’s inauguration left current and future generations asking the time honored question “where were you when?” Where were you when man landed on the moon? Where were you when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier? The tectonic plates of global power have shifted creating a tsunami of goodwill, great expectations and a new power structure in Washington that’s resonated the world over. No longer will it seem odd or strange that a person of color is a leader.

President Obama has already proven that a universal message of hope, prosperity and a willingness to bring people together transcends this country’s entrenched divisiveness. While some will still be tempted to flame segregation along race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, red state versus blue state, rich versus poor and all the other categories of division we have fallen prey to over the course of history, Obama has set the ground work for a reconstitution of these worn out paradigms that weaken us all. That is leadership. That is power.

But just as important as the message is the messenger. How is it that a skinny Black kid from Hawaii turned into the man carrying the hopes and dreams of a world on his shoulders? A virtual unknown at the beginning of the decade, President Obama’s meteoric rise to the top got my publisher and I thinking about preparing for power.

How do you prepare for power and seize the opportunity when it arises? Why Obama? Why now? Certainly power transcends the White House. CEOs have power. Governors and other elected leaders have power. Managers and coaches of athletic teams have power. CVB presidents have power. What makes some leaders better than others?

I’ve read both of President Obama’s books. And while he doesn’t specifically mention running for the White House, you see a man discovering, learning, applying his talents and where he’s deficient taking the necessary steps to gain the skills that led him to the pinnacle of power. Individual characteristics play a huge role in successful leadership and power starting with knowledge and information. It’s more than obtaining a formal education with graduate degrees. It’s the practical application of knowledge acquired through formal and informal education that has proven most beneficial. How many of you have degrees, while necessary, does not accurately reflect the reality of the workplace?

Hand-in-hand with formal education is access to key people and sources of information. No one in position of power has done so in a vacuum of isolation. Leaders tap into sources inside and outside of our respective organizations. Many of you have come to call this networking.  Networking is equally as important as knowledge and information. Sitting on boards, working with non-profits and becoming members of various trade organizations are just the tip of the iceberg. Think about your church or your kid’s Parent Teachers Association. Every time you step out the door is a potential networking opportunity. Not only does President Obama have a fantastic formal education, he worked as a community organizer leveraging all his contacts to improve the south side of Chicago. Think about the local school board he served on. All of his contacts led to further opportunities in state and national government.

Another core element of individual characteristics is personal attraction. And by personal attraction I don’t me the physical beauty of Beyonce or Denzel Washington. Many of our best leaders have an infectious and engaging personality. They’re agreeable, pleasant to be around and characteristically have a positive can-do attitude. It many cases their dress and personal appearance are above reproach, without having to spend thousands at the boutique or men’s fashion store. These are all traits we control. Most of us weren’t born with these traits they were developed over time. Be true to yourself, but develop them you must.

Work hard at your chosen profession regardless of the size of the project or task at hand. Nothing says leader more than someone willing to role up his or her sleeves and get dirty, regardless of whether you are the executive vice president or junior level employee with no supervisory responsibility. We’ve all heard the stories of being underappreciated for hard work. I’ve certainly felt that way, until someone convinced me to do it for myself. It sets the table for future opportunities and a mindset that in the long run should prove valuable to career advancement.

Today’s work environment is different from the one we inherited from our parents. Gone are the days of working for the same employer until retirement and hoping the boss recognizes our accomplishments. In today’s work environment everyone up the food chain including the CEO is often worrying about longevity and career advancement. Workers used to be punished for changing companies often. My own father, who will be 70 this year nearly had a heart attack each and every time I called to tell him I was changing companies.

Today, changing companies and professions occurs as often as we change our shirt and in many cases is the only way to gain career advancement, leadership, responsibility and power. How often have we observed senior managers or politicians jump ship in search of power, responsibility and influence? Often times, these senior managers bring subordinates from previous employers along and give them increased power. This could be your ticket to the top. Sports, especially the National Football League is a prime example. How many retread coaches go from one team to the next and bring along subordinates from their previous team?

Let’s say you’ve moved into a leadership position. You’ve worked hard, you continually educate yourself, you get along great with your co-workers and supervisors, but now your role has changed. You are now responsible for influencing people to produce positive results. First level supervisors have the toughest job in any organization. You are being pulled in multiple directions and no one seems to appreciate the middle ground you navigate. Most first level supervisors want desperately to get promoted to the next level to escape the tug-o-war.  This is now your opportunity to exercise power. Some of what I’m about to suggest seems somewhat selfish, but they are necessary steps as you build your skill set further to accept increased responsibility later.

First, structure the work flow of all subordinates and the flow of information through you. In this way you can improve your communications skills with supervisors and subordinates. I’m not suggesting you take credit for subordinates work, in fact quite the opposite. Lets face it, a successful leader is no greater than the sum talents of their subordinates regardless of the “its all about me” ego of leaders we see reflected in news or portrayed in television and film. But your role as supervisor is to get the job done, advance the mission at hand and make sure senior management is aware of your efforts without mistreating your people. You lead, you delegate and when necessary you teach.

Next, look for opportunities to streamline the position, to make it more efficient, initiate innovative projects. Get involved early in the decision making process. I know countless people who have come up with great ideas, pitched them to senior management and wound up running entire projects. It’s a chance to show off your project management and people skills. Even if you don’t get the proper credit at your current employer, it’s a great carrot to dangle in front of your new employer.

Without visibility, nothing I’ve mentioned before or after will matter. You must increase your interactions with senior people. Learn to market yourself without being obnoxious. Some suggestions include making oral presentations, publicizing your accomplishments through trade groups, being in the right place at the right time, becoming part of a problem solving team. I used to get really angry when Joe Co-Worker always seemed to appear if by magic every time there was a major project of high visibility to perform. He studied his business and the company he worked for and kept his pulse on everything going on inside and outside the company.

And finally, make yourself relevant. Expand your own boundaries. Look for ways to ingratiate yourself with those senior to you without looking desperate or creating those encounters just because. This relevancy can extend outside your company as well. Maybe you have that special client who really seems to appreciate your contribution to the success of their organization.
Okay, you’ve acquired all the prerequisite skills, your educated, you network like crazy, you work hard, you’re a great motivator and everyone loves you, but you have yet to maximize your full potential as a leader. You feel power if utilized effectively can lead to some great accomplishment and you want in, but you have not advanced, why?

I was recently forwarded an excerpt from a book called “The Science of Opportunity: Being in the Right Place at the Right Time,” by Howard I. Melamed. Melamed is an author, businessman, inventor and motivational speaker. You can learn more about him at scienceofopportunity.com. I was particularly struck by the title of chapter four in his book “Fishing in the Right Pond.” It sums up the idea of recognizing and seizing opportunity. The analogy he uses is that of a fisherman.

Does the fisherman simply sit on the shoreline with a heated pan holding it over a stream waiting for the fish to jump into the pan ready to eat, of course not? The opportunity to reel in dinner is on the lake. But lets say the fisherman jumps in his boat, heads to the lake and still doesn’t get a bite. Does he quit, of course not? The smart fisherman simply moves to a different spot and tries again. He knows there are plenty of fish in the lake he just has to keep searching until he finds just the right spot.

One of the things I’ve noticed about most who are in power is they are bold and unafraid, at least on the outside, and they have all failed. They try and try again until they get a bite. Barack Obama lost his first election. Ronald Reagan lost his first bid for president. Bill Clinton lost an election back in Arkansas. Many a successful businessperson has suffered through failed businesses or bankruptcy. The number of professional athletes who win championships in their respective sports is small.  As Melamed’s story of the fisherman continued, he pointed out, we are all fisherman in our own pond of opportunity. We might not find a fish right away and when we do, it might be something smaller than expected. Sometimes power requires us to reel in the small fish to get the big fish later.
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