Power Why Some People Have It—and Others Don’t
To the Amazing Kathleen
Contents Author’s Note
Introduction: Be Prepared for Power
1 It Takes More Than Performance
2 The Personal Qualities That Bring Influence
3 Choosing Where to Start
4 Getting In: Standing Out and Breaking Some Rules
5 Making Something out of Nothing: Creating Resources
6 Building Efficient and Effective Social Networks
7 Acting and Speaking with Power
8 Building a Reputation: Perception Is Reality
9 Overcoming Opposition and Setbacks
10 The Price of Power
11 How—and Why—People Lose Power
12 Power Dynamics: Good for Organizations, Good for You?
13 It’s Easier Than You Think
For Further Reading and Learning
About the Author
Other Books by Jeffrey Pfeffer
About the Publisher
This book is about real people who have been kind enough to share their stories with me over
the years. In most instances, I have used their real names—in some instances they are public
figures and some of the material comes from public sources. However, in a few cases, at the
request of my sources, I have changed the names of people and, less frequently, other
identifying information to protect their anonymity.
Introduction: Be Prepared for Power
ALMOST ANYTHING is possible in attaining positions of power. You can get yourself into a high-
power position even under the most unlikely circumstances if you have the requisite skill.
Consider the case of a real person we’ll call Anne. Coming out of business school, Anne wantedto lead a high technology start-up. But Anne had no technology background. She was anaccountant and had neither studied nor worked in the high-tech sector. Not only that, prior toher business education she had practiced public-sector accounting—she had been a senioraccountant working in an important agency in a small foreign country and she was now focusingher aspirations on Silicon Valley in California. Nonetheless, Anne was able to accomplish hergoal by making some very smart power plays.
Success began with preparation. While most of her compatriots took the entrepreneurial classesoffered in the business school, Anne took a class in the engineering school on starting newventures. With that one move she altered the power dynamics and her bargaining leverage. In thebusiness school class, there were about three MBAs for every engineer, while in the engineeringschool course, there was only about one MBA for every four engineers. She explained that MBAswere unwilling to walk all the way over to the engineering building. Not only did she want toimprove her bargaining position, Anne wanted to take a class closer to the laboratories, wheretechnology was being developed and where she was more likely to run into interestingopportunities. Because of the pressure from the professor and the venture capitalists whojudged the business plans that were the central part of the course to get MBA skills reflectedin that work, Anne had bargaining leverage in her chosen environment.
After interviewing a number of project teams, Anne joined a group that was working on asoftware product that improved existing software performance without requiring lots of capitalinvestment in new hardware. She had not developed the technology, of course, and joined theteam notwithstanding some disdain for her skills on the part of her engineering colleagues.
Having found a spot, Anne was then very patient and let the others on her team come torecognize her value to them. The team—she was the only woman—initially wanted to target theproduct at a relatively small market that already had three dominant players. Anne showed themdata indicating this was not a good idea, but went along with the group’s wishes to focus onthis first market in their class presentation. The presentation got creamed by the venturecapitalists. As a result, the engineers began to think that Anne might know something of actualvalue. When the course was over, the team continued to work on their idea and got a small seedgrant from a venture capital firm to develop the business over the summer. Anne, the bestwriter on the team, took the lead in putting together the funding pitch.
Anne was graduating with an offer from a major consulting firm. She told her team about theoffer, thus letting them know she had much higher paid options so they would appreciate her andrealize that she could make a credible threat to quit. She also intentionally let the engineerstry to do things that she knew how to do proficiently—such as making presentations and doingfinancial projections—so they could see these tasks weren’t as easy as they thought. Anneused her accounting and business expertise to review the articles of incorporation for the newcompany and the funding documents for its financing. Meanwhile, she gathered lots of externalinformation and, being more social than the engineers, built a strong external network in theindustry they were set to target. Her outside contacts helped the team get funding after thesummer was over and the initial seed grant had run out.
Anne had more than business skills—she was also politically savvy and tough. When classes wereover and the team was setting up the company, there was one other competitor for the CEOposition. Anne told her colleagues she wouldn’t join the company if he was named CEO. To showshe was serious and to gain further leverage, she had her colleagues meet with other MBAs whomight be possible replacements for her. Because she had spent lots of time working with theteam, eating lots of pizza and bad Mexican food, the group felt much more comfortable withAnne. In the end she became co-CEO and found funding for the product at a hedge fund. Althoughthere is no guarantee the business or product will be successful, Anne achieved her goal ofbecoming the leader of a promising high-tech start-up less than a year after graduating frombusiness school, overcoming some significant initial resistance and deficits in her backgroundalong the way.
In contrast to Anne, you may have lots of job-relevant talent and interpersonal skills butnevertheless wind up in a position with little power, because you are unwilling or unable toplay the power game. Beth graduated from a very high status undergraduate institution and anequally prestigious business school about 20 years ago. When I caught up with her she had justleft the nonprofit she was working for after a new executive director took over. The new bosswas a friend of several of the nonprofit’s board members and had once worked with Beth. He sawher competence as a threat and was willing to pay her a decent severance to get her out of theway.
Beth has experienced a “nonlinear” career after her MBA, punctuated by several spells ofunemployment as well as some periods of great job satisfaction. She has yet to attain a stableleadership position in her chosen field, even though she has held senior jobs in government—onCapitol Hill and in the White House. The issue, as she explained it to me, was herunwillingness to play organizational politics, or at least to do so with the consistent focusand energy and maybe even the relentlessness evidenced in Anne’s story. “Jeffrey, it’s atough world out there,” Beth said. “People take credit for the work of others. People mostlylook out for their own careers, often at the expense of the place where they work. The self-promoters get rewarded. Nobody told me that my coworkers would come to the office each day witha driving agenda to protect and then expand their turf. I guess I haven’t been willing to bemean enough or calculating enough or to sacrifice things I believed in order to be successful,at least as success is often measured.”
Systematic empirical research confirms what these two contrasting stories, as well as commonsense and everyday experience, suggest: being politically savvy and seeking power are relatedto career success and even to managerial performance. For instance, one study investigated theprimary motivations of managers and their professional success. One group of managers wereprimarily motivated by a need for affiliation—they were more interested in being liked thangetting things done. A second group were primarily motivated by a need for achievement—goalattainment for themselves. And a third group were primarily interested in power. The evidenceshowed that this third group, the managers primarily interested in power, were the mosteffective, not only in achieving positions of influence inside companies but also inaccomplishing their jobs.1 In another example, Gerald Ferris of Florida State University andcolleagues have developed an eighteen-item political skills inventory. Research on 35 schooladministrators in the midwestern United States and 474 branch managers of a national financialservices firm showed that people who had more political skill received higher performanceevaluations and were rated as more effective leaders.2
So welcome to the real world—not necessarily the world we want, but the world that exists. Itcan be a tough world out there and building and using power are useful organizational survivalskills. There is a lot of zero-sum competition for status and jobs. Most organizations haveonly one CEO, there is only one managing partner in professional services firms, only oneschool superintendent in each district, only one prime minister or president at a time—you getthe picture. With more well-qualified people competing for each step on the organizationalladder all the time, rivalry is intense and only getting more so as there are fewer and fewermanagement positions.
Some of the individuals competing for advancement bend the rules of fair play or ignore themcompletely. Don’t complain about this or wish the world were different. You can compete andeven triumph in organizations of all types, large and small, public or private sector, if youunderstand the principles of power and are willing to use them. Your task is to know how toprevail in the political battles you will face. My job in this book is to tell you how.
WHY YOU SHOULD WANT POWER
Obtaining and holding on to power can be hard work. You need to be thoughtful and strategic,resilient, alert, willing to fight when necessary. As Beth’s story illustrates, the world issometimes not a very nice or fair place, and while Anne got the position she wanted, she had toexpend effort and demonstrate patience and interpersonal toughness to do so—to hang in withpeople who initially didn’t particularly respect her abilities. Why not just eschew power,
keep your head down, and take what life throws at you?
First of all, having power is related to living a longer and healthier life. When MichaelMarmot examined the mortality from heart disease among British civil servants, he noticed aninteresting fact: the lower the rank or civil service grade of the employee, the higher theage-adjusted mortality risk. Of course many things covary with someone’s position in anorganizational hierarchy, including the incidence of smoking, dietary habits, and so forth.However, Marmot and his colleagues found that only about a quarter of the observed variation indeath rate could be accounted for by rank-related differences in smoking, cholesterol, bloodpressure, obesity, and physical activity.3 What did matter was power and status—things thatprovided people greater control over their work environments. Studies consistently showed thatthe degree of job control, such as decision authority and discretion to use one’s skills,predicted the incidence and mortality risk from coronary artery disease over the next five ormore years. In fact, how much job control and status people had accounted for more of thevariation in mortality from heart disease than did physiological factors such as obesity andblood pressure.
These findings shouldn’t be that surprising to you. Not being able to control one’senvironment produces feelings of helplessness and stress,4 and feeling stressed or “out ofcontrol” can harm your health. So being in a position with low power and status is indeedhazardous to your health, and conversely, having power and the control that comes with itprolongs life.5
Second, power, and the visibility and stature that accompany power, can produce wealth. WhenBill and Hillary Clinton left the White House in 2001, they had little money and faced millionsin legal bills. What they did have was celebrity and a vast network of contacts that came fromholding positions of substantial power for a long time. In the ensuing eight years, theClintons earned $109 million, primarily from speaking fees and book deals, as well as throughthe investment opportunities made available to them because of their past positions.6 RudyGiuliani, following his tenure as mayor of New York City, became a partner in a securityconsulting firm, and through that firm and his speaking fees, he too quickly transformed hiseconomic status for the better. Not all power is monetized—neither Martin Luther King Jr. norMahatma Gandhi traded on their celebrity to attain great wealth—but the potential is alwaysthere.
Third, power is part of leadership and is necessary to get things done—whether those thingsentail changing the U.S. health-care system, transforming organizations so they are more humaneplaces to work, or affecting dimensions of social policy and human welfare. As the late JohnGardner, the founder of Common Cause and former secretary of health, education, and welfareunder President Lyndon Johnson, noted, power is a part of leadership. Therefore, leaders areinvariably preoccupied with power.7
Power is desirable to many, albeit not all, people, for what it can provide and also as a goalin and of itself. The social psychologist David McClelland wrote about a need for power.Although the strength of that power motive obviously varies across individuals, along with aneed for achievement, McClelland considered power seeking a fundamental human drive, found inpeople from many cultures.8 If you are going to seek power, you will be happier if you areeffective in that quest.
To be effective in figuring out your path to power and to actually use what you learn, you mustfirst get past three major obstacles. The first two are the belief that the world is a justplace and the hand-me-down formulas on leadership that largely reflect this misguided belief.The third obstacle is yourself.
STOP THINKING THE WORLD IS A JUST PLACE
Many people conspire in their own deception about the organizational world in which they live.That’s because people prefer to believe that the world is a just and fair place and thateveryone gets what he or she deserves. And since people tend to think they themselves aredeserving, they come to think that if they just do a good job and behave appropriately, things
will take care of themselves. Moreover, when they observe others doing things they consider tobe inappropriate, self-aggrandizing, or “pushing the envelope,” most people do not seeanything to be learned, believing that even if those people are successful at the moment, inthe end they will be brought down.
The belief in a just world has two big negative effects on the ability to acquire power. First,it hinders people’s ability to learn from all situations and all people, even those whom theydon’t like or respect. I see this all the time in my teaching and work with leaders. One ofthe first reactions people have to situations or cases about power is whether or not theindividual “likes” the person being studied or can identify with the object of study. Whocares? It is important to be able to learn from all sorts of situations and people, not justthose you like and approve of, and certainly not just from people you see as similar toyourself. In fact, if you are in a position of modest power and want to attain a position ofgreat power, you need to pay particular attention to those holding the positions you aspire to.
Second, this belief that the world is a just place anesthetizes people to the need to beproactive in building a power base. Believing that the world is fair, people fail to note thevarious land mines in the environment that can undermine their careers. Consider the case ofJim Walker, hired to build up Nomura Securities’ Asian equity operation in Hong Kong in thelate 1990s. By many measures, Walker was quite successful, recruiting outstanding analysts andgarnering a strong ranking for the company’s research team as well as increasing its profits.A charismatic leader who built a flat organization focused on merit and business results, henevertheless failed to appreciate the political nature of the environment in which he wasworking. Confronted with opposition, rivalry, and some setbacks that cost him a degree ofcontrol, Walker left Nomura. “At the root of this latest departure is a misunderstanding.Walker misunderstood how unyielding and political Nomura can be.”9
The pervasiveness of the belief in a just world, called in social psychology the “just-worldhypothesis,” was first described by Melvin Lerner decades ago.10 Lerner argued that peoplewanted to think that the world was predictable and comprehensible and, therefore, potentiallycontrollable. Or, as another psychologist described it, from early childhood “we learn to be‘good and in control’ people.”11 How else could we navigate a world that is random andcan’t be controlled without feeling thwarted and frustrated much of the time? The desire forcontrol and predictability results in a tendency to see the world as a just place because ajust world is one that is also understandable and predictable. Behave by the rules and you willbe all right; fail to follow the rules and bad things will happen.
The just-world hypothesis holds that most people believe that “people get what they deserve;that is, that the good people are likely to be rewarded and the bad to be punished. Mostimportant, the phenomenon works in reverse: if someone is seen to prosper, there is a socialpsychological tendency for observers to decide that the lucky person must have done somethingto deserve his good fortune. He or she becomes a better person…simply by virtue of theobserved rewards.”12 Conversely, if something bad happens to someone, “the belief in a justworld causes the conclusion that the victim must have been a bad person.”13 This latter effectcreates the frequently observed phenomenon of “blaming the victim,” in which people findthings that justify the bad events that happen to targets of crimes or corporate misfortunes.And the opposite is also true: success, however achieved, will promote efforts to find the manypositive virtues in those who are successful—thereby justifying their success.
There are literally scores of experiments and field studies that show the just-world effect.Many of the original studies examined the opinions held by participants of people who wererandomly chosen by the experimenter to receive an electric shock or some other form ofpunishment. The research showed that others were more likely to reject the (randomly) punishedpeople and to see them as lacking in social worth—even though the observers knew those
punished had received their bad outcomes purely by chance! Moreover, victims of random bad luckgot stigmatized: “Children who receive subsidized school lunches are thought to be less ablestudents than those not in the lunch program; ugly college students are believed less capableof piloting a private plane than pretty ones; welfare recipients are often treated as if they
are untrustworthy or incapable of managing any aspect of their lives.”14
As soon as you recognize the just-world effect and its influence on your perceptions and try tocombat the tendency to see the world as inherently fair, you will be able to learn more inevery situation and be more vigilant and proactive to ensure your own success.
BEWARE OF THE LEADERSHIP LITERATURE
The next obstacle you will need to overcome is the leadership literature. Most books by well-known executives and most lectures and courses about leadership should be stamped CAUTION: THISMATERIAL CAN BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR ORGANIZATIONAL SURVIVAL. That’s because leaders toutingtheir own careers as models to be emulated frequently gloss over the power plays they actuallyused to get to the top. Meanwhile, the teaching on leadership is filled with prescriptionsabout following an inner compass, being truthful, letting inner feelings show, being modest andself-effacing, not behaving in a bullying or abusive way—in short, prescriptions about how
wish the world and the powerful behaved. There is no doubt that the world would be apeople
much better, more humane place if people were always authentic, modest, truthful, andconsistently concerned for the welfare of others instead of pursuing their own aims. But thatworld doesn’t exist.
As a guide for obtaining power, these recommendations are flawed. Most CEOs are not the level 5leaders described by Jim Collins in Good to Great as helping to take companies up the
performance curve—individuals who are “self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy,” who getthe best out of employees by not soaking up all the limelight and making all the decisions.15The rarity of such leaders may be why so few organizations go from good to great. And evenCollins begins his story when these paragons were already in the CEO position—the road to thetop may require different behavior than being successful once you have arrived. For mostleaders, the path to power bears little resemblance to the advice being dished out.
The pablum in most leadership books and courses can be reduced to three causes. First, leaderssuch as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani or former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, writingbooks and articles about themselves, may believe they are being inspirational and eventruthful.16 But leaders are great at self-presentation, at telling people what they thinkothers want to hear, and in coming across as noble and good. This ability to effectively self-present is why successful individuals reached high levels in the first place. In the storiestold either directly in autobiographies or indirectly in the case studies found in leadershipbooks, leaders overemphasize their positive attributes and leave out the negative qualities andbehaviors.
Two other factors help ensure that the positive stories persist. Those in power get to writehistory, to paraphrase an old saw. As we will discover in a later chapter, one of the best waysto acquire and maintain power is to construct a positive image and reputation, in part bycoopting others to present you as successful and effective. Second, lots of research showsevidence of a particular manifestation of the just-world effect: if people know that someone orsome organization has been successful, they will almost automatically attribute to thatindividual or company all kinds of positive qualities and behaviors. Although it is far fromevident that doing the stuff in the leadership books will make you successful, once you becomesuccessful, odds are vastly increased that people will selectively remember and attend to thepositive characteristics they believe make good leaders.17 Stories of success that emphasize“positive” behaviors help us believe the world is a just place. Also, we see what we expectto see—imputing to successful individuals qualities that we think are associated with success,even if such qualities aren’t actually there.
So don’t automatically buy into advice from leaders. It could be accurate, but more likely itis just self-serving. People distort reality. One study found that out of 1,000 resumés, therewere substantial misstatements on more than 40 percent.18 If people make up educationalqualifications and previous job experience—stuff that can actually be verified—do you thinkeveryone is completely honest when they describe aspects of their behavior and character thatare more difficult to discover?
should trust is the social science research that provides help on how to acquireWhat you
power, hold on to it, and use it. And you should trust your own experience: Watch those aroundyou who are succeeding, those who are failing, and those who are just treading water. Figureout what’s different about them and what they are doing differently. That’s a great way tobuild your diagnostic skill—something useful in becoming an organizational survivor.
GET OUT OF YOUR OWN WAY
The third big obstacle to acquiring power is, believe it or not, you. People are often theirown worst enemy, and not just in the arena of building power. That’s in part because peoplelike to feel good about themselves and maintain a positive self-image. And ironically, one ofthe best ways for people to preserve their self-esteem is to either preemptively surrender ordo other things that put obstacles in their own way.
There is an immense research literature about this phenomenon—called “self-handicapping.”19The logic is deceptively simple. People desire to feel good about themselves and theirabilities. Obviously, any experience of failure puts their self-esteem at risk. However, ifpeople intentionally choose to do things that could plausibly diminish their performance, thenany subsequent performance decrements can be explained away as not reflecting their innateabilities. So, for instance, told that a test is highly diagnostic of their intellectualability, some people will choose to not practice or study the relevant material, therebydecreasing their performance but also providing an excuse for poor performance that doesn’timplicate their natural ability. Similarly, if someone doesn’t actively seek a powerfulposition, the fact that he or she doesn’t obtain it will not signal some personal shortcomingor failure but instead a conscious choice. So, Beth’s apparent unwillingness to “play thepower game” protects her from the self-esteem consequences of possibly failing in that effort.
There is evidence that the tendency to self-handicap is an individual difference and predictsthe extent to which people make excuses about their performance.20 Research shows, notsurprisingly, that self-handicapping behavior negatively affects subsequent task performance.21Therefore, our desire to protect our self-image by placing external impediments in our way sowe can attribute any setbacks to things outside our control actually contributes to doing lesswell. Keep this idea about self-handicapping in mind as you read this book—you will be moreopen-minded about the content and also more likely to actually try some of the things youlearn.
Self-handicapping and preemptively giving up or not trying are more pervasive than you mightthink. Having taught material on power for decades, I have come to believe that the biggestsingle effect I can have is to get people to try to become powerful. That’s because people are
afraid of setbacks and the implications for their self-image, so they often don’t do all theycan to increase their power.
So get over yourself and get beyond your concerns with self-image or, for that matter, theperception others have of you. Others aren’t worrying or thinking about you that much anyway.They are mostly concerned with themselves. The absence of practice or efforts to achieveinfluence may help you maintain a good view of yourself, but it won’t help you get to the top.
A GUIDE TO USING THIS BOOK
Not all organizations have identical political cultures, and not all individuals are the same,either. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which much of the management advice proffered ispresented as universally true. And unfortunately, many people are looking for simple, universalformulas for action that will work equally well in all circumstances. How you behave and whatyou should do needs to fit your particular circumstances—the organizational situation and alsoyour own personal values and objectives. So always place the ideas and examples of this book incontext.
Second, except for certain laws in the physical sciences, we live in a world of probabilities.Just as no drug works well for everyone or all of the time, the same holds for ideas based onthe best and most recent behavioral research. There will be exceptions and times when theadvice offered in this book won’t guarantee a good outcome. But as long as the odds are in
your favor, in the long run you will be much better off heeding the research evidence andexamples that illustrate that evidence.
Third, the learning process—in school and in the rest of life, too—is frequently too passiveto be as helpful as it might be. There is only one way to become more effective in buildingpower and using influence: practice. So don’t just read this book and think about theexamples—try some of the things you learn and see how they work. Model the behaviors of someof the effective people you read about. Turn knowledge into practice—it is the best way todevelop the skills that make becoming powerful second nature.
I have organized this book as my colleagues and I organize the course we teach—using a path ordevelopmental metaphor. The introduction and chapter 1 provide some orienting thoughts to helpyou reconsider taken-for-granted assumptions about the sources of power and success. Chapter 1considers the evidence on job performance and power and how you can define job performancecriteria in ways that are beneficial to you. Chapter 1 also provides a conceptualframework—some simple ideas—you can use to guide your reading of the subsequent material.
Chapter 2 treats the personal qualities you might develop that produce power. Many of theseattributes are not inborn but learned. As such, you can diagnose your strengths and weaknessesand build a personal development plan to strengthen those personal characteristics that bothresearch and logic argue are related to obtaining influence. Chapter 3 considers how to decidewhere to begin your career, the organizational locations most favorable for successfullylaunching your journey to power. Chapter 4 provides some advice on how to obtain the initialpositions you want at the place where you want to begin—how to land a place on the first rungof the ladder to power.
The next chapters explore the sources of power and how to develop them. These power sourcesinclude resources (chapter 5), social networks and network position (chapter 6), the ability toact and speak in ways that both convey and produce power (chapter 7), and building a reputationas a powerful individual—a reputation that actually can become self-fulfilling and animportant source of power (chapter 8).
Regardless of how successful and effective you are, sooner or later you will encounteropposition and setbacks. Chapter 9 analyzes how, and when, to fight and other ways to cope withopposition. It also provides some insight on the inevitability of reversals of fortune and howto cope. Power brings visibility—public scrutiny—and other costs as well. Chapter 10 treatsthe downsides, the costs of being in a powerful position. Power tends to produce overconfidenceand the idea that you can make your own rules, and these consequences of having power oftencause people to behave in ways that cost them their power and their position. Chapter 11explores how and why power is lost and what you might do to better maintain positions ofinfluence once you have attained them.
Implicit in virtually all of the discussion in this book is the idea that you are creating yourown personal path to power. Many people wonder about the connection between such material andorganizational effectiveness, the topic of chapter 12. Chapter 13, the last chapter, providesexamples of people who have implemented the principles of this book with some measure ofsuccess. Its goal is to convince you that you can actually acquire power—not by becoming a newindividual but by doing some things slightly more strategically and differently. Just like theprinciple of compound interest, becoming somewhat more effective in every situation can, overtime, leave you in a very different, and much better, place.
It Takes More Than Performance
IN 2004, the Miami-Dade County, Florida, school board hired former New York schools chancellorRudy Crew as superintendent to help improve a typical urban school district struggling withboth budget and failing schools problems. While Crew was in charge, the district was a finalistfor the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2006, 2007, and 2008, improved its bond rating,
achieved improvements in student academic performance, and built thousands of classrooms toease overcrowding.1 Recognizing this performance, in the spring of 2008, the AmericanAssociation of School Administrators named Rudy Crew the National Superintendent of the Year,bolstering his reputation as an innovative school administrator. His reward? By September 2008,less than six months after being named the best school leader in the country, Crew wasnegotiating his severance package with a school board that had voted to get rid of him.
If you think it’s just in the domain of public education where success fails to guarantee jobsecurity, think again. At the Veterans Health Administration, Ken Kizer, appointed by BillClinton in 1994, inherited an antiquated, inefficient health-care system. The VA faced changesin its client population, the competitive health-care environment, and modalities fordelivering care.2 In just five years, Kizer instituted an electronic medical record system,made structural changes to enhance efficiency and quality of care—with 20,000 fewer employees,the VHA went from serving 2.9 to 3.5 million veterans—changed the culture to be more receptive
, laid the foundation for making theBusinessWeekto change, and according to a cover story in
VHA the purveyor of “the best medical care in the U.S.”3 In 1999, facing stiff Congressionalopposition to his reappointment, Kizer relinquished his post. Balancing politics and medicalcare turned out to be difficult—“in particular, the closure of VHA hospitals in certain keyCongressional districts had created acrimony in Congress.”4
And it’s not just in the public sector where there is a weak link between job performance andcareer outcomes. The world of business offers numerous cases, too. Although few may remember,Jamie Dimon, the now-celebrated CEO of financial powerhouse JP Morgan Chase, left Citibank whenhis onetime mentor and boss, Sandy Weill, turned on him. Arthur Blank and Bernard Marcusfounded the large and successful home improvement company Home Depot after they were fired inthe late 1970s from Handy Dan Home Improvement Centers by a boss who didn’t like them. JohnScully forced Apple cofounder and technology visionary Steve Jobs out of the company in the1980s. And that’s just a small sample from a very long list.
And it’s not just at the highest levels or just in the United States where performancedoesn’t guarantee success. A marketing executive in India asked her CEO to formally recommendher for a list of “high potential leaders” in the organization, which would be accompanied bygetting paid more than 30 percent higher than peers at the same level and becoming eligible forassignments more likely to advance her career. This request came just after she had beeninstrumental in turning around a distressed brand, had been nominated for an internal marketingaward, and after she won an external advertising award at the Indian equivalent of the Cannesfilm festival. Her request was refused, past outstanding performance notwithstanding.
Not only doesn’t good performance guarantee you will maintain a position of power, poorperformance doesn’t mean you will necessarily lose your job. Michael Jeffery maintained hisposition as CEO of LECG Corporation, a global expert services and consulting firm, for threeyears even though the company was almost never profitable during his tenure and in just the twoyears prior to the announcement he was voluntarily stepping down, the stock price declined 80percent, much more than did competitors’. His prior relationship with the non-executivechairman of the company and his ability to “manage” the board and blame the company’sproblems on his predecessor (who had actually built the company) ensured his survival—for awhile. Or consider the CEO of a medical device company who has presided over nearly a decade offlat stock price, a growth in sales that did not translate into a corresponding growth inprofits, and turnover in the senior executive ranks that left the company with no insidesuccessor. Notwithstanding this weak job performance, his salary has increased rapidly and hisjob is secure—because of his close relationship with the non-executive board chairman and witha majority of the board of directors. The lesson from cases of people both keeping and losingtheir jobs is that as long as you keep your boss or bosses happy, performance really does notmatter that much and, by contrast, if you upset them, performance won’t save you.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that good performance—jobaccomplishments—is sufficient to acquire power and avoid organizational difficulties.Consequently, people leave too much to chance and fail to effectively manage their careers. If