Everyone knows a great associate, a person of color, who went to the best schools and gets great annual evaluations, but never feels comfortable and somehow knows partnership is not an option. What more can or should attorneys of color do?
There is more, if you decide you really want those top slots. It turns out that excellent work is only the first step for success in large organizations – whether law firms or corporations – for white men, women, and people of color. You must also pursue a number of other strategies to propel yourself from the group of many excellent workers into a leadership position. Leadership is for masters of the “power game.”
The rules of the power game are unwritten, and it is difficult to find anyone who can explain them to you. But this game defines every action and interaction in your organizations, so your job includes “reading” those rules and developing a personal strategy to succeed within them. It is not enough to produce top quality work.
Power is not something anyone is born with in America today. It is something everyone has to work hard to understand, acquire, and keep, although we know it comes more easily to some, most often white males. There are no set formulas, no clear rules, but if you carefully examine your environment, observe the power game there and focus your thinking and analysis, you will begin to see patterns. Then you can plan your own game strategy. Consider these guidelines as you prepare yourself for the power game:
- Understand what power is: the ability to influence the behavior of others. Because power often carries a negative connotation, it is usually talked about in euphemisms, such as authority, responsibility, leader- ship, effectiveness, or influence. If you understand power for what it is-the ability to influence the behavior of others-you do not need euphemisms. It becomes easier to come to terms with yourself as a person who wants power, to understand how the game is played in your organization and then to develop your own personal leadership strategy.
Has your experience with power led you to see it as a negative, something others have held over you? You must get comfortable with the idea of yourself as a person of power, and as someone who pursues power strategically and deliberately, with the goal of using it for the benefit of your law firm or corporation. Becoming a person who is comfortable with power is not a simple process, but it is a process anyone can master, using intelligence, insight, determination, self-confidence and, perhaps above all, a sense of humor. If you trust yourself and your ability to add value to your organization, it is your logical goal.
- Interpret your organization’s “culture.” What are the norms of behavior that guide the actions of all your successful colleagues? Start with the obvious superficial survey: clothing, ethnicity, gender, and so on, including among partners, executives and board members. Then look deeper. How much variety is tolerated, in dress, in language, in presentation, in expertise? Is expressing an opinion valued? Does your corporation encourage creativity, change, and new ideas, or is it more comfortable with “the way we do things?” How does it show it values its employees? Its customer and client relations? Does it show respect for its markets? Take pride in its products?
Do the values of your organization sit comfortably with your own? Only by understanding the real values of your organization can you make an informed decision about entering the game played there or looking for a different one.
- Watch the leaders in your company. What characteristics do they share? What are the differences in their styles? How do their personality traits and their values shape their individual leadership styles? How did they gain power? How do they use it? How do they maintain it?
How is the power game played in your organization? What are the various sources of power? What are different kinds of power? What are the different ways it can be exercised? Who defers to whom? How is respect for power shown? What are the power alliances? Who are the “rising stars?” What are the unspoken signs of favor? How do people achieve that status?
Don’t use shorthand like “the right schools,” “the right connections,” “the right look.” The answers are usually far more complex, and anyone can discover them and use them for personal advantage. Study what those with power in your organization do and say, the results of the work they perform, and how they build alliances. Ask questions of those you decide to trust. The game is infinite in its variety and subtlety, and there is always more to learn.
- Manage race, gender, and other personal demons. Discrimination is much more subtle today than it was 25 or 30 years ago, but the sting is no less. You cannot lash out at every perceived act of discrimination, and neither can you hold it all inside. You must find a way to deal with it. You cannot let someone else’s problems divert you from your goals. It can often help to keep in mind that most battles in powerful American organizations are white male against white male. You are not the only target, or even a main one.
Use an intellectual process to control your emotional reactions: Examine the incident and the person involved. Was it really discrimination? Are that person’s concerns about his or her place in the company, rather than a statement about you as a member of a group? What exactly triggered your reaction? Look into yourself to pinpoint your own hot buttons and then understand them. Gather as much information as you can, about yourself and the other person. Then develop several possible responses and try playing them out. This process will earn you respect from your colleagues. And you will build your own confidence-and the very thick skin every successful power player needs.
Develop a network of supporters inside your organization, among your clients and in professional associations, and work diligently to maintain it. No one succeeds in a large organization without significant inside supporters – mentors, champions, and coaches who are willing to use their personal power to further your career. Many of them will of necessity be white men, because they hold the over-whelming majority of corporate power.
Participate in mentoring programs, but do not rely on them. It is your responsibility to build your own supportive network. Always be on the alert for a personal or business connection, with peers, subordinates, superiors, clients, and other professional associates. Every encounter can lead to a meaningful relationship and potential ally.
Do not hesitate to reach out, to make opportunities for yourself, with both clients and colleagues. And once you’ve developed allies, make sure you keep in personal contact with all of them. Do not rely on them to keep in touch with you.
- Seek out opportunities to stretch your skills. Your company or law firm may offer you high-profile opportunities, but you cannot afford to wait for invitations. You are responsible for your own career and success. Find out about new topics and projects, and tap your network of inside support to get involved. Outside events can also have a profound impact on the organization. Train your eyes, ears, and mind to pick up on changes or, better yet, to anticipate them and take advantage of them. Your network of inside support works hand-in-hand with stretching your skills.
- Build a strategy for your own path to leadership. Be a devoted student of the power game. Synthesize your constantly expanding skills, observations and relationships, both internal and external, to chart specific steps toward your leadership role, toward becoming a person valued for ideas, experiences and results that benefit the organization.
As you become comfortable with both the intellectual process of the power game and then the game moves, you will make progress. Accept yourself as someone who has earned the right to have and use power, who enjoys the conflict of ideas and business strategies. Make taking informed risks one of your favorite activities.
Seeing your ideas and strategies benefit your company is personally satisfying, and so are the financial rewards. The best news is that the power game is never over. There is no final bell, so you never really lose. The game continues as long as you want to play, as long as you want to be a leader.
Judy Turnock, an attorney, is founder and president of Hunter Management Group, a coaching and diversity training company based in New York City. She is coauthor of Cracking the Corporate Code: Real Success Stories of 32 African- American Executives, which will be published by the American Management Association in May 2003. For additional information, email: JLTHMG@aol.com.
From the January/February 2003 issue of Diversity & The Bar®