Quick question: How valuable are you at work? Hint: It has little to do with your place on an organizational chart.
The new truth is that grabbing a high rung in an organizational’s hierarchy isn’t necessarily a sign that you’re indispensable.
What clinches your value at work is what’s known as informal power — the ability to influence people and overcome resistance where you lack authority. It means being able to get someone to do your bidding where you have no formal authority.
Today you can’t lead simply by virtue of your title.
While we still may be obsessed with hierarchy and formal power, companies have changed how they operate. Indeed, some companies like Zappos have even eliminated titles.
Where as recently as the 1990s, many large corporations were overweighted with 15 layers, today’s organizations “look more like pancakes than pyramids,” Ross Business School Professor Maxim Sytch told me in a recent interview. Add to that the influx of millennials who don’t kowtow to titles, and you have a new organizational mandate.
In this new structure, which is often a matrix of teams, rather than a vertical hierarchy, formal power doesn’t cut it. To get things done, according to Sytch, you need to manage across teams no matter your rank.
“If you try to manage by formal power alone, you’re unlikely to be successful,” says Sytch. “People will resist you.”
The most powerful person in a medium-size technology company Sytch studied was the assistant to the CEO — the person everyone turned to for advice. She was more powerful than the executives above her on the organizational chart.
“If you think of leadership as an influence process,” Sytch says, "relying on informal power opens a huge toolkit to get things done outside the constraints of a formal structure.”
So if your title isn’t your badge of authority, how do you measure your value within a company?
Sytch recommends doing a power audit — a snapshot of your value to others and how replaceable you are at work.
This can be eye-opening, according to Sytch, who has worked with companies worldwide and studied personal and business networks. The clincher: If you depend more on people to get your work done than they rely on you, you’re in a state of power imbalance.
To do a power audit, write down the names of your top 10 contacts. Assign each a number between 1 and 10 based on how much value you receive from them. Value can include everything from help with work projects to emotional support and advice. Then do the reverse. Assign a number to the value you provide each of these 10 contacts.
You’ll know if you’re in negative territory if:
- Some contacts provide you with a lot of value but you give less back.
- Your contacts are clustered in one area. Instead, you’d be much better off if you had contacts in different functional areas and geographies letting you easily reach across teams to solve problems.
So now that you may have discovered that you’re in a power slump, what can you do about it?
Here are four ways Sytch suggests to make yourself more powerful, and consequently more indispensable, in your job:
- Offer value to your contacts. We collect a lot of information about our contacts — their likes and dislikes, their work challenges or family situations. The problem is that we never do anything with it. Think of this information as currency to provide value to your contacts, which is absolutely key to being indispensable. If someone is struggling with a technical challenge, volunteer to offer help or a referral. If someone is interested in change management, share an interesting article or other resource on managing change. If someone’s kids are into soccer, think of whether you know a good soccer coach. How can I help should be the guiding principle of forming and maintaining relationships.
- Become an expert. People may be attracted to your unique expertise and seek you out. I once worked with someone who became the go-to person on our team for PowerPoint presentations even though that was outside of his job description. He was so good at it, everyone wanted to use him.
- Expand your network outside of normal channels. The idea is to become a bridge between different groups within your company. For example, you might cultivate relationships in outside functions, such as finance, operations, marketing or supply chain management. Or develop contacts in diverse geographies, as well as at different levels. Your value will be enhanced since you will become privy to outside information you can share as well as resources and support.
- Take control of how your network evolves. Go outside your comfort zone and join associations, boards and clubs outside of your immediate local circles. Take lateral transfers. Change geographies. All of this will improve your access to people, resources and information. And in the end, elevate your informal power status.
Taking these four steps will go a long way towards increasing your informal power and making you more valuable at work. Who wouldn’t want to do that?