Power, Authority and Influence

Much has been said and written about the challenges which women and people of color face in acquiring power and influence in corporations. Trying to achieve organizational highs, and being confident that they deserve something more than being employees, women and people of color have to overcome a set of serious ethical and moral barriers that are not always evident. Simultaneously, the growing pool of literature suggests that power acquisition is beyond the limits of gender and racial prejudices.

Moreover, power acquisition has nothing to do with race or gender, except for the rare cases where obvious illegal and ethical misconduct is involved. Powerful experiences of Frank Fountain and Paula Banks suggest that power acquisition is not about gender or racial stereotyping; power acquisition is about orchestrating people, events, and critical factors in a way that works for the benefit of one’s career growth and promotion.

Cobbs and Turnock’s book Cracking the Corporate Code is not unique in its attempt to depict and praise someone else’s revolutionary career achievements; but Cobbs and Turnock shed the light onto the major inconsistencies in the current race and gender theories as they apply to career, organizational development, authority, and acquisition of power. For many years, we sincerely believed in the truthfulness and seriousness of racial and gender prejudices in acquiring corporate authority and power.

With time, organizational emphases within the power and authority concept have undergone a strategic shift. Now, as we have entered the 21st century and are looking forward to using new promotion opportunities, power acquisition is no longer a matter of luck or someone’s desire to overcome racial and gender barriers. On the contrary, corporate power acquisition is a matter of one’s authority and leadership skills, supplemented with the one’s ability and desire to move ahead.

Cobbs and Turnock provide a new vision on quest for authority in organizations: “It will always be true that excellent performance is vital to your quest for organizational power. What will change is how excellent performance is measures. Leave nothing to chance. From the earliest opportunity, publicize, in the most subtle and skillful way, who you are and what you do. Demonstrate your intellect, skills and performance”.

Thus, at the beginning of the 21st century, when technology determines the rates of organizational development and growth, and when racial cleavages and gender boundaries become particularly visible, the quest for authority is being gradually distanced from the notion of prejudice as such, turning into the matter of one’s ability and choice. Frank Fountain was probably the first to deny the long-standing belief that people of color did not have a chance to create informal networks and use their benefits in their future career growth.

“Frank Fountain developed a simple but brilliant strategy for building supportive peer relationships in his early years at Chrysler” (Cobbs & Turnock). He was the only black one out of the seven peers he had gathered and united into a single and coherent team. In his striving to form a stable and cohesive team of co-workers, Fountain has substantially expanded the role and the vision of informal network as the way to acquiring corporate power; in his view, an informal network could serve the basis for corporate power and authority acquisition only if all team members could benefit of such partnership.

“We leveraged each other. And we must have stayed together maybe three years. Beyond that we didn’t. […] If a group like that forms, and you’re strategically placed, and if you operate not secretly but just informally, it can be extremely powerful” (Cobbs & Turnock). Fountain’s experience has actually refuted Bell and Nikomo’s assumptions in regard to informal networking: in Bell and Nikomo’s view, informal networking was one of the most serious barriers in women and minorities’ striving to corporate influence (50).

Fountain has proved that power acquisition and authority lie beyond the traditional limits of racial prejudice. He was able to unite his abilities around one central goal, and to neglect the factors that might have held other people of color from pursuing career growth. In no way was Fountain’s desire to grow professionally a unique challenge; on the contrary, that was just one out of many individual decisions to use information, people, places, and chances to move forward. Does that mean that women do have equal chances to win an authority fight?

In many instances, that does; and women are equally able to form cohesive organizational structures, and to organize people around their career goals. Very often, women fail to promote their right for self-realization and have to struggle a long way to acquiring corporate authority, but they also have an unlimited potential for earning authority and influence even in industries, which have traditionally been hostile to female leaders and minorities (Cobbs & Turnock). “Women must understand in their gut the rules of the fame and take them seriously enough to play to win.

[…] If women do not find a way to be serious players, as corporate men define serious players, they are not only eliminating themselves from the competition, they are also buying in to the corporate male view of them as non-players” (Cobbs & Turnock). Banks was initially considered “a weaker partner”, but her experience implies that power and authority to rule people is similar to the power and authority to make refusals work. Banks had chosen a difficult way that has ultimately led her to her long anticipated goal.

She was given a line of talented people, who worked together toward one single strategic goal. She had taken a strategic decision, but finally arrived to the point, where she was able to fully evaluate her capacity and was given a choice. Again, her success was totally dependent on her ability to use the “public platform with other people around” as the stage for professional development and growth, and her informal connections made her new corporate experience the most freeing of all.

The two experiences of Paula Banks and Frank Fountain suggest that we are the ones to decide where, how, and when we will finally be prepared to use our leadership skills. Although gender and race may make it even more difficult, these are not the most serious obstacles future leaders need to consider on their way to the top. Certainly, racial and gender biases still persist, and statistics is cruel: out of 21 men of color, only one will be promoted; and only one out of 136 women not of color will be offered a chance to acquire power at workplace (Bell & Nikomo 29).

Certainly, people of color and women are frequently denied access to informal networks, and if properly used, the latter may actually become the key to acquiring power, authority, and influence. In their book, Bell and Nikomo suggest that people of color are always “aware that I am different. It seems there is a club atmosphere but I am not a member – nor have I been invited to join”(44), and that is the common mistake made by future prospective leaders – the mistake that has successfully been avoided by Frank Fountain and Paula Banks in their desire to accomplish an unprecedented career move.

What Frank Fountain and Paula Banks were able to perform can serve an excellent example of the way people acquire authority, power, and influence. Frank Fountain and Paula Banks were able to form a workable structure of informal connections at workplace. Both have displayed their loyalty to excellent performance at workplace, proving that excellence was not enough for acquiring power; without strategic vision and the power to make refusals work, excellent performance could turn into a road leading to nowhere.

Conclusion Power acquisition is a complex process, and it is not limited to one’s excellent workplace performance. In case of corporate power, authority, and influence excellent performance needs to be supplemented with a whole set of additional characteristics, of which decisiveness and one’s readiness to protect the right for self-realization are the most important.

Here, gender and racial prejudice are not relevant as long as future leaders do not turn their race and gender characteristics into the barriers on their way to power. Bell and Nikomo are correct: “in the business world, networking has been a barrier for all women, but people of color find an additional challenge in that they lack informal access channels open to many people not of color” (52).

That is the essence of power acquisition: it is a chess game, the success of which depends on one’s ability to find the necessary informal channels, and to build people, events, and factors in a way that paves the way to corporate authority and influence. Both Frank Fountain and Paula Banks have formed a new vision of power, authority and influence in corporate structures – the influence that stands beyond the limits of gender and race social constructs, but is directly linked to one’s inner ability to find informal channels for professional self-realization.

Works Cited Bell, E. & Nikomo, S. Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2001. Cobbs, P. M. & Turnock, J. L. “Acquiring Power. ” In P. M. Cobbs & J. L. Turnock, Cracking the Corporate Code, AMA, 2007. 26 December 2008. http://www. amanet. org/books/catalog/0814407714_ch. htm