3 kinds of power: positional, relational and expertise

Recently, I was reminded that there are three types of power in the workplace.  While you might not have all 3 – you better have some.  Positional, Relational, Expertise.

I first heard this on a manager-tools.com podcast, but please let me know if you heard of it somewhere else too.  It’s a simple way to think through the problem, but perhaps the most elegant.  This applies to each of us professionally, and also to the client project.

3 Types of Power

Positional Power:  This is straight-forward.  It is tops-down power.  This power comes from the title, budget, headcount and the role that you hold. If it were a math formula it would look like this:   COO > VP > Director  > Mgr > Analyst

Positional power does work, but it is like a hammer – blunt, short-term and tiresome.  It is like telling your child to do something, and when asked “why”, you respond by saying “Because I am your father, and I said so.”  It works, but not really the best parenting.

Relational Power: This is the primary currency in large organizations.  People work together, help each other out, team-up for success, forgive mistakes, and generally stick together in the organization.  People are inter-related.  History is shared.  In Influence, Robert Cialdini writes extensively about reciprocity and other ways that people persuade each other.  Simply put, we are social creatures and relationships matter.

Expertise Power: This is where the individual shines.  This is where education, experience and real thinking come together to create expertise.  The MBA would direct you to something called the resource-based view (RBV), which states that really competitive advantage comes from things that are: 1) rare, 2) valuable, 3) difficult to imitate.  This is also true for people.

Another way to look at it is how Malcolm Gladwell argues in Outliers that real expertise takes 10,000 hours of practice.   This is based on fascinating research published in HBR called Making of an Expert.  As they state, “Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence shows that experts are always made, not born.”

How do consulting team accumulate power? Whether we know it or not, the consulting process is designed to help consultants accumulate power or influence at the client site.  These are the three keys to getting leverage and being effective.

Power - How Consultants Get Leverage1. Kick-off meeting. (Positional) It is customary to have a kick-off meeting where the executive sponsor formally introduces the consultants to her staff, thereby, “loaning” the consultants some of her authority.  This allows the consultants to do work and create change.  It’s like being a substitute teacher, it is a privilege and borrowed power.

2. Project plan. (Positional) Consultants like to stay on the project plan.  This serves many practical purposes such as organizing activities and scoping the work, but it also has a more subtle effect of giving control to the rhythm of the project.  The due dates create project momentum and pressure to finish the work.  It’s like being the air traffic controller; you are not flying the planes, but have a lot of say on how the airport runs.

3. Best practices. (Expertise) Consultants bring some objectivity because they benefit from working at multiple competitors, suppliers and customers.  Clients like to have that “outside-in” perspective and know where they stand relatively in performance.  “What is best practice?” is a common question from executives.  Best practices, maturity models, benchmarks, and survey results are all examples of expertise power.

4.  Data. (Expertise) Many clients actually don’t know where they stand.  They don’t know if they are running a 5 minute or a 12 minute mile.  They have a “sense” (which is usually right), but are hard-pressed to show the data.  Consultants love data for many reasons – including the fact that data gives the consultants credibility and conviction.

5. Being on-site. (Relational)  Generally, consultants don’t have a lot of relational equity.  They might know the “buyer” of the services, but often meet the stakeholders at the kick-off meeting.   So, it is critically important to get to know the working-level stakeholders as soon as possible.  Collaboration is a two-way street.  Some of it has to do with being professional, friendly, and helpful.  Some of it has to do with the tacit understanding that consultants can help (or sometimes hurt) career prospects.

In my mind, one of the main reasons that consultants are often at the client site Monday-Thursday is for relational reasons.  The travel is a beast, but it is an effective way to work with the clients, get to know each other, share meals, and build relationships.  The ex-CMO of Deloitte wrote a best-seller on building relationships called Never Eat Alone.  Guess what the main point of the book is. . . . . never eat alone.

Caveat. All of this power and influence is temporary, borrowed, and sometimes fragile.  Most of the consultants I have worked with are professional, well-mannered, and show the right level of respect to clients – but that is not always the case.  I know of consultants who have shouted, and even threatened working-level clients.  Low-class, unprofessional, and abusive.

The patriarch of McKinsey, Marvin Bower, rightly felt that management consultants should have the highest level of professionalism, integrity, and candor.  Completely agree.

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2 thoughts on “3 kinds of power: positional, relational and expertise

  1. Naturally, I’m biased and think at the end of the day it is your ability to utilize your relational skills to ascend to the top (and navigate corporate politics along the way). Thanks for the reminder that there are actually other things to consider!

    • Thanks for the comment. Completely agree that relationships are what last. Products and markets change, titles change, companies change, but the people you have in your life – relevant and authentic – are what carry the day.

      As a side-bar, for the consultants at the client site though, relational equity is usually starting from scratch. You might know the executive sponsor, but rarely do you know the working level client-side team in advance. That is why it’s a critical consulting skill to build rapport quickly with people.

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