I recently interviewed Chip Conley, founder and CEO of the second-largest boutique hotel chain in the U.S., Joie de Vivre hospitality, for a case study for my MBA class on power. As we went over the details of the case, I got a window into the mindset that's enabled Conley to achieve the success he has, and insight into why others don't reach that level.
I asked why he thought it was so hard for people to do things like networking that didn't seem difficult and were clear paths to power. Conley said that for most people, networking, building social relationships with strangers at, for instance, events and functions, was seen as a task. That mindset held true for many of the other actions required to build power--they were tasks. Tasks, he said, are things like taking out the garbage. You don't try to develop your "skill" at taking out the garbage, you don't think much about it, you just do it and get it over with.
However, if you think of networking as a skill, then that mindset changes everything. Skills are things that can, and maybe even should, be developed. You think about how well you are performing skills, you work on getting better, you get feedback, you apply thought, you learn.
The implication of Conley's insight: the difference between people who build effective networks and those that don't, the difference between people who develop political skill and grow that skill over time and those that don't, has much less to do with intelligence or charisma or charm and everything to do with how people see and define what they are doing--as skills or as tasks.
When Lyndon Johnson became the Assistant Democratic leader in January, 1951, he took on what was commonly considered to be a "nothing job." As described by Robert Caro in Master of the Senate, to LBJ, there was no job that was a nothing job. Johnson developed skill in this new role: skill in counting votes on pending legislation, skill in scheduling non-controversial bills for action, skill in raising money to help members' political campaigns, skill in getting legislation through the House of Representatives. Johnson used this "nothing job" as Senate minority whip to build favors and a reputation so that when the Democrats took control of the Senate, he became the youngest Senate majority leader.
Most management consulting professionals think the road to the top is through doing your consulting job well. Getting asked to set up a seminar series to bring in outside speakers from government and the nonprofit world looks like a task that's irrelevant to your job. But one former student saw in this task an opportunity to build skill--and contacts. Skill in discerning the interests of senior partners, skill in building bridges to outside speakers and organizations, and skill in organizing an interesting seminar series that would help the firm learn more about the opportunities for public sector and nonprofit work. By approaching this assignment as an opportunity to build skill, this consultant increased his visibility in the firm and wound up with much more interesting assignments.
So here's some practical advice: the next time you find yourself at some meeting or event, the next time you get what you think is a boring, trivial assignment, consider how your mindset affects your approach. Chip Conley is right--there is a big difference in what we do and what we learn depending on whether we define some activity as a task or a skill. As a consequence, our ability to build power and influence derives as much from how we think about our activities as from our abilities.