In the run-up to Retail Week’s Power List 2016, Martin Palethorpe explores what it means to wield considerable power over the industry.

Power List 2016 index

Martin Palethorpe

Martin Palethorpe

Martin Palethorpe is a senior executive coach specialising in retail at The Pragma Group.

As Spiderman – and Theodore Roosevelt before him – said: “With great power comes great responsibility.” 

It’s great for the people that will make it onto the Retail Week Power List 2016. For them, it’s a significant life achievement, something to be proud of, and a demonstration of the impact that they have made on the Industry. It’s certainly something that many would love or many may strive for.

But I’d like to reflect a little further on what it means to be on this list, and what it means to have power. We all have power to varying degrees in different situations. It’s different when you speak to your shareholder, the City, your boss, or your direct report, your spouse or your child. It helps to know the power you have; more importantly it helps if you use it wisely.  

There are various types of power, but three that are highly relevant and worthy of mention in this article:

Types of power

1. Power from role

I am referring here to a wide definition of role – your role and what comes with it. So this encompasses the role you have at work, your position, your title, your reputation, the company you work for, the level of equity you have, the friends you keep, the network you have – all of these ‘roles’ have power attached to them.

If you’re a chief executive, you have power; if you’re a Lord or if you work for a prestigious company, you have power; if you’re connected to someone important, you also have power.  

In all these situations, the power is partly given to you subconsciously by others and it is partly assumed by you in playing out the role.

2. Power from expertise

Power also comes from your experiences, skills or knowledge. As you gain experience skills and knowledge, you become a thought-leader in an area; and as you gain confidence, you develop your ‘expert power’. People respect you and defer to you more than those with less perceived expertise. 

3. Power from the personality 

Finally and sometimes most critically, power also comes from the charisma of your personality. This is about your personal abilities and the strength that you have to influence others.

Power as a positive force

It is worth stating the obvious; power feels really good. It’s good for the ego, it makes you feel worthy, and it also makes you feel a somebody in life.

But primarily it’s good because it helps you get things done. People listen to you more, they’re more open to your ideas, you can easily connect with powerful others, so you have more influence. Ultimately you can get more done, achieve more and make more money (if that is your goal). 

The full line in the Spiderman film is: “Whatever life holds in store for me, I will never forget these words. With great power comes great responsibility. This is my gift, my curse. Who am I … I’m Spiderman.” 

Power is a gift, but it can also be a curse for those that have it and for those influenced by it because it doesn’t always help a situation. The six potential downsides to power are listed below.

Downsides to power

1. Manipulation

One of the most common issues with power is that you can use it to manipulate others. And if you’re using your power, you are likely to get what you want. If you get what you want, it’s important to do so ethically (not lying, deceiving, threatening, or intimidating).

If you use these less ethical means, you may get what you want in the short term, but be careful that you don’t lose buy-in from others, that you don’t miss listening to important viewpoints, and that you don’t do long-term damage to your relationships.

2. Risk appetite

Powerful executives, according to Jennifer Lerner of Harvard’s Kennedy School, have substantially more appetite for risk and more optimism about the outcomes of their gambles. As your power increases, you are more likely to feel ‘invincible’ (I wonder if that’s how Spiderman feels).

Be careful to use the same level of prudence in decision-making that got you to where you’re at.

3. Out of touch

Power coupled with the wealth that comes along with it, can enable you to afford a life very different to the majority. If you’re flying in a corporate jet and staying in the best hotel there’s a danger that you lose touch with the lives and thinking of your people and of your customers.

You could suffer from delusions of grandeur making worse decisions for your people and your customers.    

4. Board decision-making

In an organisation, the chief executive, chairman and main shareholders hold the most powerful roles. If these roles are combined along with strong charisma, power levels go through the roof. As power goes up, anxiety on boards rises and so does the fear to challenge.

There’s research to suggest that a surprising number of chief executives routinely tolerate little dissent from their boards. If challenge is limited, boards are more likely to go with the flow, and less likely to make quality decisions. And there’s many public examples of this, in retail and beyond.

5. Impact on team-working

In a series of studies, Harvard Business School associate professor Francesca Gino found that when powerful leaders indulge in their own sense of power, they are likely to detrimentally impact the performance of their teams.

Teams often become subservient. But this needn’t be the case. If strong leaders have a sense of humility about their own relative power, they can conversely improve team performance. This aligns with many of the latest leadership models (such as Jim Collins’ Good to Great), which define the best leadership as leadership with humility and a mindset to ‘serve others’.

6. Empower

Finally, one of the big themes in organisations at the moment is ‘empowerment’. Empowerment is all about giving the power to the people within your organisation; giving them power to make decisions, to be more responsible, and ultimately take more ownership for results.

But this can potentially present a paradox. If you have significant power and if you use it poorly, it can easily do the opposite of what you and your people want – disempower and disengage.  

So, whether you make it onto the Retail Power List or not in 2016; worry not. Worry more about the level of your own power, and be clever with how you use it. Let it be not a curse but your gift.

Retail Week Power List 2016

Visit retail-week.com/PowerList to see the list in full.

Martin Palethorpe is a senior executive coach specialising in retail at The Pragma Group. You can follow him on Twitter @mpalethorpe