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FINANCIAL POST, June 18, 2003

Orchard knows how power ticks

by Michael Stern

In business, as in politics and other walks of life, there are two kinds of power. There is the official clout that flows from your office or rank, and the greater power that comes from the respect and influence you wield as a person. Power is really about strategy: understanding how much power you have in a given situation, and knowing when to use it.

David Orchard, one of the losing candidates in this month's Progressive Conservative leadership campaign, knows power. Although a party outsider, he displayed impressive strategic skills in turning defeat into influence, out of all proportion to his third-place finish.

In fact, many business people could learn from Orchard's success in turning rejection into power.

You know the story. Orchard, a Saskatchewan farmer best known for his opposition to free trade, was eliminated on the third ballot. His supporters, a quarter of the delegates, could now vote for either front-runner Peter MacKay or dark-horse candidate Jim Prentice.

Facing similar circumstances, some candidates free their delegates to vote as they wish. Others unite with the weaker candidate to take on the front-runner. And many curry favour by endorsing the leading candidate.

But Orchard saw this as a chance to become a power broker, and make sure his political views would continue to be heard in the Tory party. He offered his support if MacKay would agree to certain conditions, in writing. Reportedly, MacKay consented to a review of free trade (with Orchard naming the chair), to eschew an alliance with the Canadian Alliance party, and to replace some party officials. MacKay's deal was immediately denounced as a sellout by pundits and politicos across Canada. But it was a stunning win for Orchard.

With a stroke of the pen, he had secured many of the policy principles he had been fighting for. You could even argue he was now further ahead than he might have been had he won, since he could avoid the inevitable compromises and endless distractions that eventually consume party leaders.

I believe many people in corporate life could become more effective leaders by imitating Orchard and focusing on the influence they have, rather than the official control held by others. Think of the second-in-command in a business, whose access to the CEO and influence among subordinates offers a unique opportunity to mediate, solve problems the CEO may not even be aware of, or mentor and motivate.

In every office setting, there are people with more power than they know. The trusted CFO or controller. A newly arrived vice-president with experience at a rival organization. The veteran middle-manager, whose experience and wisdom make him or her a role model for younger employees and a respected counselor to upper executives.

People with this kind of influence have tremendous potential to end disputes, solve operational problems, establish key business objectives, guide senior management and establish themselves as trusted leaders.

Here's how you wield power in such situations: Identify your key messages. As Orchard did, be clear what you stand for. Then ensure that people understand these issues, why they're important, and what the alternatives are.

  • Be consistent: Don't say one thing and do another, or alter your views depending on your audience.
  • Build trust: Go out of your way to connect with people and help them succeed. Develop a reputation as someone who shares knowledge and solves problems. People who believe in you constitute a real, if fragile, power base.
  • Realize you have more power than you think: No one has all the answers. Most leaders (as well as your peers) are looking for guidance and input on the difficult decisions they face. Use your experience, objectivity and credibility to bring issues to the fore and make sure the right things get done.

Business is less, uh, political than politics. But the same power principles apply. And you may be surprised how many opportunities there are for organizational influence and achievement -- whether or not you are the front-runner.

Michael Stern is president and chief executive of Michael Stern Associates Inc., an executive search firm headquartered in Toronto, and a founding member of AEA International Search with offices in major business centres worldwide.

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