On excellence: How to play for power

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BACKROOM politics? Or a part of everyday life? I lean toward the latter. Getting anything done, even at home, involves power. So what are the secrets to getting and applying it? Here are more than a dozen, culled from years of often painful experience.

1) Recognition. Say thank you and you make a pal for life. I've written before on the potency of thank-you notes; taking a half-hour detour to say thanks is better yet. Can you overdo it? No.

2) Showing up. Mark McCormack, the sports agent and entrepreneur, insists that it is frequently worth hopping on a plane and flying 3,000 miles for a five-minute face-to-face meeting. I've occasionally practised what he preaches - and does it ever work]

3) Timely calls. It's a truism that today's big problem was once a tiny disturbance. If only you had made that phone call to sort things out. I've often let things fester (I hate phones). But when I've gathered my nerve and gotten on the horn, my batting average has been almost perfect.

4) Minutiae. Al Smith, the New York governor and presidential candidate, cut his teeth as a state legislator around the turn of the century. After a long day's work, instead of pursuing booze and bimbos, he holed up in his apartment and proceeded to read and master every line of the state budget. His matchless command of the fine print set him off on an extraordinary career.

5) Rolodex power. Your influence is almost directly proportional to the thickness of your telephone card index. Work the phones. Don't waste a single lunch. Go to cocktail parties (even if you're a teetotaler). Sure, you can overdo it, but you can also underdo it. Who you know is still as important as what you know.

6) Homework. Harvey Mackay, the management guru, gave us the Mackay 66, a list of questions you should be able to answer about your customers (from the professional to the personal). A Boeing executive insists that his sales folks spend an hour on preparation for every minute a client meeting is scheduled to last. Yes, Virginia, knowledge is power.

7) Credibility. It comes from bone-deep honesty. And, from having 'been there'. Years ago, as a junior White House staff member, I had often confounded conventional wisdom by leaving town before a crucial meeting to go visit with the people on the spot in, say, Thailand (I was involved in international narcotics-control policy). Back home a few days later, others had a hard time arguing with me if I said: 'Well, when I was talking with the ambassador in Bangkok this time last week, he told me . . .'

8) Commitment. People can sense your emotional commitment (or the lack of it) from 1,000 miles away. Literally. Unless your issue is Number One on my list, too, the last thing I want to do is waste my precious time fighting a fanatic.

9) Time management. Mind your calendar. Despite a dozen distractions (inevitable in any position of responsibility), the wisest people stay focused.

Attending to distractions is important (make that phone call before the problem blossoms - see Number 3 above). But also make damn sure, at the end of the day, that you've found a way to work on your one or two big issues.

10) Minding your manners. When I began working on the project at McKinsey & Co that led to my book In Search of Excellence, I got this advice from a senior partner: 'You're going to be saying some things that the people around here don't want to hear. So make sure you are always beyond reproach on the little stuff - getting to client meetings early, dressing conservatively . . . Amen.

11) Decency. Never show people up; they will find a way to get even. The problem with many talented folks I've known is their talent. They are smart as hell and don't mind letting others know it. They may take satisfaction in being right, but they rarely get much done. Always remember the person you are trying to persuade is at the epicentre of his or her universe. Treat them accordingly and you will have solved many of life's thornier problems.

12) Discipline. You may be right. You may be on a worthy mission. But knowing when to swallow your pride, back off and prepare to fight another day is as important as knowing when to attack.

13) Street smarts. Follow the path of least resistance. Don't expend most of your finite energy warring with people who think you are coming from left field (or that you are a fool). Instead, surround the jokers. Devote your time to building strong allies among supporters, near-supporters and possible converts.

14) Results. Minding your manners is important. But it's also necessary to be rude on occasion. Avoid the niceties and beaver away on the nuts and bolts of that one project you want to make your signature for the year.