What is Your Horizontal Power?
Power is increasingly becoming horizontal rather than vertical
For generations, power, status, and often even our identity was tied to our employers. If you worked for GE, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, or Microsoft, the global brand name conveyed prestige and was a primary calling card to credibility and social status — all of which allowed you to progress in your career and get things done.
This era is different. For many, it’s no longer considered cool to work at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey. It’s cool to be an entrepreneur, a social entrepreneur, or to work for a hot tech startup. It’s cool to be ex-Goldman or ex-McKinsey and have that ad hoc alumni community behind you. A recent Wall Street Journal analysis, backs this up, showing the share of MBA grads from top 10 schools going into finance jobs has dropped from 36 to 26 percent over the past 5 years, while those opting to pursue technology jobs has increased from 13 percent to 20.
At the same time, Fortune 500 brands’ strategies are behind the times. Big companies used to reap the rewards of being big. The formula was: build competitive advantages through scale. Proctor &Gamble, for example, had power at all points of the value chain for Gillette and many of its other brands. Twenty years ago, they dominated and benefitted from singular brand awareness, supply chain pricing power, dominating shelf space in retailers and on the talent side, offered growth opportunities for the most talented people.
Not anymore. Nimble startups Dollar Shave Club or Harry’s can now rent cloud-based technology assets and infrastructure, focus on loyal micro-markets, and eat big companies’ market share without the fixed costs that scale requires.
This all has implications for the people at these companies- whether it’s the recent MBA grad or leaders, they’re increasingly taking note. It’s not unusual for average tenures to be 2–3 years (or less) in organizations.
One important factor behind these shifts is the power of distributed networks. Whereas high performers were once loyal to P&G and internal career growth, it’s easier than ever to find new opportunities. One person can change your entire professional trajectory, and it has never been easier to make that connection. Just a click on LinkedIn or Facebook or a thoughtful email can open up a relationship that a generation ago may only happened after years of proving or attaining the right title or status.
How Power Shifted in Publishing
As the author of two books, I got a lens into the world of publishing, a fascinating microcosm to understand changes in power dynamics. My last book, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, was published by Free Press, then an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Given how poorly Free Press handled pretty much everything with my book (except editing), it came as no surprise when the entity closed down a year later. What happened next was the fascinating part.
My former editor set up her own consulting practice to work with aspiring and established authors, and has loved her new chapter (pun intended). She gets to focus on what she’s best at every day without managers breathing down her neck. What’s more, she is linked into the right micro-networks and now works exclusively with a host of leading business authors, some of whom are moving towards self-publishing. Just like Harry’s focused on the right subset of shavers, the editor can focus on her exact strength and target customer without any of the other corporate pressures.
Power that used to be centralized in the hands of a few publishers is increasingly becoming distributed. After spending years working under the thumb of others, my former editor now owns her power. The heads of major publishing companies, who used to employ her a few levels down in the organization, now seek her out at publishing gatherings, full of pleasantries since she might help them get great authors and books. Talk about role reversals.
Every industry exhibits a similar pattern, with new models disrupting the established players. Publishing was just one of the early industries to illustrate the rise of horizontal power.
Finding your Platform
One outcome of this era of technology: the old world of status has been increasingly turned upside down. Executives who have taken traditional paths to get into positions of power increasingly realize that what got you here won’t get you into the future.
Legions of people — young and old — are running away from established companies toward entrepreneurial pursuits or the corporate gig economy. In order to find and create opportunities, it’s increasingly important to find like-minded communities and platforms.
If you work at GE, you might work there another few years, then future opportunities and success will rest almost entirely on your “platform” outside GE. Your ability to advance depends less upon whether you work for a big name company than if you’re dialed into the right communities, distributed networks, and platforms. Tethering your identity and sense of power to your title and company brand will lead to increased stress.
As power becomes increasingly decentralized, pools of like-minded talent is the future.
New places, in-between communities, and horizontal power platforms are emerging everywhere.
Shared workspaces and entrepreneurial communities have also become a fast-growth industry from urban to rural areas all around America. GE leases space from WeWork to bridge into more entrepreneurial worlds. Samsung Next has a host of centers set up around the world for entrepreneurs to set up shop, and build their next thing.
Crucially, people are thirsty, desperate even, for genuine relationships and tribes that cut across traditional domains in order to find platforms outside traditional four walls. Our success is often determined by the quality of our mentors, partners, and co-conspirators. No one wants to be alone, especially when no one company is going to take care of you.
Building distributed networked cultures and platforms is difficult, not least because they must span many different organizations and hierarchies. Importantly, as network theorists argue, decentralized networks must have a strong set of core values or “ideology” at the core. Find those that align with yours through serving on a nonprofit board or hosting a monthly gathering with your local tribe. (New Power by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms is an important read.)
Not all horizontal power relationships are created equal. Generosity needs to be at the core of effective horizontal power-building strategies, rather than transactions. Betting on high quality, generous, and generative collaborators or co-conspirators leads to enormous opportunities over time. I’ve found that following this model, over time my long-lasting relationships are based on each person’s true identity and generosity while the transactional relationships have slipped away.
Success used to be about working your way up the ladder. Today, success is increasingly rewarding those who tilt their ladder horizontally, moving across companies and networks, to find partners, insights, collaborators, and co-conspirators.
Harnessing horizontal power and distributed networks is the present and future.