How to Overcome a Power Deficit

At some point in their careers, many executives find themselves short of the power and influence they need to get their jobs done effectively. Fortunately, these problems can usually be remedied.

Reading Time: 25 min 


Permissions and PDF

Many years later, after a successful career as chairman and CEO of the biotechnology giant Amgen Inc., Kevin Sharer would look back on a period earlier in his career when he had a hard time getting all his ideas implemented. Although a talented manager, Sharer had made a common mistake when he started as executive vice president of marketing at telecommunications company MCI: He could see something that needed changing and set right in to try to change it. He had decided within his first month that the company should be organized by markets rather than geography, and he shared his views with anyone who would listen. Before long, however, Sharer discovered that despite his impressive new title, his recommendations went unheeded. The division presidents, on whom he relied to implement his sales and marketing initiatives, came to see him “as an adversary who was trying to reorganize their jobs,”1 and Sharer spent a frustrating three years at MCI before moving on. Ironically, most of the changes he proposed were eventually implemented. “The fact that I was right didn’t matter,” Sharer later conceded. “What I hadn’t done was build sufficient internal credibility.”2

In his experience at MCI, Sharer had unwittingly stepped into the role of what we call a “power-deficient executive” (PDE for short) — a role that most executives, even highly successful ones, will experience at some point in their careers. Power deficits are common and pose a classic challenge for even the most gifted managers. The good news is that we have learned, in the course of our research and coaching of 179 executives who had experienced a power deficit at some point in their careers, that power deficits can almost always be overcome by following one of two basic strategies. (See “About the Research.”)



1. P. Hemp, “A Time for Growth: An Interview With Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer,” Harvard Business Review 82, no. 7/8 (July/August 2004): 66-74.

2. C. Fishman, “A Dose of Change: Face Time With Kevin Sharer,” Fast Company, August 2001, 50-52.

3. P. Hunter, “Interview with Jørgen Vig Knudstorp,” IMD Corporate Learning Network Webcast Series “Leading from the Top,” Feb. 25, 2009.

4. R.C. Liden and G. Graen, “Generalizability of the Vertical Dyad Linkage Model of Leadership,” Academy of Management Journal 23, no. 3 (September 1980): 451-465.

5. J.-F. Manzoni and J.-L.Barsoux, “The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail” (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2002).

6. C. Bouquet and J.-L. Barsoux, “Denise Donovan (A): Getting Head Office Support for Local Initiatives,” IMD Case Series IMD-3-2103, Lausanne, Switzerland, 2009.

7. S.J. Wayne, L.M. Shore and R.C. Liden, “Perceived Organizational Support and Leader-Member Exchange: A Social Exchange Perspective,” Academy of Management Journal 40, no. 1 (February 1997): 82-111.

8. C. Hymowitz, “Being an Effective Boss Means Knowing How to ‘Manage Up’ Too,” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 22, 2001, p. B1.

9. J.-L. Barsoux and A. Narasimhan, “Case Study: Reinventing the British Museum,” Financial Times, Jan. 31, 2012, p. 10.

10. C. Cooper, “Be Persistent and Work Hard: 6 Degrees of Preparation,” Investor’s Business Daily, Apr. 2, 2004, p. 7.

11. A. Bryant, “Never Duck the Tough Questions,” New York Times, July 17, 2010, p. 2.

12. E. King and J.L. Knight, “How Women Can Make It Work: The Science of Success” (Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 2011).

13. “Exploring Inspiration and Leadership With Indra Nooyi,” August 6, 2011,

14. E. Hunzinker (presentation at IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland, April 25, 2012).

15. R.T. Sparrowe and R.C. Liden, “Two Routes to Influence: Integrating Leader-Member Exchange and Social Network Perspectives,” Administrative Science Quarterly 50, no. 4 (December 2005): 505-535.

16. P. Killing, “Nestlé’s GLOBE Project” (video, IMD, September 2003).

17. A. Bryant, “Fitting In, and Rising to the Top,” New York Times, Sept. 19, 2009, p. 2.

18. D. Krackhardt, “Assessing the Political Landscape: Structure, Cognition and Power in Organizations,” Administrative Science Quarterly 35, no. 2 (June 1990): 342-369.

19. G. McCartney, “How to Influence People,” CIO Magazine, Aug. 8, 2007, 65-69.

20. R.S. Burt, “Structural Holes and Good Ideas,” American Journal of Sociology 110, no. 2 (September 2004): 349-399.

21. J. Henley, “The Exceptional CFO: From Finance to Corporate Leadership,” Financial Executive 22, no. 2 (March 2006): 52-54.

22. Thanks to IMD colleague Stewart Black for helping us to frame this critical judgment decision. J.S. Black and H. Gregersen, “It Starts With One: Changing Individuals Changes Organizations” (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2008).

i. For related research mapping power dynamics in large global companies, see C. Bouquet and J. Birkinshaw, “Managing Power in the Multinational Corporation: How Low-Power Actors Gain Influence,” Journal of Management 34, no. 3 (June 2008): 477-508. For related research on dysfunctional boss-subordinate relationships, see J.-F. Manzoni and J.-L. Barsoux, “Are Your Subordinates Setting You Up to Fail?” MIT Sloan Management Review 50, no. 4 (summer 2009): 43-51.

Reprint #:


More Like This

Add a comment

You must to post a comment.

First time here? Sign up for a free account: Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.