The most powerful person in the room
“Who is the most powerful person you’ve ever met?” That was the question I was asked by a 17-year-old student at a local school where I was giving a talk about business, ethics and careers.
The question stayed with me, because when I thought about the answer I didnâ€™t think of just one person, I thought about the teams of people and the institutions around the powerful people I have met.
In reality, none of us gets to a position of success without a support system around us. Even the most successful people in the world, be they in business, politics, or the arts, donâ€™t get there alone.
The most powerful people I know include the secretary to the board of directors who makes sure all the board members have the huge number of papers we need to read and who makes sure I get to my board meetings in Rome on time; editors who polish my writing to make my thoughts clearer and more concise; and the man who fixed the smashed glass on my tablet so I could get to work again quickly.
All of these people, and many more like them, are the most powerful people in my life â€” the ones who can make things harder or easier, who determine on a day-to-day basis whether my day goes well, and who push me to do better and work harder.
I know that the young man who asked the question was looking for more of an X-Factor answer, and given that we’d been talking about things like the World Economic Forum a moment before, he was thinking about elder statesman, high-profile business people, maybe even rock stars. But none of those people would be as successful as they are today if they didnâ€™t have competent teams who work alongside them to bring their ideas to fruition, and who challenge their ideas to help make them better.
There are hundreds of people who make our daily lives run smoothly â€” some we meet and some we never meet. Without them much of what any of us achieve wouldnâ€™t be half as good. Thatâ€™s why itâ€™s also important that we purposely add more people to our lives who can help us understand things better and achieve more, be it in our own organisations or outside of them.
Executives will sometimes talk about how they value the work of the people around them, but actions speak louder than words. If a chief executive treats his team poorly â€” speaking sharply and with scant regard for what it would be like to be on the receiving end of harsh remarks, everyone else in the company sees that and knows that it is OK to treat people that way. Words matter. The things we say to the people who work around us and help us â€” and the way we say it â€” has the power to lighten a personâ€™s day or to ruin it.
As a board director, my power, and with it my responsibility and accountability, comes from the people I work with and from the corporate governance structures within which we all work. Sitting on a board, my job is not only to make sure that the organisation is striving to achieve great things, and that it attracts and retains the best people, but also that it has the structures and mechanisms in place that allows those people to achieve their best, and holds them to account when they try to cut corners. That is part of the reason I tend to like to serve on audit and risk committees of boards.
When I go to the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January, Iâ€™ll be sending back dispatches for this column. But the most powerful leaders wonâ€™t be the only ones Iâ€™ll be chatting with or listening to during the sessions. Iâ€™ll also be paying attention to and acknowledging the people who make sure those powerful people were well-prepared for the business meetings, the people behind the scenes who get us where we need to go when we need to be there, and the conference coordinators who make the whole vast machinery run.
Power is about more than just the person standing in the limelight. Chairmen of boards, CEOs of companies, presidents and prime ministers all depend on the people and systems around them. Good executive leadership fosters good governance and vice versa.
Power comes from empowerment.