Rebecca Cooke

A leader must become comfortable with power in order to exert influence — especially if the leader is a female — explained strategy consultant and leadership researcher, Rebecca Cooke, at the Women’s Leadership Initiative in April. The event was hosted by the MBA Programs Office at the Mays CityCentre Houston facility.

In her presentation called “Exercising Power and Influence,” Cooke shared a series of concepts and strategies with the 90 women in attendance. First, she described the difference between power and influence. Power is essentially the work we can do over time, she said, while influence as demonstrated in leadership, allows us to perform work through others — a key capability for effective leaders.

When introducing Cooke — who has served as her executive coach — Mary Lea McAnally, associate dean for graduate programs at Mays, said each of the women attending the series is making a long-term investment. This was the second session in a four-part series, and Cooke plans to speak again next fall. “You are investing in something that will build,” McAnally said. “Go home and plant it at your jobs, in your families and in your communities.”

Cooke compared the communication patterns between men and women. Based on research:
• Men tend to be more direct communicators, succinct, contextually-focused, action-oriented and speak in terms of I/me.
• Women tend to be more indirect, elaborate, personally-focused, emotional and speak in collaborative terms of we/us.
The importance of this comparison is that it allows us to determine why men are more verbally influential as leaders than women.

Cooke noted some common mistakes that women make, including trying to do too much, limiting themselves to utilizing one or two types of power, using the wrong kind of power or not having the power to be effective in a particular situation.

She gave the women some specific advice, such as assessing their strengths and weaknesses, getting over power hang-ups, embracing their vulnerabilities and getting outside their comfort zone and trying new methods. “When interacting in a conflict situation, connect with the listener first with words like “I hear you…'” she advised. “Learn to use questions to direct the conversation.”

Cooke defined some of the types of power that emerge in the workplace:

• Coercive — the ability to hold others to their responsibilities and when they don’t, hold them to appropriate consequences
• Connection — power and influence based on who you know and effectively using those contacts
• Expert — power that is related to what we functionally know
• Informational — based on having access to valuable and important information
• Legitimate or positional — power that is related directly to our job responsibilities and authorities
• Referent — the power of people who are well-liked and respected
• Reward — power that is based on a person’s ability to grant rewards such as opportunities and recognition

Cooke also spelled out some of the constraints that tend to hold people back: Lack of awareness, lack of knowledge and fear. “We can’t grow unless we get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she explained. Embracing effective power as leaders within the organization is one of the first ways to start.

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