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4 Types of Power That Can Boost Your HR Career

Regardless of your job title, you can become a better leader by owning your own power.

People playing a game of chess on a board.

Everybody likes Rachel Conard—which is one reason she’s so good at her job. When she began her career as a recruiter with 1st St NW Inc., a technical staffing company in Milwaukee, she quickly earned the respect of the industrial engineers she worked with by learning to talk shop. Now, as the company’s chief talent officer, she is admired for her ability to build relationships with both candidates and hiring managers. 

“Adaptability is key,” Conard says. “Different approaches motivate different types of job seekers. A good recruiter intuitively customizes his or her style to meet candidates’ needs.” 

For applicants looking for someone to simply facilitate a connection, she functions like a “ghost recruiter” who fades away after brokering an introduction with a hiring manager. For those who want mentors, she provides constructive feedback and guidance. With candidates who seek a partnership of equals, she discusses the job market and helps them weigh the pros and cons of each opportunity. 

“I can be your drill sergeant and your cheerleader. Nag you like your sister and nurture you like your mother. Be your therapist, listen to your concerns and help you find a more professionally fulfilling path,” Conard says. 

Her successful track record of placements and the frequent thank-you cards and e-mails she receives from both applicants and hiring managers affirm the value of her empathetic approach.

Conard has what social psychologists call “referent power,” which means influence over others that is acquired from being well-liked or respected. It’s one of the following four sources of power that HR professionals can cultivate to advance in their careers. 

1. Referent Power 

First identified by social psychologists John R.P. French and Bertram Raven, referent power is built around the twin pillars of personality and character. “It comes from the idea that the follower sees the leader as a personal frame of reference—someone they want to emulate,” says Ken Downer, founder of RapidStart Leadership, a management consulting firm in Eden Prairie, Minn. 

The key to building this form of power, Downer says, is to make whomever you are talking to feel like the most important person in the room. You can do that by giving individuals your undivided attention, cultivating an attitude of acceptance, celebrating others’ successes and demonstrating respect.

Referent leaders should be trustworthy, lead by example and keep their word.

“HR professionals are perceived as credible when they can be trusted to do what they say they will and treat people fairly and honestly,” says Melissa Fairman, senior HR manager for Mickey Thompson Tires & Wheels, a Cleveland-area automotive performance aftermarket company.

Fairman reports directly to the company president and is responsible for setting the strategic direction of the HR function as well as managing the HR team. 

After serving as an HR assistant early in her career, Fairman moved through various jobs until she landed her current senior leadership position. Interestingly, the role that may have taught her the most about referent power was her first job out of college—as a customer service rep—because it showed her the importance of being considerate to others. 

“Nothing can ruin the integrity and reputation of an HR department as easily as treating employees poorly,” Fairman says. “If you have shot your credibility by partaking in office gossip, sharing confidential information, or acting in an immature or unprofessional manner, very few people will trust you.” Then, instead of turning to you for help, employees may turn against you.

2. Expert Power

People with expert power can influence others based on their knowledge. Of course, you naturally cultivate skills and experience through seniority, but you should also take the initiative to develop specialized areas of expertise.

“Find a niche and build your reputation around it,” says Dorie Clark, adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and author of Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following (Portfolio, 2015). Conard, for example, is known as an authority in technical recruiting.

Credentials are another way to demonstrate mastery. Fairman pursued a master’s degree in business administration with a focus on HR and earned an HR certification focused on the competencies critical to the profession.

Educate yourself about the business as well. When you understand leadership values and priorities, you are in a better position to create HR processes that are strategically aligned with the company’s goals. 

“If leaders view HR as a support function that is not essential to the core business, they won’t want to fund it or support it,” Clark says. “When speaking about your work, cite hard statistics and the business results that it produced.”

Professionals with expert power build an aura of credibility. 

[Members'-only HR Q&A: What educational resources should I consider to further my HR career?]

3. Executive Presence Power

Many HR professionals work behind the scenes to support others’ careers. But sometimes you need to emerge from the shadows if you want to be viewed as a leader.

Research by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), a nonprofit research organization in New York City, concluded that leadership roles are typically given to those who already act the part. 

That’s why developing an executive presence is important. In a recent CTI study, 67 percent of executives identified “gravitas”—which comes from exuding confidence, acting decisively, projecting vision and demonstrating emotional intelligence—as a core characteristic of executive presence. 

Being willing to stand up for what you believe in is also critical, according to Sandra Zimmer, president and founder of the Self-Expression Center in Houston. That means putting your foot down and stepping up to the plate, even in hard times or when decisions are unpopular, says Zimmer, who helps emerging leaders develop greater executive presence.  

“You have to speak up and contribute your insights,” says Zimmer, author of It’s Your Time to Shine: How to Overcome Fear of Public Speaking, Develop Authentic Presence and Speak from Your Heart (Self-Expression Center, 2009). 

Indeed, people with executive presence are skillful communicators. You can develop your own voice in a way that highlights your talents, style and expertise, whether that’s through public speaking, e-mail or everyday conversation. 

For Fairman, it included creating the HR ReMix blog to showcase her writing ability, expand her HR network, and discuss leadership and organizational development issues with her peers.

4. Impact Power

“Position doesn’t define power,” says Mindy Grossman, president and CEO of Weight Watchers in New York. “Impact defines power. What impact are you having on people? What impact are you having on the business? Power comes from the relationships you build and the value that you add.”

One way to become indispensable within a network is to make yourself a “hub” by building connections with disparate people and groups, according to Clark. She cites an example of a friend who expanded her circle of influence by having lunch each week with people who worked in different departments in her company. This enabled the woman to access information that others didn’t have while also expanding the number of people she could help and influence.

“That is powerful,” Clark says. “That is career insurance.”  

Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago. 


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