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What does it mean to be IN power when you’re working for yourself? The answer to that question, I believe, is meaningful for all of us – even those with bosses who live in cubes or on airplanes, slogging away on either side of the glass ceiling (which is there for some men as well).

Many, not all, of the lessons I’ve learned about personal power came because I’ve been on my own for the last 10 years, flying without a corporate net. But in my executive coaching work, I’ve come to realize that if I were in a corporate position now, I’d need these skills more than ever. Why? Because getting ahead inside an organization’s culture requires that we become personally strong enough to separate ourselves from it. This allows us the freedom to lead and shape it actively and consciously. The higher up you are the more responsibility you have for shaping the culture in service of your business goals, so the the higher up you are, the more important it is to be able to separate yourself.

There are many kinds of leadership and within complex corporate structures (or really any collection of souls, including nonprofit and government), the culture of the organization is your most powerful tool for getting business results – but only if you know how to use it. Sadly, most leaders have no clue and are victims to the culture they live in, perpetuating bad practice, sometimes making it worse and often falling victim to it. The answer isn’t on focusing on the culture itself, but in understanding it as an enabler and leading a proactive effort in culture-making in relentless pursuit of business results.

Sounds oxymoronic – don’t focus on culture in order to shape the culture?

A great leader achieves business results by staying focused on the business goals and removing every obstacle in the way of results, intentionally replacing it with something better. Culture is one of those “things” that must be managed intentionally, as is “leadership”, “teamwork”, “innovation” and a bunch of other good-for-us-stuff. (To learn more about this principle, research the CHASE – LOSE PRIME).

But in order to see the culture – and all its reflections – clearly enough to remove dysfunctional elements and bring in new ones which enable business results, a leader has to have objectivity about the culture itself. They must have a clear sense of the boundary between the culture and themselves and understand themselves outside the context of the culture. This is where personal power (which I call InPower) comes in, and this brings us back to Solopreneurship as a career advancement strategy.

Solopreneurs make their own culture

When you’re on your own, you got nothin’ you don’t make for yourself. For many of us, this is traumatic at first, like being in free-fall as we tumble out of our cube or cushy office. You see, it’s not about the height you attain when you’re “inside,” but the fact that on the “outside” there is simply nowhere to fall but up and flapping your own wings is pretty much the only solution. But for those of us who survive, it becomes liberating because we reconstruct our culture from the inside out.

External power is about manipulating external resources (money, property, authority), but internal power is about manipulating your own personal resources (energy, time, thoughts, actions). Solopreneurs – even rich ones who are well known – have to rely very heavily on their InPower resources to survive and thrive. And when they do, they not only create their own personal business culture more consciously, but they come to see others’ cultures more objectively and are able to help those trapped inside see it more clearly as well. This is often what makes a coach or consultant “so good and insightful.” Sure they’re smart, but even more important – they’re free to see what those on the inside can’t or won’t.

So my advice to my executive clients trying to achieve stellar business results is to take a page from the solopreneur and develop their InPower resources, free themselves from the culture they’re in so they can shape it more consciously. Here are three pieces of advice I give corporate clients and newbie solopreneurs to help them begin to gain this perspective from the inside.

  1. Be your own boss anyway – Seriously. What if you had no boss, rank and title – only you and the resources you have signing authority over right now? How would you get your job done – the one you’re paid to do right now? How would you manage your energy differently? How would you look at your priorities differently? How would you manage your employees differently? In the answers to these questions lie insights into how to shape the culture and be more successful inside the hierarchy.
  2. Define success for yourself. Sure the company has goals for you and your team, but make them truly yours. When you do this, you’ll add dimensions to it, adding quality metrics to the quantity metrics you’ve been given, think more deeply about sustaining that success beyond the next quarter and get more creative about how you and your team achieve it.
  3. Be your personal brand. I’m not talking about painting a logo on your forehead, I’m talking about being the person you were born to be – your most noble self. Speak your truth to everyone regardless of rank and authority. Be the person who could walk out of the cube nation and stumble only slightly at the fact that your business card now carries an obscure icon that no one has ever seen before. Make your name your calling card so that anyone who knows of you thinks of you before they think of whatever company you happen to be affiliated with at that moment. This isn’t an ego thing, far from it, it’s about knowing yourself deeply and being distinct from any business or activity you align yourself with – including your corporate culture.

If you’re working in a hierarchy, this might all sound really incongruous as a way to manage your organization’s culture, because your organization won’t reward you for separating yourself from the culture in this way. However, that’s not the point. The point is that they will reward you for what you can accomplish when you achieve such separation. And because you’ll personally feel more secure and powerful, if they don’t you know it’s time to move on. Oh, and if you do decide to go out on your own, you’ll have a much easier time adjusting!

A brief comment on Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurs often live in between these worlds. Many leave cubeville determined to create their own culture intentionally and have the potential to become great leaders because of this. Some succeed and other simply recreate the dysfunction they sought to avoid. The difference between such success and failure, once more, falls on their own InPower stance and how conscious they are that the culture they’re creating isn’t about them and their ego; it’s about what that particular group of people needs to produce the business results everyone seeks.

Note: I developed this post while preparing for a talk tomorrow night – Flying Solo – Finding Your Personal Power Without a Corporate Net. It’s free, so come on by if you’re in the DC area

This post originally appeared on the Reclaiming Leadership blog. Check out my new self-service women’s leadership coaching website: InPowerCoaching.com.

Dana Theus