“Real change will come when powerful women are less of an exception. It is easy to dislike senior women because there are so few.” Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and author of ‘Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead’; pictured above at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2013; pic: © World Economic Forum

Power and Pedigree

27th January 2016

Half-way through the second decade of the 21st century, who really has influence in this country – and how do they obtain it? Jennifer Lipman investigates…

Where does power lie in Britain? Once, it was obvious; those who were respected and heeded were kings and leaders, or perhaps clergymen. And for centuries influence was inextricably linked to being part of the aristocracy, the so-called ruling classes.

But these days the establishment is a wide pool, with just one in seven of us counting as traditionally working class, according to the 2013 Great British Class Survey – and we have lost much of our deference to God, monarch and country. Meanwhile the future queen is technically a commoner, Kim Kardashian gets more press coverage than the Pope, mavericks like Nigel Farage command vast followings, and respected thinkers can fall out of favour instantly for a controversial aside.

And after scandal upon scandal, the traditional institutions of power – like banking, politics or the police– no longer command respect ‘just because’… or even at all. According to a poll conducted last January, even our faith in the clergy is falling, down from 85% in 1983 to 71% today.

Clearly the rules of power – who has it and how to get it – have changed. So in the new power order, how do people grab the edge and make sure the world listens?

Firstly, the old rules aren’t yet redundant. In June, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission identified a ‘poshness test’ applied in elite careers, with chair Alan Milburn lamenting that those “with working-class backgrounds are being systematically locked out of top jobs”. Plus ça change.

Indeed, power is still inextricably linked to pedigree, with graduates of ‘posh’ universities and well-connected Hooray Henrys still dominating the upper echelons of business and the arts.  Lest we forget, both the Prime Minister and Archbishop of Canterbury went to Eton, while the Bullingdon Club exerts a remarkable hold on public life. And Kate Middleton may not be blue-blooded, but her route to prominence (and influence) was via the boarding school and the hockey pitch.

Yet ‘poshness’ is no longer the defining factor in whether you join the power elite, with top firms falling over themselves to introduce blind application processes, where applicants’ names or universities attended are not disclosed. Our national treasures include the non-posh like JK Rowling and Mo Farah (OBE and CBE respectively) while being from the Polo-playing classes is no longer a badge of honour. Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch may have attended Eton and Harrow respectively, but they’re loath to emphasise it. “I’m not upper class,” said the cut-glass accented Cumberbatch. “Upper class to me means you are either born into wealth or you’re royalty.”

While the adage ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,’ still applies, it can only take you so far. As Stefan Stern, visiting professor at Cass Business School, points out, “the ‘right’ school or university can give you a head start, but you will still have to deliver afterwards”.

This is echoed by the author of the ‘Great British Class Survey’, Professor Mike Savage, who wrote recently that entry to the most privileged careers now depends “not only on access to elite universities but [on] an intense portfolio of internships, social networking and cultural activity”.

By the same token, you no longer have to be white or male. Yes, the power lists are dominated by white men, and there are fewer women running FTSE 100 firms than men named John. And yes, as Stern sighs, “sometimes, I’m afraid, women just have to prove they are better to get an equal chance”, and yes, Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg is right that powerful women “are less liked” than men. “Real change will come,” she says, “when powerful women are less of an exception. It is easy to dislike senior women because there are so few.”

But all things considered, we’ve come far since the Mad Men era, when the idea of a powerful woman or black man was a contradiction in terms. To take two examples, the BBC Trust Chairman is female (Rona Fairhead), while Business Secretary Sajid Javid is the son of a Pakistani immigrant. Neither has seriously had their competency doubted on the grounds of sex or ethnicity. Meanwhile there is concerted Government action underway to increase boardroom diversity.

So where is power moving to? The technology sector, that’s where. The new power players are as likely to be geeks coding in their childhood bedroom as
Oxbridge alumni.

When Apple or Google do something, people listen, as we once did when royals spoke. The Mark Zuckerbergs of this world command unprecedented attention, with their inventions – if not they themselves – becoming household names. Our daily lives are shaped by tech entrepreneurs; we read the news on iPads, book taxis on Uber and choose hotels from TripAdvisor reviews.

We’re not just seeing a change in who holds power. We’re also seeing a change in how it is secured. That’s not to say the old traits – winning an election, say, or releasing a hit single – don’t matter; simply that they’re no longer the sole way of doing things.

For beyond the tech entrepreneurs climbing up the power lists, influence is becoming synonymous with shaking things up and bypassing the traditional gatekeepers, whether that’s news sites like Buzzfeed challenging the mainstream press, EL James self-publishing 50 Shades of Grey, or candidates appealing directly to voters on Facebook. Video bloggers like Zoella are becoming as influential among teenagers as traditional pop stars, thanks to canny use of YouTube.

And since anyone can be the next big player, provided they find the right niche, we’re also seeing a shift away from power being a zero-sum game. Obviously, to have sway you need someone to sway, but outside of The Apprentice, a ‘dog eat dog’ attitude is unlikely to be rewarded. The focus now is on sharing information; on mentoring and collaboration rather than competition. “It’s all about reciprocity,” says Stern. “Help others and they will help you.”

Just as the mainstays of class and breeding have declined, money is becoming less important. The modern wealthy are seen as a strange breed, with the post-recession mood revolted by excess. Wealth might provide a platform, but people won’t automatically listen. Influence today increasingly comes from doing, rather than having, whether that’s a business with an innovation fund for start-ups, or celebrities backing good causes. Remember the Ice Bucket challenge? Everyone who was anyone doused themselves, from Anna Wintour to Victoria Beckham.

So what else do the new powerful have in common? They’re good at networking, but they emphasise nurturing relationships, rather than relying on old ties. Jacqueline Rogers, founder of women’s business club The Athena Network, draws a comparison with a bank account. “When you put more money in the account is healthy. The more you take out you are more likely to run into debt,’ she says. “You need to make an investment before you reap the return.” The modern influential, she says, understand that.

In fact, 21st century power players are rarely off the clock, whether that’s in terms of expanding their network or simply drawing attention to their skills. At the core of that is social media, which the aptly named executive coach Thomas Power says is “beyond critical” for those in powerful positions. “If you’re not on it you’re not visible,” he says, pointing to the energy the likes of Lord Sugar and Richard Branson expend on it. He suggests Twitter is the new telephone. “Can you imagine 30 years ago not having one? Your career wouldn’t have advanced.”

Crucially, they’re not just looking at cat videos online. As Stern explains, “digital is another channel in which you can make an impact... it’s a way of making contacts and spreading your network and sphere of influence.” The new powerful understand the currency of being part of the social conversation and talking to the ‘right’ people in the ‘right’ way.

They also pay attention to cultivating what James Uffindell, founder of employability group Bright Network, describes as their “personal brand”, or what you might call ‘showing off’. To get noticed in your field nowadays, you’ve got to exhibit your skills to anyone who might be looking. A budding photographer needs an impressive Instagram portfolio, a comedian will have a carefully edited showreel on YouTube. As Uffindell says, today we can control how we are perceived like never before. “It’s being yourself while remaining conscious of the image you are presenting, and who you want to appeal to.”

Equally, they know to keep their options open. Last year the New York Times coined the phrase the ‘slash’ generation, describing those following several career paths simultaneously (but not for financial reasons). It’s a trend here too, with Government figures showing self-employment skyrocketing. The would-be powerful are multi-talented, or at least good multi-taskers; working a day job and running a fitness blog or cupcake company in their downtime. Even Boris Johnson, with his eye on Downing Street, wears several hats; running London, being an MP and writing books and columns. As Stern says, to increase your influence, it’s vital to “try and be interested in everything”.

Whether this strategy will pay off is anyone’s guess. For if the rules are changing, perhaps the biggest change is that influence is no longer a lifelong commodity. Our sharp-toothed news cycle and our short attention spans mean you can be talked about everywhere by lunchtime and fade back into obscurity by dinner. By the same token, what holds now about power might well not hold in the future.

There’s one rule that still applies. As Margaret Thatcher is said to have observed: “Power is like being a lady... if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

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