A Lesson in How to Influence Your New Boss

Posted 04.01.2009

Gates1 With so many things in play, it’s easy to lose track of all the major issues the Obama White House is dealing with. Today the focus is on the global economy and the G20 meeting. A few days earlier it was on establishing a new approach for taking on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Afpak). From the standpoint of media coverage and public attention, a quiet, but key, architect of the new Afpak policy has been Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

As the New York Times reported yesterday, Gates has now worked for eight U.S. presidents including Obama’s immediate predecessor, George W. Bush. Since leaders often have to work with a new boss (is there anyone at GM reading this?), I thought it would be interesting to see what tips can be gleaned from Gates on how to establish yourself quickly with a new boss while making a significant difference in a short amount of time.

Here’s a quick take on what I find both admirable and replicable in Gates’ approach:

Be There: We can start by amending the famous Woody Allen quote. It’s not just that 90% of life is showing up. It’s also showing up in the right place. When the Obama team came in, Gates intentionally modified a personal travel schedule that had him travelling around the globe 115 days last year to one where his daily travel is primarily limited now to the two mile trip between the Pentagon and the White House. Gates clearly understood that if he was going to influence the President and his team, he had to be engaged them with personally so he could learn their style and points of view. They also had to get to know him and trust him. He invested the time in doing that.

Think Outside In: Unlike some of his predecessors, Gates does not view the Defense Department as the hammer that makes every problem look like a nail. As the article reports, one of the factors that prompted Obama to ask Gates to stay on was a speech Gates gave in 2007 where he said, “One of the most important lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win.” Gates has been a key player in ensuring that the new Afpak plan involves not just more troops but more experts from civilian agencies from the State Department and other agencies.

Share a Grounded Point of View: In speaking about the Afpak region in Congressional testimony recently, Gates got the attention of many experts when he said, “If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose.” In saying this he summarized a new consensus that he helped develop inside the White House that the goals need to be realistic. The combination of Gates’ sharing his experience in the region along with his low key demeanor enabled him to influence the President and his colleagues towards a new policy.

Keep Your Ego in Check: Compared to others in the administration, Gates is not someone you see on the news or in social Washington a lot. As the article points out, he spends most evenings at home eating carry out food for dinner. His clarity on the results he’s trying to achieve and his emphasis on the relationships he’s trying to build override any personal impulses to come across like a big shot. Clearly, he is a big shot. It’s just that he doesn’t feel compelled to remind himself and others of that all the time.

When I look at that list of how Gates is showing up – being there, thinking beyond his own agenda, sharing a grounded point of view and being low on ego needs – my thought is, “No wonder this guy has worked for eight different presidents and is already a key player with Obama.” Wouldn’t any new boss worth his or her salt want people with that kind of approach on their team?

What’s been your experience in establishing yourself with a new boss or leadership team? Have you used some of the Gates strategies? What else has worked for you in making this kind of transition?