Robert Gates has been startlingly successful as Defense Secretary, yet the
odds were that Republican Gates would not be successful in a Democratic
cabinet. Why has he been so successful? What unique, transferable
skills does he have that anyone can develop and use?
Gates is an unusual professional in many ways. He has been
advising Presidents for 35 years: Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush One, Bush
Two and now Obama. Significantly, he is the only member of Bush’s
cabinet to be asked to stay on in the Obama cabinet.
encountered many analyses of his expertise, leading me to suspect that
he’s a masterful professional. An extensive article in Time magazine
recently detailed Gates’ professionalism and expertise in laser focus.
(A free Time download for future reference is available here.)
Throughout this blog, I hope you’ll be asking what you need to learn from his expertise.
To set the context, as Time and many other articles point
out, Gates may well be the single most influential person in Obama’s
cabinet. It was widely believed that Gates would have little influence
in a cabinet populated by “lefties.” That has not been the case at
all. Begin with the fact that unlike Rumsfeld (and Colin Powell),
Gates has created a collaborative and supportive, rather than a
competitive, relationship with the State Department. He also maintains
a close relationship with Hilary Clinton.
Managing the Boss
Time quotes an aide who puts it this way: Gates has always
had a keen sense about who is the boss, ‘how they work, what their
needs are and how to successfully contribute to their offices.’
That’s a classic statement about one side of managing your
boss. Kotter and Gabarro, who did the research and wrote the classic
paper on managing your boss, underline
Gates’ activities. They found that it’s important to focus on five
issues: compatible work styles, mutual expectations, information flow,
dependability and honesty, and good use of your boss’s time.
Gates has inherent similarities to Obama that were not
shared with Bush: cerebral, analytical and reflective. Their
fundamental policy agreement is that they both see terrorism as a
Gaining resources and commitments
When Gates was invited to converse with Obama regarding the
opportunity to stay on as Defense Secretary, he asked the President one
question: “Can you trust me?”
When you manage up well, you’re able to get the resources
you need to carry out your own job. As a result, Gates has gotten the
support and resources to shift spending from theoretical, conventional
wars to the one the military is actually fighting now. In addition, he
helped execute a surge in Afghanistan. “That’s pretty remarkable,”
says a senior defense official.
Far too many employees and managers fail to be able to gain
the resources as well as the support of their bosses and as a result
also fail to meet their personal and organizational objectives. This
lack of attention given to their bosses and the organizational system
keeps them from the opportunities and promotions they desire.
The Kotter and Gabarro research emphasizes the need to be
thorough in managing your boss. That, they point out, means that
bosses are available to link them to the rest of the organization, to
help them set priorities and secure the resources they need.
Managing your boss is not manipulation. It’s forging ties based on mutual respect and understanding.
Mastering the organizational culture
“I have never seen anyone more effectively maneuver in the
Executive Branch of the Federal Government than Bob Gates,” says David
Boren who was the former head of the Senate’s select intelligence
committee. “He is extremely good at forming alliances with other
people in the government to advance his point of view.”
Everyone believes in alliances and networks, yet few take
the time to build them. On numerous occasions, executives have asked
me to help them with the skills for building a power coalition.
Translated, this is merely a network of well-placed contacts with whom
you have built relationships of mutual understanding and mutual respect.
The research is exceptionally pointed about mastering the
organizational culture through alliances and networks. The world today
is a network society. My consulting over the years has shown
repeatedly that individuals and organizations struggle to learn how to
succeed in the network society. Those who succeed in network and
alliance building get better information, ideas, leads, business
opportunities, faster promotions and make more money.
What that will mean at any level in the organization, or
even as an entrepreneur, is that you need to set aside a significant
amount of time building relationships so that as needs arise, you too
can work the system to assist others and achieve your own career
What that continues to mean is that all of us benefit by
enabling our boss so that he/she can enable us, and then taking those
same skills to build networks and alliances throughout the
organization. If you’re at entry level, it takes six months to begin
to see it’s impact. But in our flat world, the business person who
wants to succeed will make these three competencies front and central.
What do you think? Why is Defense Secretary Gates so successful? And what can you learn from that?