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Game On - Power of the Pen

Updated: May 3, 2023

So many of my executive coaching clients don’t feel heard. A sense of hierarchy can make people feel that they have no agency and that their expertise counts for nothing. I tell them to stop complaining! You have the Power of the Pen.

You are using the Power of the Pen when you are diligent with documentation. It is a power that works overtime to demonstrate competence and to protect your credibility. In a worst-case scenario, it can keep you from being thrown under the bus.

How do you wield this power?

1. Recognize the value of documented conversation.

2. Communicate to establish what is important.

3. Keep emotions in check – but document, document, document.

Picture some very cranky engineers. They’re complaining they have no power. Operations doesn’t listen to them; they’re disrespected, no validation. They’ve told Ops not to run a certain pump – it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t calibrated, it wasn’t tested. But they start the pump anyway…

This is serious stuff. As they well know, there are consequences to decisions like these, sometimes even deaths. There could be hell to pay and heads will roll, and without documentation, the cranky engineers could wind up being the scapegoats.

Stop being a bunch of cry-babies! You have the power of the pen and you better use it, so when something bad happens, you have something to fall back on. Deliver the facts. Document the situation with reports, work orders, written communications.

Here’s another example: a facility engineer identifies a fault in a bearing. He tells the plant manager to take the equipment offline. But the plant manager refuses – “Sit down, it’s my facility and I run it!” Well, the bearing does fail, and this shuts down the entire plant for weeks to repair multiple equipment failures down the line, costing tens of thousands of dollars.

But the engineer was smart enough to insist the manager sign off on the decision. The engineer keeps his job, the plant manager loses theirs. When you have the discipline to document decisions you disagree with, you shift the power dynamic.

I’ve been in that position myself. For six months I worked on a construction project where I could see that with the way the contracts were written, they were building a facility with literally no way to get in or out. Different contractors had different responsibilities, and the contractor that had the responsibility for cutting the doors and windows wasn’t attending our weekly meetings. Over those six months, at every meeting, I asked about exits and entrances, and every time I was told that they had it all taken care of.

Then came the day when the buildings were completely closed in. All the crews stopped. The cranes stopped. Construction stopped. In a million-square-foot facility, no work could continue. Luckily, when the Civil Engineering VP asked why we hadn’t spotted this problem earlier, I had the minutes from every weekly meeting to show him – including his own word that the issue would be handled!

It’s tempting to dismiss the need to document as a vague professional development goal. Maybe you think:

· Your role doesn’t require the Power of the Pen?

· It’s too difficult to execute?

· Others will perceive you as uncooperative and adversarial?

None of this is true!

The power of the pen applies to all kinds of situations. It might take a little more work upfront, but strong documentation will always save you time and effort in the end. And you’ll find that having clear documentation actually fosters better communication and working relationships.

I hear so many tales of ever-shifting, often amorphous scopes of work. You might be familiar with this. Your client taps you on the shoulder and says, “I need you to stop what you’re working on, and do x-y-z for me.” It’s the end of the quarter, and you push to get it done. Because they asked. But this work isn’t part of the contract or schedule, and meanwhile, the scheduled work isn’t getting done.

The problem is, when it comes to getting paid, your client conveniently forgets about the shoulder-tap and you’re held to your contractual obligations. You might not even get compensated for the “shoulder-tap” work. The solution? Don’t just go along to get along. Here again, having the discipline to document the process can save a lot of agitation. An email memorializing changes in direction and scope can go a long way toward managing your workload. You can do it respectfully, but do it!

When our executive coaching clients commit themselves to disciplined documentation, remarkable things start to happen. Often, they get in touch months later to share their success stories. They’ve noticed how dynamics shift and relationships become easier to manage.


1. Do not cry that “no one listens to me.”

2. Active, disciplined use of the pen brings clarity.

3. People come to respect the system of record.

The bottom line? Don’t assume you don’t have any power, because you do. Diligent, disciplined use of the Power of the Pen bolsters confident, competent, strong relationships.

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