How to Manage “Miles Law” to Improve Your Influence

Location, location, location.

Posted Oct 02, 2019

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Your Location?
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“Where you stand depends upon where you sit” is also known as Miles's Law. In this post, we will go over the birth of Miles's Law and then discuss its implications for your career.

Rufus Miles was a senior officer with the Bureau of the Budget during the Truman Administration. The Bureau’s mission is financial oversight of Federal operating agencies. Top officials in operating agencies naturally resented the interference of the Bureau of the Budget staff.

One day, Rufus’s subordinate informed him that a Federal operating agency had offered him a position with a significantly higher salary. The subordinate preferred to work with the Bureau, but the financial rewards were too great to pass up. Rufus said he could not match the financial package and wished his subordinate well.

Within weeks, Rufus’ former subordinate loudly joined his new colleagues in their criticism about Bureau interference. People on Rufus’s team complained that this ex-employee had betrayed Rufus and the Bureau. Rufus calmly replied, “Where you stand depends upon where you sit.” (Miles, 1978)

How Miles's Law Applies to You

Embedded in Miles’s Law are two assumptions:

1. Money and real estate are scarce corporate resources.

“Money talks” was not discovered by Rufus Miles; the source of one’s current income will always generate more vocal support. This is the way the world has always worked.

A less obvious assumption embedded within Miles’s Law is that physical space is a scarce corporate resource.

2. Where you stand depends upon where you sit.

How many steps is your office from the CEO’s office? If you are head of a business function, Miles’s Law means that the closer your office is to the CEO, the more aligned you will probably be with your CEO.  

Conversely, “Where you sit influences where you stand.” The closer you are to the center of power, the more others in the organization will perceive that you and the function you head are valued by the CEO. 

The closer you are to the center of power, the more opportunities there are for informal discussions between you and the CEO. This allows you to understand the CEO’s frame of mind better and gives you more opportunities to influence the CEO.

Miles's Law and the "Corporate Ghetto"

We define a "Corporate Ghetto" as a place geographically separated from the center of power. It is often a physical spot where colleagues work with other colleagues from the same discipline or function. The stated rationale for a ghetto is to improve within-department communications. Who can argue that it is more productive for attorneys to work next to other attorneys?

When the ghetto is located on another floor away from the CEO, there is almost zero probability of “informal” conversations between the head of the function and the CEO. This limits the functional head’s ability to influence the CEO.

When the CEO rails against the “silo mentality” of the corporate culture—yet the company physically places people in "Professional Ghettos"—there is a gap between verbal ideals and real estate reality. Miles's Law implies that professionals who work alongside each other often develop an “us versus them” attitude.   

The Location Paradox

For leaders seeking to increase their influence, this creates the "Location Paradox." You don’t want to sit too far away from your peers, but you don't want to be too close either.

Department heads should consider reducing the tendency towards a silo mentality by insisting that the team “mix it up.” Your team will probably not do this naturally. As a leader, you will probably have to require a “mix-up.”

Here's an example of a mix-up:

An urban teaching hospital Board of Trustees would normally have the CEO sitting at the head of the table. Next to the CEO would be the important business leaders. At the end of the long table, hospital physicians would sit together, have conversations among each other, and oppose business leaders’ ideas in unison. 

To break up this dysfunctional culture, we convinced three leading physicians to show up five minutes before the scheduled meeting and sit near the head of the table, but separate from each other. This forced the business leaders to sit next to the physicians. They would engage in informal conversations and eventually managed to discuss proposals with each other before being formally submitted for consideration to the Board.

This change of seating helped changed the dysfunctional Board culture.

Another example:

The head of Human Resources in a department housed on the ground floor of a 10-story office building instructed her HR professionals and office support staff to have lunch at the employee cafeteria as often as possible. But HR people were not permitted to have lunch with HR people. They had to sit with strangers and ask questions about their issues with the company’s approach to attracting, retaining, and motivating employees. 

After lunch, HR employees would write memos summarizing what they had learned without mentioning the names of people they had lunch with. These memos were then sent to the head of HR.

These memos helped the head of HR get a better sense of real-time issues in the company versus the sanitized or skewed information she was receiving from her peers.

A third example:

The General Counsel and her team of attorneys were in a ghetto on the fourth floor while the CEO was located on the seventh floor. At 4:30 pm every day, the General Counsel would come up to the seventh floor. There was a Board Room next to the CEO’s office. If it was empty, she would take a seat and start doing work on her laptop. Between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m., the CEO would generally leave her office and spot the General Counsel in the Board Room.

She initially asked, “Why are you here and not in your office?" 

The General Counsel would respond, “I wanted to be near you in case you want a sounding board for ideas.”

Eventually, the CEO stopped asking the question and got in the routine of using the General Counsel as an informal sounding board to debrief events of the day or test out ideas. This relationship would never have happened had the General Counsel remained in her office.

Miles’s Law and the Dangers of Telecommuting

At the beginning of this article, we spoke about space being a scarce corporate resource. One way of managing this scarce resource is to encourage employees to work from home. Working from home has many advantages for employees with children or employees whose work commutes are difficult.

Examining telecommuting from the perspective of Miles’s Law provides a different perspective.

Lamar Reinsch (1997) of Georgetown University examined the relationship between telecommuting workers and their managers. Thirty-nine male and 64 female telecommuters who worked in large organizations on the East Coast of the United States were surveyed and their bosses interviewed. 

The quality of the boss-subordinate relationship was highest at the beginning of the telecommuting relationship. At the six-month mark, the relationship began to deteriorate and continued to get worse.

Miles's Law and Corporate Influence

Fred was named the Chief HR Officer for a company and was told that “telecommuting was an option” and that he would have "flexible hours." Taking his boss literally, Fred spent two days a week telecommuting from his home. 

While the CEO had no problems with Fred’s technical performance or his leadership in the group, he did find that Fred was not an effective symbol of the corporate culture. That culture was collaborative, team-based, and positive. It is hard to demonstrate those qualities over the telephone. 

Fred was fired six months after he began working.

Conclusion

Companies have two scarce resources: money and space. Leaders who effectively can manage physical space issues can have an outside influence on the destiny of their organizations. 

In the 21st century, where you “sit” need not be a permanent office chair. Try changing where you sit at Board meetings, committee meetings, employee cafeteria settings, etc. Be sensitive that a “virtual” seat at an online meeting doesn’t give you the same leverage as the person physically sitting next to the leader. 

Heed the warning of Miles's Law: Competence is a basic requirement for success. But competence alone is insufficient. Competence combined with influence is the key. Are you sitting in the right place to exert influence?

References

L.J. Reinsch. “Relationships Between Telecommuting Workers and Their Managers: an exploratory study.”,1997, JOURNAL OF BUSINESS COMMUNICATIONS, 34,4, pp.343-369.

R.E. Miles. “The Origin and Meaning of Miles’ Law.” (1978), 38,6,399-403