Power & Politics -- A Postscript

The concepts presented in my article, Power & Politics in the Corporation, and their amplification here in this blog are primarily my own work, and principally based on my own observations.  Some of the terminology, such as street fighters or manueverers I've adapted from the work of others, trying to stay a true as possible to their original ideas, but also wanting to conform those descriptions tothe entire landscape of my own concept.

In broad strokes, politics in the corporation involves two primary dimensions -- will and skill.  Will comes down to the question of where the practitioner draws the line between acceptable and offensive.  Some eschew politics completely, while others seem to feel (either through deliberate thought, or by default), that anything goes.  In some of my writing, I explore the extension of that boundary to include illegal acts, as opposed to just immoral ones -- things like, blackmail, murder and theft.  Other than fear of punishment, what causes the amoral from stopping at scapegoating?  Why not move on to other potentially productive actions like larceny?

The other dimension, skill, is determined by natural talent, education, and practice.  I contend that those who are the most emotionally intelligent (in other words, the most aware of how others perceive and feel about what is going on around them) have the greatest natural talent.  Education can be academic, such as I've attempted to provide with my article and blog series, but in a practical sense the aid of a mentor is probably the best source of political teaching.  And just like any human endeavor, practicing the tactics makes one better at implementing them, although negative experiences probably teach more than positive ones do.

Combine both high will and skill, and you've got the makings of a successful politician.  But not all good politicians succeed, and not all poor politicians fail.  This is because real performance also counts in the corporate world -- a fact I've largely ignored in the text of the article.  Ultimately it takes all three -- political skill, political will, and performance -- to keep ascending the ladder.

Is there a luck factor as well?  I've always been opposed to ascribing much of success and failure to luck.  The belief that winners create their own luck certainly has appeal.  But I can't deny there is a certain randomness to those who ultimately ascend to the top, compared with those who don't.  Some people become CEO's with obvious flaws, while others, with seemingly impenetrable armor, are terminated (some with extreme prejudice).  So yes, I admit there is a little luck involved in the end.  Over the mass numbers, it probably evens out, but in individual cases, strange things can happen.

I would love to hear feedback from other thinkers on the subject of politics, political tactics, and the way these things function in large organizations.  If you're too shy to post comments here, please feel free to email me at tspears62@gmail.com

Use Sparingly, Use Strategically -- Tactic #20

The final power player tactic involves the effective selection and usage of the other tactics already discussed.  If you're a power player, the way you do this will differ, depending on whether you're a street fighter or a maneuverer.

You see, most of your coworkers -- perhaps even the world at large -- see the power player tactics as...well...obnoxious.  If you're a maneuverer, you want to avoid the label of obnoxious.  Obnoxious will taint your image.  Obnoxious will drive allies away.  Obnoxious will add to your list of enemies and provide them with a rallying point.  If you're a maneuverer, you want to prevent those things from happening, and there is no other way to do so than to use the tactics sparingly.  On the other hand, if you're of the relatively rare street fighter persuasion, you probably don't care about being labeled obnoxious, and will have a freer hand in using the power player tactics.  In fact, people will probably expect you to be politically maeuvering more or less all the time (which has its own challenges).

So how do you decide when it is best to do nothing, when it is best to limit yourself to the relatively benign tactics of the neutrals, and when its appropriate to go all out?  I'll suggest there are four factors you must consider.

  1. Is situation one where high rewards are possible?  We're talking promotion, job-preservation, or enemy elimination here, rather than image enhancing, alliance building, or revenge delivering.
  2. Are the consequences of failing small?  Every one of these tactics has the potential to backfire.  Every application could bend back on you if you make a mistake or encounter opposition also skilled in the use of power play tactics.  Are you betting a friendship with a subordinate two levels below you, or are you betting your career?
  3. Is the likelihood of success high or very high?  Taking multiple high risk gambles is a mistake -- eventually one will fall apart.  I recommend you look for what seems like sure things in the beginning -- as the situation unfolds and you discover adverse circumstances, at least you still have a good chance of winning.  That's risky enough.
  4. Is the political capital cost low?  Every political project you undertake stresses your alliances and friendships.  Metaphorically, you are making a withdrawl from your political capital account, and you don't want to later find yourself in need with a low balance.  Save political capital for only the best opportunities.
If you can say yes to three of the four questions above, then a manueverer is well positioned to engage in the power player tactics.  If you can only say yes to one or two, my advice is to stick with neutral tactics.  If you don't have any yeses, the what the heck are you wasting your time for??



Invest in Scapegoats -- Tactic #19

Now we come to what is considered by some to be the most repulsive of all political tactics -- the scapegoating of subordinates.  This is a maneuverer's tactic, much more so than a street fighter's.  Street fighters use the force of their personalities in their political battles, where maneuverers are more subtle.  All the master maneuverers I personally know, are masters of scapegoating.

"When a problem develops, you dive down.  I go up."

This advice was perhaps the closest I ever came to understanding what happens in the head of the maneuverer when he or she plays this card.  Looking at if from my somewhat more moralistic viewpoint, it appears to be a shameless shucking of blame, allowingthe crap fall on the heads and shoulders of innocent and semi-innocent others instead.  I could never do it -- not because I didn't understand the tactic, but simply because it seemed so wrong.

You may have a different sense of right and wrong.  Or maybe circumstances make the act of scapegoating less repugnant.  For whatever reason, if you're going to do it, you should employ the tactic wisely and correctly.

There are two keys to successful scapegoating -- timing and selection of the "goat".  From a timing standpoint, the earlier in a project, the better.  I'd advise you to start planning a scapegoat as a back-up plan for any high risk project or action.  And I'd put the scapegoat in place as soon as you see the first small indications of trouble.

What do I mean by "put in place"?  Specifically maneuver the scapegoat into a position where they are responsible for the thing at risk.  Make them the project manager, if it is a project.  Make them the sponsoring manager, if it is an acquisition.

Yes, you're certainly giving up the opportunity to take the lion's share of the credit for success (should such an unlikely event occur).  If the project succeeds, however, you will still share in the glory, perhaps just not taking center stage.  If the project fails, you will have distanced yourself sufficiently as to not get too much mud on you.  It's an insurance policy -- take it out when you develop a sniffle, not when you are on life support -- by then it costs too much, and the patient is likely to die anyway.

Selecting the right scapegoat can be an art in itself.  A requirement for success is for the "goat" to be your subordinate, and for them to be acknowledged in the organization as "good" and "a good fit".

Why a subordinate?  Because anyone else is likely to cast all blame for any failing back toward you as the project goes down the tubes.  It could still happen with a subordinate, but it's less likely, particularly if you put them in place blindly.  By that I mean, they don't realize why they are actually there -- as a buffer between you and failure.  You achieve this by stroking their egos, and painting a rosy picture of the future that goes along with success of the project.  For the "goat" the project becomes an opportunity, not a risk.  I've seen scapegoats forced into the role fully aware of what is happening, and they tend to be much less tractable, although it can work if you have just the right touch with the "goat".

Why a good employee?  Because chucking a poor performer at the issue is a very obvious attempt to escape blame.  Besides, conventional wisdom says you should put your best people on your biggest challenges.  Anything less looks suspicious.  The problem with this strategy is you may very likely have to sacrifice the employee.  When it comes down to a failure -- it is likely to either be him or you (although sometimes it can be both of you, if you stayed too close).  You have to be ready to let that employee go fairly early, and be prepared to toss another body or two under the wheels, too, if necessary.

Long term ramifications are huge -- you deplete your talent pool, and develop a bad reputation among your subordinates by using the tactic.  Oddly, I've seen it repeatedly used as standard operating procedure, or even applauded, at the highest levels of corporations -- a place rife with maneuverers.

As the pinnacle of the political maneuverer's tactical options, Scapegoating is a must for any corporate politician with an eye on the top job.

Expect Betrayal -- Tactic #18

Most business relationships are superficial.  It may not feel that way at the time, but if you've ever changed companies, you can test my assertion.  How many of your old associates do you still spend time with?  For most people, the answer is -- not very many.  And why is that?  Simply because in your next job, you develop a collection of new superficial business relationships, and those force out the old.  After all there's only so much time in the day, right?

Real relationships are deeper than just the convenience of the moment.  They are built on shared interests and experiences, true respect and interdependence.  Superficial business relationships tend to be based on proximity, and the needs of constantly shifting alliances and power bases.

And yet, some business relationships do develop into real relationships.  But it takes hard work to make it happen, and the relationship has to transcend the politics of the office.  Employees will willingly sacrifice a competitor, often will sacrifice a peer, but rarely will sacrifice a friend.  So finding the critical few relationships is very important to your power base -- these are the relationships you can USUALLY depend on no matter what.  Mentor relationships certainly fall into this category.

I say usually, because I've seen a handful of shocking betrayals in my days in executive leadership. I can't mention their specifics, but their circumstances still amaze me.  They were such complete and utter betrayals that I can only advise any power player to treasure the bonds of friendship, but make sure to continue to watch your back.

And by watching your back, I mean critically examine your friend's actions and behaviors for inconsistencies.  In the really big betrayals I've known, hind sight showed there were signs, but the vicitims ignored them in favor of their faith in their betrayers.

For your other relationships, just remember these are like the alliances on the TV show Survivor.  Merrily made today to be broken tomorrow when the need arises.  One aspect of Survivor that has continually fascinated me is the anger felt by so many of the contestants once they discover they've been thrown over for a better deal.

The same thing happens in the business world.  Don't be surprised or angry when your friend of convenience today becomes your opposition tomorrow.  It happens all the time -- and it's not personal, just business.

Lastly, and I've cautioned this often, be very careful about the ammunition you put into the hands of others -- that is specifically what they will use, and what will get you in trouble.

Distance Yourself From Failure -- Tactic #17

"Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan."

That's the way most of us wish things worked, but that's not been my experience in larger organizations.  In fact, there seems to be a relentless effort to pin blame for anything perceived as a failure on some hapless employee/victim.  Occasionally it's justified, but most often, not.

Forget about those unreasonable expectations.  Never mind that the strategy was fundamentally flawed.  Don't ever consider the unexpected and unpredictable circumstances that arose.  These seem to be the mantra in the blame game.

Every problem, every failure, has to have a name attached to it.  And if you want to survive and thrive in the political world, you better make sure that name isn't yours.

And as with many of the political admonitions I've presented here, that point is probably obvious to experienced political animals.  The question really becomes -- how?

Let me offer three pieces of advice:

1.  Don't sign up for a project with a high risk of failure.  Of course, sometimes it's hard to do this -- your position may make it impossible to avoid the bad strategy advanced by your boss, for example.  But in many cases you have more control over signing up than you think.  Don't be backed into a corner.  If the project is particularly high risk, go public with your desire to avoid it.  If by some miracle the effort later succeeds, few will recall you were an early doubter.

2.  Narrow the scope of your part of the project, and make sure you can claim success for that part  -- even if the rest does ultimately fail.  "The product launch plan was brilliant, even though the market assessment was fundamentally flawed." -- that's the assessment you're after.  You can actually get a small amount of recognition for nicely arranging the deck chairs on your own personal Titanic, if you do it particularly well.  If you own the entire project, however, this option isn't going to be open to you.

3.  Get on record early as having grave concerns about the project's success.  Doing so can at least make you look smart when the whole thing is going down the tubes.  "I think that hole in the side of the ship might be a problem...".  This, like many techniques, must be done with craft.  Overplay your hand, and people may try to pin the "self-fulfilling prophesy" label on you, and shift even more of the blame your direction.  It can also backfire, and cause you to pick up more scope when you want to narrow your exposure.  Be careful who you register your concerns with, and to what degree.

Scapegoating can also be used in this situation -- a tactic I will be turning to shortly.  But scapegoating has a greater scope than just distancing oneself from a failure, so I will defer further discussion of that tactic until it pops up on the list.

Keeping those failures off your record is critical to playing successfully in the higher levels of most corporations, and also to avoid other power players taking advantage of you.  Do it well, and you've nearly mastered all the power player's tactical handbook.


Promote Yourself, With Tact -- Tactic #16

"He who tooteth not his own horn, will not his horn have tooted."

A favorite saying from a prior boss an mentor, but definitely one with a truth behind it.  If you want to gain attention for your accomplishments,  you need to make others aware of them.  The most miraculous business save, if accomplished without the knowledge of your peers and superiors, is wasted.  Sure, you could sit around feeling angry, reasoning that they should know, that it is their job to know.  But that won't get you anywhere.

On the other hand, in all the corporate environments I've known, there is a fine line between subtle tooting, and obnoxious self-promotion.  Fall into the later category, and you are likely to be scorned and avoided.

The bad news is, I don't know how exactly to tell you where the line is.  It varies a bit by company, and also by what you're crowing over.  I can, however, suggest the following procedure.

First, be cautious and watch others.  Specifically watch for someone who is in the "obnoxious self-promoter" category.  Observe specifically what they are doing that crosses the line, and vow to yourself to never, ever do those things.

Then identify someone who is doing a good job of tactful tooting, and note the behaviors that are effective in getting the point across without annoying others.

There are two other tips I can pass along,  First, the most effective self-promotion tactic I've ever come across?  Talk about the magnitude of the success you've achieved, but when it comes to people, compliment others who were involved, and take little or now credit yourself.  Tell everyone  how it wouldn't have been possible if Sally hadn't gotten you that price analysis, and how well Bob handled that angry call from the customer.  It will get the point across about the accomplishment, and will at least have a hint of palatable humility.

Want to go one step further?  Get Sally, or Bob, or both to also tell the story, but in their version they give you the credit.  Again, it accomplishes the tooting without the obnoxious aftertaste.

There are two ways to make such an arrangement -- first, you could overtly negotiate it with Sally.  I must admit I've never tried this, as it always seemed a bit "unseemly", but that's probably why I was never a highly successful Power Player.  If you are sure of your relationship with the person, and want to get the best advantage from the success, there isn't much that can beat a spoken understanding.

The second method, is the bragging version of the virtuous circle.  Compliment Bob on his piece of the success when he's present, and then depend on him to return the favor.  If Bob is at least a political neutral, he should catch on.  Of course, if he's an avoider or a street fighter, this probably won't work.  He'll either be puzzled by your actions, or try to turn the situation further to his advantage.

Remember, power players -- even maneuverers -- need to draw attention to themselves, and self promotion is one of the most effective ways to do that.  And it is fairly unlikely to result in retaliation, if done effectively.  It is an important part of the power player's arsenal.

Provide Some Original Thinking -- Tactic #15

One my most successful and influential bosses once told me he, "...tried to introduce at least one new or innovative concept at every major presentation."  That boss was respected for his intelligence and his creativity -- and you can be similarly respected too by following his advice.

The characteristics, talents, skills and behaviors valued by most organizations vary considerably from one company to another.  One of my employers highly valued going along to get along, another promoted people who confronted others and defended themselves well when confronted, another valued people who were willing to put in long hours.  There were probably greater differences between the firms than there were similarities.

But there was one universal value -- they all wanted smart people to fill the critical roles of their organizations.  And I'm talking book-smart here -- high IQ -- not emotionally intelligent, which is an entirely different subject.  Intelligence was valued in and for itself -- in what must be a bit of blind faith that if you put a bunch of smart people together, the whole would add up to more than the sum of the parts.

In fact, I can't think of a single organization I've ever dealt with where being smart wasn't a get out of jail free card, at least to a degree.  Senior Manger number one:  "He can't seem to get that project to work."  Senior Manager number two:  "Yeah, but he's so smart -- if he can't figure it out, it must be impossible".  Many of you have probably witnessed similar behavior.

So how to you become known as Smart in your organization?  I think there are two things you need to do.  The first one barely bears mentioning -- don't do or say stupid things.  Its not hard doing this most of the time, but doing it all the time is challenging.  Most of us have a slip now and again, and our peers and superiors judge us harshly when we "don't get it", or misread a situation.  I don't know how to advise you to avoid making dumb errors, other than telling you to take your time and make sure you know what you're saying before speaking.

The second thing you need to do is bring some new ideas to the organization.  This helps you in a couple of ways -- first, you're seen as having a degree of expertise in the area in which you are introducing the idea -- and you better have it in reality, so bone up on your subject matter before presenting it.  It might be a new way of looking at old data.  It could be an improvement method, or just an improvement project.  Whatever, it should offer insight and opportunities that are new to your bosses. 

The judgment of others will come a little at a time -- at first they may think you are simply a one trick pony, but repeatedly coming up with new and innovative ideas will help your image tremendously.

And now for a little secret -- the ideas don't have to be a world beaters.  They don't have to be far-reaching in impact.  In fact, they don't even need to be implemented or lead anywhere.  It is the introduction of the new insight -- causing that "ah-ha" moment in the audience -- which makes all the difference.

So do your research, put your imagination to work, and show your subordinates, peers and superiors just how smart you are.

Set the Bar Credibly Low -- Tactic #14

Performance measurement is critical to success in most organizations.  We kid ourselves into believing numerical targets are the most objective way to measure people, but what is often forgotten -- measurement must take place against some standard.  And targets are filled with biases and bad estimates that, if examined after the fact, wouldn't stand up to scrutiny.  The prudent power player takes advantage of this situation to set goals as low as is credibly possible.

If a company saw a five percent drop in earnings in a year, most people would call that a failure -- unless the year was 2009, when the vast majority of companies saw declines of twenty percent and more.  And when the goals for those managers were set in late 2008, do you think they foresaw a steep drop in earnings?  Most probably had targets of increased earnings for 2009, which they missed miserably.  So was a five percent decline a win or a loss?  It depends on what you measure against.

This may seem like an obvious statement, but let me be clear about it -- there is NO upside to setting your own goals and targets high.  It is in your best interest to make sure your targets are set as low as possible.

How do you do that?

By exploring, with as much discipline as possible, all the things that can go wrong in the coming year, with particular focus on those items outside of your control.  Things like:  the economy, interest rates, your customer's sales and their financial well being, uncertainty, -- the list can be extended by all the potential doom factors in your own personal scenario.  Take a credibly pessimistic view on each one of these.

What do I mean, credibly pessimistic?  Find a forecast or scenario that is still in the mainstream, but below the median.  As an example, the potential for a "double dip" recession should have been built into last year's goals.  This year -- a very weak economic recovery, or perhaps even no growth.

But won't I look like a naysayer?  Won't I seem hopelessly pessimist?

No, because you must also show confidence in your own performance on the factors you do control -- your new product, a new pricing program, that cost reduction.  No don't go crazy here -- you still want the overall target to be credibly low.  The desired effect is a fairly bleak external picture, that is improved upon "some" by your efforts.  Where "some" is as small an effect as you can convince people it needs to be.

Yes, there is some craft required to sell this.  And everyone has seen variations of it before, so they're likely to roll their eyes a bit.  But the bottom line is, there just isn't any better way to set your targets.  If you let your targets be set based on median views of the future, and you'll fail at least half the time.

Another thing you must pay attention to is the accumulation of numerous small risks to your target.  If there is a small chance of three things each going wrong, but if any one happens you will fail, then you've got a problem.  Three small probabilities equals something greater than a small chance of failure -- it equals a moderate chance.  If there are four risks, the chances of failure go up.  Five is worse.  And so on...

So if you have responsibility for several P&Ls, or projects, or cost reductions, make sure you don't just add up the results of all the individual pieces and make that your goal.  Something will likely go wrong somewhere, and unless you build that probability into your targets -- you'll have failure on your hands.

Finally, if you have subordinates, you MUST pass along a collective target higher than the one you are signing up for.  Sometimes considerably higher.  Someone responsible for carrying out a piece of the project or P&L will fail, and you need to have others striving for a higher number to offset the difference.

If these tactics seem unfair or slightly deceptive -- remember they are the province of the power player.  And the prudent power player does everything within his or her control to make sure to record wins.

Ask For What You Want -- Tactic #13

Ambition is a two edged sword -- express it and let people know that you've set your career sights higher, that you believe you have more to offer, and that you will be a force to be reckoned with.  But it also makes you a threat to some, throwing you into the middle of the Street Fighter and Maneuverer's worlds.  

Of course, you could express no ambition -- in which case you will likely be judged as dull, complacent or satisfied with your current lot in life.  And if you are good -- really, really good -- someone will probably eventually be asking you why you aren't aiming higher, anyway.

For a ladder climber, expressing ambition is critical to long term success.  So what's the best way to do it?  This might be an area where first discussing what you SHOULDN'T do gives  more in sight.

First, don't be stupidly impatient.  I had a manager approach me once just a few days after I joined one of my employers -- he wanted to know what he needed to do to "get ahead" at the company.  The discussion felt so odd and forced, I couldn't help but think he was strange.  Be keenly aware there is a time and place to express your ambitions to others -- the best time being after a rousing success.

Second, don't run down someone in your target position, and then follow up with commentary about how much better you'd be doing it.  Even if the audience agrees with the criticism (the pointing out of which won't earn you any points), they will likely find your brazen undermining attempt distasteful.  A possible exception to this advice would be with extremely skilled street fighters -- but pulling it off requires finesse, and I can't recommend such an approach for the vast majority of power players.

Third, don't be too specific, or short term.  Don't say you want "Fred's job" -- there's no more certain way to align Fred against you when he finds out.  A much better approach is to take aim at a position two or three levels above you.  "I'd love to be a plant manager some day" is a much safer approach, and it communicates the ambition just as directly.  There is a time to ask for Fred's job -- when it becomes known he's leaving it.  Then you shouldn't hesitate to make your wishes know.

Fourth, keep quiet if your recent performance level hasn't quite been up to snuff.  A highly ambitious and demanding employee, who is also underperforming, is likely to earn a quick ticket out of the game entirely.

Fifth, DO make visible efforts to improve yourself.  That night MBA isn't the only way to do it -- reading and demonstrating new skills and proficiencies, and attending seminars or conferences can also help.  As a rule of thumb, I'd recommend making at least one visible effort to improve your skills each year.

But before you say anything to anybody, recognize what you're signing up for when you express ambition --

You may not know when and where the next opportunity may come.  It may require a physical move.  It may happen when your kid is in her senior year of high school.  So don't start the clock ticking if you're going to have to refuse an opportunity.  Refusals can typically only be made once in a great while, before the offering manager will decide you really AREN'T a serious candidate for growth.

Can you be a great politician without expressing ambition?  You bet.  But by indicating your desire to climb the ladder, you put yourself into the stream of political power players.  

Do so wisely.

Cultivate a Mentor -- Tactic #12

I listed mentors under the power player tactics, even though many neutrals can benefit from a mentor too.  Why?  Because only an aspiring power player can take full advantage of the mentor relationship.

Why would you want a mentor?  There are four primary reasons.  

First, a mentor is more senior in the organization, and generally already knows the lay of the land.  Having access to a mentor immediately helps you better understand things like:  what the organization values, and the existing political structure inside the company.

Second, mentors can teach you the skills in their toolboxes.  If your mentor is an expert scapegoater, for instance, he or she can tell (and show) you how to use that tactic.  If he or she is particularly good at setting credibly low goals and targets, you learn the tactic faster with active help from a mentor.  Of course, you can learn all the tactics on your own -- through a combination of observation and trial and error, but having a journeyman there to counsel you makes it faster and much less risky.

Third, mentors will normally take your side.  When you're searching for allies to push through approval on that controversial project, your mentor should be at the front of the line rallying help.  And she might even tip you off that you're beating a dead horse, and should drop the effort altogether -- before you do some serious damage to yourself.

Fourth, mentors can be confidants.  Remember when I discussed "keeping it to yourself", I said if you need someone to whine to about work -- get a dog?  Well, the only possible exception to that rule would be your mentor, and even then only after the relationship has had a good period of time to season.  Mentors generally will never throw their mentee under the bus.  But if your mentor is an expert blame deflector or scapegoater, better to be cautious in this area.  When it comes down to him or you, ninety five percent of the time, he's going to make sure its not him.

Picking a mentor can be tricky -- It's easy to outline the desirable characteristics: high up in the organization, politically adept in the same area of politics where you want to be yourself (a neutral for self-limiting neutrals, a street fighter for aspiring street fighters, etc.), a long term company survivor -- you don't want to develop your mentor relationship, only to have the mentor bail out for an opportunity at a different company.  The tricky part is the personal chemistry involved.  Normally, there is a mutual respect, or the mentor sees underdeveloped potential in the mentee.  But you'll need to figure out the personal chemistry piece for yourself.

Which brings my last point -- why do senior managers become mentors?  I can only offer a theory on this.  I believe some managers have a strong need/desire to mentor younger employees from early in their careers.  But I would guess they are the exception rather than the rule.  Other senior managers seem to migrate to the mentoring role as they reach the apex of their careers.  I believe it's a response to coming to grips with the end of their battle for the top position.  Perhaps they see the next generation battle taking shape, and want to help favored candidates.  Whatever the reason, those at their career summit do seem to make better targets for mentees to try to develop relationships with.

Which leaves me with a final observation on mentors -- do CEOs mentor?  Or does the structure of their position, and their ongoing responsibility for managing succession in the company make it impossible, or at least unadvisable to become a mentor?

Actively Manage Your Reputation -- Tactic #11

Today we move from the realm of the political neutral, into that of the power player.  While many of the techniques I discuss here are applicable to both maneuverers and street fighters, I will be presenting them from the perspective of the maneuverer.

Reputation is critically important to your political success in any politically minded organization, and being aware of and managing that reputation is one of the things all power players must do well.  So how do you do it?

The first step in actively managing your reputation, is to be aware of where you currently stand.  In most cases, peers and subordinates are quick to tell you about your strengths, but hesitant to point out areas of perceived weakness.  It is these areas of weakness, however, where your greatest vulnerabilities lie.  No matter how uncomfortable it might make you, you MUST discover the weak spots in your current reputation.  In my experience, the best way to do this is with carefully placed confidants.  Whether mentors, or implicitly trusted subordinates, these people can collect the information you will never have access to otherwise, and feed it back to you.  No doubt, mentors and/or confidants are some of your most valuable assets in the political corporation.

In most organizations it is important to be seen as smart, hardworking and an innovative thinker.  If you are coming up short on any of these dimensions, quick action is needed to save your reputation.

And how does one fix or repair a deficient reputation?  By remembering that perception is reality.  First you should rely on your own track record -- if you are challenged on your creativity, make sure to trumpet the last major new idea you had to benefit the company (or any one that you can legitimately lay claim to).  If it's your work ethic, emphasize the sacrifices you've made in the past to the benefit of the company. Make sure these stories are told to anyone and everyone with political influence -- better if it is someone other than you, as self tooting is sometimes viewed as distasteful.

Second, think about concepts you can suggest or propose for the future.  It's always been amazing to me that the mind which generates useless ideas and concepts is valued higher than the one which delivers results, but that is often the way things work.  Make sure to suggest new, innovative and clever concepts, even if they go nowhere.  Often, those concepts can be drawn from popular business books -- just make sure you're on the leading edge of the concepts, as opposed to a late convert.  And make sure no one can criticize your work ethic -- be the first in the office and the last to leave more often than not. 

Beyond smart, hardworking, and innovative, let your company's values be your guide.  If you're truly a power player, you already know the characteristics that are valued by the company, and must assess and manage your reputation along these dimensions as well.

As I've often mentioned in the past -- perception IS reality, and in the political environment, your chief task is to manage the perceptions about YOU.

Keep it to Yourself -- Tactic #10

Originally published 1/12/11

What do most people do when they're unhappy?

They share. Share their feelings, their frustrations and their anger.

In many, if not most cases, I think they're looking for commiseration and sympathy. Misery loves company.

But is seeking commiseration from your fellow workers a wise or foolish move? The answer is Foolish!, and there are two big reasons why.

First, everything you say to anyone -- even your most trusted associate -- can and often does become political ammunition. I've seen this happen many times, and if you're politically aware, you probably have too. To notice it, look for a comment prefaced by, "Bill thinks..." or "Jane is really angry about...". The person mentioned in the statement is, at that very moment, being betrayed by the speaker. The reason may be as insignificant as for a laugh, or as weighty as to change the power alignment on an important debate. Whatever the reason for the betrayal, it couldn't have happened if the original confessor had simply kept their unhappiness to themselves.

The second reason to keep your unhappiness hidden has been made much more obvious by the corporate focus on "engaged" versus "disengaged" employees. Empirical evidence shows that "engaged" employees (whatever they might be), are much more productive than "disengaged" employees. And there are two classes of disengaged -- active and inactive. Of course, actively disengaged employees are seen as the most corrosive. So how would a manager spot an "actively disengaged" employee? They're the complainers trying to bring down their co-workers, of course. One complainer dragging others down is, however, another's confessor looking for a shoulder to cry on. And the conventional solution to having "actively disengaged" employees is to get them OUT of the company. The only way to ensure you aren't classified as "actively disengaged", is to not look "actively disengaged".

So what's an employee to do? You're stuck with that micro-manager as a boss (or whatever your personal cross is to bear), so how do you suffer through it?

If you have to talk it out -- do so only with someone not in the company, and preferably someone not connected to the company. Or better yet, tell your dog about it.

If you want to offer constructive criticism, then go beyond just complaining, and offer real alternatives, and a way to make improvements. And talk to the person who is the focus of your issue, not a pal in the office (or plant).

Don't Badmouth -- Tactic #9

Originally published 1/5/11

It's a known fact that misery loves company, so how could something that feels so natural and comfortable -- like complaining, criticizing or otherwise badmouthing an enemy -- be the wrong thing to do?

There are two good reasons to avoid badmouthing: First, whatever you think you're saying in confidence to a friend or trusted associate is likely to get back to the target; and Second, since political alliances tend to shift in business all the time, today's enemy or competitor may be tomorrows friend of convenience -- that is, unless your badmouthing is personal and alienates him/her.

I've tried to show in this series of blogs the fluidity of the political environment. Alliances shift all the time. People change jobs, responsibilities, goals, and ambitions. Projects fail, projects succeed, and the company moves forward. But personalized and harsh criticism lives virtually forever. That irritating power player who really made you angry when he tried to scapegoat you on his bombing project yesterday might be your best friend tomorrow when you need someone to help negate a competitor's political clout -- unless he found out you labeled him a weasel, and he took it personal.

Remember the old chestnut -- this isn't personal, its just business -- and try to take it too heart. If you feel compelled to criticize, then do it with someone without a connection to your employer, like your pet Golden Retriever.

Why do these criticisms end up coming back to the object of your dissatisfaction like iron filings to a magnet? Because they represent political currency that someone is likely to trade on. And don't think doing your badmouthing to a political neutral is the answer, either. They might pass it along because its interesting and they don't understand that the information has value.

If for some reason you mistakenly or uncontrollably badmouth someone against my advice, then at least have the sense to avoid loaded terms like: liar, cheat, scumbag, weasel, and similar terms. Those terms label someone's entire character, and are almost impossible to retract.

And if you do even that, then start assessing what the damage might be when the target of your badmouthing hears what you've said (no doubt embellished by those in the telephone game gossip path). You may choose to live with the damage, or you may decide you need to go bow and scrape before the person to try to negate it -- your choice, but at least be aware of what the potential consequences are.

Don't Hide Bad News -- Tactic #8

Originally published 1/3/11

Some things get better with age, but bad news is never one of them. Generally, bad news ferments and gets progressively smellier as time passes. Best to get rid of it as soon as possible.

But throwing the bad news out on the table at the wrong time or in the wrong way will likely lead to more problems rather than fewer. How should you handle the revelation? Here are a few tips to make it a bit easier to swallow.

  1. Err on the side of mentioning potential problems before they are even real problems. If you're worried that the date might slip on that project -- say you're worried now, rather than when everybody already know it. If you wait, people think your either out of the loop or purposely hiding something.
  2. Always think through the answer to one question before you mention bad (or potential bad) news -- "What are you going to do about it?". The answer to this question should be provided by you without request if the problem is big. Remember the often quoted definition of insanity: Doing the same thing, but expecting something different to happen.
  3. Package your bad news in a "bad news sandwich". Do this by taking the two best pieces of news you have, and placing them before and after your bad news. Sure, it won't nullify the bad, but at least it leaves the impression that everything isn't going down the tubes at once.
  4. Don't make people drag bad news out of you -- volunteer it up front. Senior people will quickly draw the conclusion that you can't be trusted if you repeatedly make them dig for problems. Show that you are perceptive enough to recognize what's important.
  5. Don't pile on. Don't reveal your bad news as just one more problem in a seemingly endless series of problems (yours or others). You don't want your bit of bad news to be the thing that "breaks the camel's back". That will almost certainly have deep and unpredictable repercussions.

The bottom line is bad news is just...bad. There's a limited amount you can do to package it prettily or deflect the damage it causes. Perhaps the best thing you can do to manage the effects, is to limit the risks you take so that a limited amount of bad news comes your way.

One tactic for managing bad news that works extremely well is scapegoating, but that's an advanced tactic, and beyond the bounds of what neutrals will normally engage in. By using scapegoating, you don't reduce the impact of bad news, you simply deflect it onto someone else. Good scapegoaters will set it up that way, always keeping a buffer between themselves and their risks. This tactic will be described in more detail in a future post.



Presentations Count -- Tactic #7

Originally published 12/17/10

How often do you get the opportunity to strut your stuff before the top people in the company? We're talking about the ones that are far enough up the food chain that you have limited access to them. Maybe that's a plant manager, or maybe it's the board of directors -- it depends on where you currently sit in the organization.

If you work for a large corporation, I'm guessing the answer is: not much. And I'm also guessing that when you do get some "air time", its probably in the form of some kind of presentation.

Those individuals are the very ones that can make things happen for you. They can think of you when that next big project comes along, or that promotion, or whatever you're capable of doing. It doesn't take a lot of insight to realize those few contacts with the senior people are pretty important.

What you may not realize, however, is how top executives form their opinions about others -- at least most of those who don't report directly to them. So here's the secret -- its 20% based on your objective performance, 30% based on what others are saying about you, and 50% based on direct observations. Okay, maybe the numbers aren't that precise, but you get the idea.

I had a boss who would decide an employee was either a genius or a fool within five minutes of them opening their mouths during a presentation -- and once they fell into the fool category, there was no redeeming them. We can argue about the fairness of his judgments, but like many aspects to corporate power and politics, fair or unfair had no bearing on the reality of the situation. He made those judgments based on an employee's ability to communicate ideas during reviews and presentations in a clear, concise fashion, to speak intelligently, and respond to questions well.

To a greater or lesser degree, pretty much all senior executives do the same thing. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard someone remark "She's smart," after a good presentation, or "He's in over his head" (or something much less kind), after a bad one. Did those senior execs really know their conclusions are correct? No, they extrapolate based on the short snippet of information they gather during a presentation. And the judgment can easily become a self-fulfilling prophesy. The fool is picked apart on every tiny misstep, while the genius is forgiven his errors in consideration of his greater brilliance.

So what do you do in the face of this political reality, my politically neutral friends? The path to success is no great secret -- your presentations must be of the best quality, and wow the audience. To get that to happen, follow these simple steps:

1.) Master the subject you are going to talk about. Make sure your real depth of knowledge on the subject equals or exceeds the most knowledgeable person in the room. Cram if you have to, and understand the theory, too, not just the way it is handled in your organization.

2.) Get your slides and words right! Nobody is impressed by poor grammar, uneducated phrasing, or other silly or careless mistakes. Often times, senior executives will have slide pet peeves. Ask around to figure out what those are. I always disliked the use of 3D graphs, for instance. Getting it right is tough to do on your own -- get some help from others, either professionals or your allies. Even after years of making board level presentations, it took one of my peers to point out to me the frequency with which I used the phrase "obviously".

3.) There are bonus points for introducing fresh or innovative ways of looking at things. These may come from theory, the experiences of other firms, or even right out of your head. They confirm your mastery of the subject, and get the audience thinking in a new way. It isn't necessary to overdue it, however, one new idea per major presentation is plenty.

Presentations are a big deal, and deserve a big application of time and effort. You can miss a lot of smaller stuff in your job, and as long as you get these big events right, your political future will be strengthened.

If you find this series of posts on corporate power and politics interesting, please visit my website to read my article titled Power and Politics.

Take Only Measured Risks -- Tactic #6

Originally published 12/9/10

Let me start this post with a disclaimer -- this was one of the tactics used by political neutrals that I was probably the worst at. I've always been a gambler, knowing that some of my bets would probably not pay off. In some organizational cultures, that would probably be okay, but it sure provides a lot of cannon fodder for your political opponents. When you live in an organization that is very risk averse, its a prescription for self-destruction. So here I can only say -- do what I say, but not what I've done.

If you're climbing the corporate ladder, you're not going to move up without some big accomplishments to point to -- at least not very far. While early in a career, the promise of greatness is enough to create opportunities, by mid-career, people expect to see an impressive track record. You won't have one, however, if you don't take some risks.

Risks themselves range anywhere from the foolish -- the low probability of success but high reward -- to the nearly sure thing. I'm going to suggest that if you want to survive and thrive, you look as much as possible for sure things, and studiously avoid any risk with a low or even moderate probability of success.

Risk profiles -- the capacity, or even enjoyment of risk taking -- vary from person to person, and represent a personal bias toward risk-taking behaviors:

At one end of the spectrum are the conservatives -- managers who try to avoid risk taking to the maximum degree possible. They might only be provoked into accepting one risky project or goal per year, or even less if they can get away with it. Their biggest problem is without a higher degree of risk taking, they aren't likely to build an impressive track record.

At the other extreme are gamblers -- managers who love to agree to high targets, and put a lot of balls in the air at all at once. Generally, they're betting that more of the risks will result in successes than in failures, and that they'll be rewarded. Their biggest problem comes when too many things go south all at once. That's when they'll end up losing their status or their job.

The easiest way to have your cake and eat it too, is to be personally conservative with a harem full of risk takers working for you that you can sacrifice when things go wrong -- but that's a power player tactic known as scapegoating. If you're going to remain a neutral, how do you position yourself along the risk spectrum in order to succeed?

The answer will depend somewhat on the corporate environment where you find yourself, but all other things being equal, I recommend you stay at the conservative end of the risk-taking range you see among your peers. Why? Because relative gamblers rarely have much longevity. Eventually too many risks blow up on them simultaneously, and they flame out. Gamblers are also perfect victims for power players who use scapegoating.

But you can be too conservative as well, appearing to be so afraid to try anything that you just muddle along. People in this profile often last, but rarely progress in their careers.

So, in summary, know you're own risk taking profile -- it will identify the bias you will need to fight against. Observe the spectrum of risk taking among peers, and pick a position that is on the conservative end for your organization. Finally, try to find the surest risks you can take.

Lend Support -- Tactic #5

Originally published 12/3/10

How do you build your political alliances and move your projects and ambitions forward? You need to build up a balance in your political checking account. Tactic #5 for political neutrals is all about making sure you'll have allies when you need them.

Can you build alliances without lending support to others? Sure, but mutual support is the glue that holds alliances together. Without sticking your neck out for others a bit, they're not likely to stick their necks out for you.

So how do you do this effectively?

First, you need to give before you get. You need to demonstrate your commitment to other people and their agendas before you need their support. Will you get burned by doing this? Sometimes. There are power players out there (especially street fighters) who will gladly throw you under the bus if a situation presents itself where it is to their clear advantage to do so, regardless of how much you've supported them in the past. But if you don't start lending support, then you consign yourself to the virtual sidelines. Then you only play the game when someone else gets hurt, and then probably without a team behind you.

Second, build most of your alliances with other neutrals. By eschewing the more dangerous and distasteful tactics used by power players, you make yourself an easy mark if you ally too closely with these creatures. Besides, you can count on things like friendship, sense of obligation, and fairness to help you with neutrals. Those things might or might not matter to a power player.

Third, lend lots of moral support. This can be in the form of a shoulder to cry on, a counselor, a behind the scenes ally. This costs you very little, is low risk, and can pay dividends in the long term. I'm almost temped to advise you to agree with everything your allies do behind the scenes, but most neutrals need to maintain a certain connection with those things they think are fair an right. So instead, do as much of this as you can.

Fourth, just as with many of the other political tactics, select your battles carefully. You will find there are times when you need to lend public support to allies. Do so sparingly, causing as little offense as possible, and making sure you know the implications of your actions. Most people can accept a position taken against them, if it is taken on principle. Make sure the underlying rationale for your actions are sound.

Fifth, lend support to those you've opposed in the past. Opponents in a minor skirmish doesn't have to mean enemies forever. Stay engaged, and continue to lend support to erstwhile opponents when it makes sense.

Master this tactic, and when you find yourself in a political jam, you'll have plenty of friends to help you escape. Ignore it at your own peril.

Be Careful What You Put in Writing -- Tactic #4

Originally published 11/22/10

We've all seen it -- that horrible email sent by a foolish or cloddish peer. You know the one, where they use inappropriate language and/or say something so insensitive that it boggles the mind. And we all know what happens to those emails -- they end up circulated to anyone and everyone who might find the behavior offensive.

So if we've all seen it and know the result, why does it keep happening? I believe these instances are the intersection of two events -- a political abstainer or neutral who's in over their head, and a highly emotional situation were the writer feels a self-righteous need to vent.

Email was where I first started seeing this kind of stuff, but today it's hardly limited to the company email account. Now you're at risk based on anything you post on your blog, facebook account, Twitter, leave in voicemails (which can become digitized files that are exchanged via email), or write down anyplace its easily accessible and can be easily copied or circulated.

So what's the secret to managing your writings in such a fashion that you don't undermine yourself, or give your enemies plenty of ammunition to attack you with?

First, warning bells should sound anytime you are typing or talking, and you're angry. If you can't stop, then please, please, please save whatever it is as a draft and hold off hitting send. Once you've cooled off, re-read what you've written.

In most cases, at this point you'll want to delete it.

If you feel compelled to send it, first imagine your words on the front of the newspaper, in your church bulletin, on in the company newsletter. Would it make you proud? If not -- delete.

If you still need to tell someone off -- do it verbally, preferably when no one else is around to hear. At the least doing it this way leaves some uncertainty in the minds of others as to exactly what happened when they hear about it. When put in writing, you've got nowhere to hide.

Second, remember that anything you post on facebook, twitter, linkedin or any other social media site is in the public domain. If juicy enough, or if discovered by an enemy power player, you have to expect it will be used against you. If you must post insults about your employer, or naked pictures, or whatever, do so anonymously.

Tactic #4 is all about showing self-restraint and emotional control. If you can't do that, you have no business playing the politics game.

Figure Out What's Valued -- Tactic #3

Originally published 11/17/10

Know the rules by which you are playing. This may seem obvious, but I've seen it violated so many times, it definitely bears mentioning in the list of important tactics to be utilized by political neutrals.

Most organizations have certain characteristics they say are valued by the organization. One company I worked for claimed to select managers based on passion, integrity, continuous improvement, and the ability to produce results. These were partially accurate -- I would dispute the last one, where "the ability to produce results" seemed to mean the ability to hit plan regardless of the errors or mistaken assumptions plan might be based on. And I would have rejected "continuous improvement" entirely.

The point is, companies say one thing, and reality is something else. Characteristics that are stated as valuable are sometimes aspirational, representing how the company ideally would like to value its people. There are hints about what's really valued in them, but it's hardly enough to be definitive.

There are other characteristics that are not stated, but are still critical to successful. For my example company, I would add the following unstated, but highly important characteristics: Connection to important decision makers outside the company, dedication as measured by hours worked and personal sacrifices made, going along to get along, and quickness to upwardly communicate bad news. Fall short on any of these, and you may very well be out the door.

The art of managing your image within the organization becomes managing it along these dimensions. Do this well, and you're starting from a solid foundation when you get in the inevitable political battle. Do it poorly, and you're setting yourself up for difficulties.

So how do you figure out what the valued dimensions are? The primary thing to do is LISTEN. What are other employees criticized for? If you hear constant complaints about clock watching, or how quickly the parking lot clears out at five PM, or how irritating a late arriver is -- you can surmise that time committed to work is an important dimension along which you will be judged.

Should you hear people criticized for emotional or angry outbursts, then going along is probably an important characteristic. In one organization where I worked, people were criticized for notshowing emotions -- specifically anger -- when challenged. You have to notice these things.

It definitely matters who's doing the criticizing -- higher level employees and obvious power players carry more weight than others.

Once you are aware of the behaviors and characteristics that are valued, it becomes your job to manage other's perceptions. Will you be the first one to the office in the morning and the last to leave at night, in an organization that values the hours you commit? If you're willing to make the sacrifice, then it can only help you.

When your reputation is openly questioned, it's important to defend yourself -- hopefully with facts. "Yes, I left early yesterday -- I needed to buy a gift for that Chinese client before I left on the trip." Don't let someone knowingly undermine you with half-truths or outright lies. If you've developed your network of relationships and alliances carefully, you'll know when these things occur. If not, you're still exposed despite doing all the right things to be in compliance with the organizational expectations.

Burning Bridges -- Tactic #2

Originally published 10/28/10

Conventional wisdom tells you to never burn bridges, but can you really go through your career straddling every issue?

I doubt it. I certainly wasn't able to do so, not that I was trying to avoid burning bridges as a goal.

But many people allow themselves to be drawn into political battles, and burn bridges (or another way to think of this is: they damage their relationships) without really thinking things through.

An example might be instructive.

Let's imagine you're on a company's senior staff and an acquisition is being reviewed. You know the CEO is going to ask every person in the room to give their opinion of the proposed deal at the end of the review. A peer in another division is advocating for the deal, and you can tell from the discussion that the CFO is adamantly opposed to it. What do you do?

Chances are, you aren't going to be able to straddle this one -- it would hard to be in favor and opposed to the deal at the same time. You certainly can try to be as inoffensive as possible, perhaps by outlining the good and bad points of both positions before you vote. But the fact of the matter is, you have a good chance of alienating the person you vote against.

Of course there are questions of fact and questions of politics both in play here. The questions of fact might surround the financial projections, the integration plan, and all the other things you've learned to ask questions about in school or on the job. Those things are normally talked about during the review.

The questions of politics aren't typically discussed. They involve things like -- who is more important to my future -- my peer or the CFO. Is my peer the next COO of the company, or is he a lame duck on his way out. Also important is understanding who allies with each party. Is the CEO listening intently to the CFO and nodding, or is he quietly rolling his eyes when a challenge is issued? Which way is my most important political ally leaning? To understand these thing requires careful observation of word, tone and body language.

Once you have the political landscape figured out, then what? You must know what you stand to win and lose based on any position you might take. In our example, if you know the deal is going to to be killed because the CEO is aligned with his financial guy, you might choose to vote in favor of the deal, currying favor with your peer. Anytime you're on the losing side of an issue, you're less likely to burn a bridge than if your vote was the swing vote that put the vote over the top. On the other hand, if you know the CFO is a vindictive grudge holder, you might choose to vote with him anyway. It's all a question of properly reading the situation and forecasting the political implications of your actions.

Of course, I'm assuming in my example that there isn't a clearly correct answer based on the facts of the situation. An acquisition was a good choice for my example, as they tend to reflect opinions about the future, rather than facts. If there is a clear factually correct answer, I would have a tough time not following it, regardless of the political ramifications. But that's just me. I'm sure there are some politicians that would act based on the political reality alone, largely ignoring or discounting the facts.