Leadership Tips — Office Politics
For many years that’s what people called me. It was not a title I wore proudly.
I worked my way from entry level programmer to senior management in a large telecom company. I knew a lot of people, and I had a great sense for how to work within the “system”. I understood how it could overwhelm you, and I got good at knowing when to ignore it and when to play along.
In the jobs I had, the most important contribution I could make over the long haul was to develop the skills of the middle managers reporting to me. The more effective I could make them, the easier and more successful my life would be. It was frustrating to me when I would coach people and they would respond with comments like “I could pull this off if I had your political skills”.
I was insulted. I didn’t play politics!
Of course I did. I just didn’t want to admit it. When you’re running for office, political skills are an important attribute. When you are the guy running a business office, politician is a label that diminishes your true leadership abilities.
If anyone accused me of being an expert at office politics, I denied it forcefully. I worked hard to get where I was, and no one was going to take that away from me.
Then I Changed Jobs
Same industry, bigger title, more people, new city. I was not well connected, of course. But I recognized the challenges of the job and I was ready to go to work on them. Costs were out of control and results were inconsistent. I had to fix both. It was made clear to me that I was being brought in from outside because the inside culture needed a shakeup. I couldn’t wait to jump in.
Was I successful? Without a doubt, I accomplished more in two years in this new job than in any five year period of my career. We downsized, actually improved morale while we were doing it, and got our operational metrics up where they needed to be. My clients were internal, and they were effusive in their praise. Personally, I was rewarded with a good raise and a really good bonus.
Six months later I experienced a career first — I was fired. Well, alright, I was let go with a very respectable severance package. But I didn’t see it coming, and it didn’t feel very good. What happened?
When I took the new job, lots of people whispered in my ear about the politics in my new company. It wasn’t very complicated either. There were old guard insiders and when outside executives were brought in the old guard eventually rejected them the way the body rejects tissue in a transplant operation.
I wouldn’t get caught up in that. I had a job to do and I was going to do it. No political posturing for me. I was in full denial.
So I worked very hard and got some of the greatest results of my career. While I was doing that, there was a change at the top. The new CEO was a former executive of the company who had left and now was coming back. He was a hero of the old guard.
I wasn’t thrilled with the board’s choice, but I wasn’t worried. My hard work and accomplishments would stand up to scrutiny, no matter who was in charge, right? Wrong.
Learn the Right Lesson Here!
The obvious lesson might be that politics are real and you’d better play the game well if you’re going to succeed, no matter where you go. But that’s not it.
Yes, office politics are real, no denying that. As a leader, it’s important that you gain an understanding of the political landscape in which you are working. Not so you can play the game — so you can avoid getting caught up in it.
Think about the successful leaders you know, the ones who rise to the top. The vast majority of those I know didn’t get to where they are today by crushing their in house competition in the game of office politics. They got there by crushing their external competitors and serving their clients better than anyone else.
Along the way, they were politically aware, but not politically active. They built relationships with everyone they could. While others around them came and went, they thrived because of those relationships and because of their relentless focus on the end game.
Live in denial and the smarter politicians in your office will be deciding your fate for you. You won’t even know it.
Get good at office politics and you’ll score some wins; a promotion or two, a few awards here and there. For most, though, the game eventually catches up with them and their political nature becomes career limiting.
Understand office politics well enough to avoid getting caught up in the wrong debates. Focus on clients, growth and other key goals. Build relationships with everyone you meet. Know the game, and then refuse to play. That’s how the best rise to the top.
The organization that isn’t changing is dying. For more leadership ideas, along with strategies for managing change, visit www.thomasjodea.com.
Tom O’Dea has over 30 years of IT experience, with 20 years of senior leadership in IT and Professional Services with multibillion dollar corporations.