At a recent lunch with a friend, the topic of organizational politics came up. He’s hoping for a promotion to a senior leadership role and is concerned that his strong track record and his exemplary team leadership might not be enough to overcome the political savvy of the other person vying for the role.

The way he talked about it made it sound like being politically savvy is an insidious, evil alternative to actually being good at your job. It’s a common hang up that keeps good people from getting ahead. If you’re hesitant to invest in the political angle of getting a promotion…read on.

Change your language to change your mindset

Office politics is the derogatory term for what could equally as well be called “stakeholder management,” “influence without authority,” or “personal brand building.” None of which have the same negative connotation.

Do yourself a favor; stop thinking: “there are so many people I need to pander to if I’m going to get the job.” Start thinking: “there are some important people I need to influence if I’m going to get the job.”

Stay true to who you are

I once scored in the 4th percentile on “political savvy” on a personality test. The assessor said I was completely unwilling to engage in politics. I’m living proof that you don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not or to believe something you don’t to be successful. After working with thousands of leaders, I know that you will be trusted and respected more when your word is straightforward and dependable. Wishy-washy, sycophantic, whichever-way-the-wind-blows people rarely get ahead for long.

Focus on adding value

So who does get ahead and stay ahead? It’s the people who add value for their customers and their shareholders. Because in the end, all politics lead to the ultimate politics of an organization: the war for the hearts and minds of customers.

I am SO tired of people who add little value moaning about how they will never get ahead because of the politics. No, give yourself a shake!!! You aren’t getting ahead because you aren’t getting stuff done. You’re too busy moaning and gossiping and focusing on everyone else’s work and not your own!

Understand the pressures on those above you

Adding value is critical but sometimes the disconnect is that you have your own idea of what is valuable that doesn’t jive with how those above you define value. It will serve you well to think about the pressures on those above you and how they impact what they are looking for. I’ve often learned that leaders value things that would have been counter-intuitive to me. For example, some organizations prefer less revenue that is more predictable to a grand-slam month that isn’t repeatable. If you want to get promoted, spend more time thinking about value through the lens of those above you.

Minimize the risks

It is naïve to think that selection is all about who has the most positive qualities for the job: nice, but not realistic. Equally as important are the risks of giving you the job. Sometimes, it’s the less risky person who gets the job not the better person. [And that is not necessarily a bad decision.] Reflect on your development conversations; what might be the liabilities of your candidacy? Are you perceived as a strong manager but not an inspiring leader? Are you highly innovative, maybe a little too innovative for a high profile job? Are you a hero within your function but a pariah with the cross-functional leaders you’d have to work with in the new role?

Part of navigating the politics of the situation is mitigating any perceived risks so that your detractors don’t have much to work with. If you believe that the perceptions of you are misperceptions or that they’re out-dated, find ways to reassure the powers that be that the gaps are old news. If there is truth to the perceptions, talk about what you’ve done to compensate for any shortcomings.

Play nice with others

The job of a leader in today’s modern matrix organization is to mobilize people around a shared vision. It is incredibly difficult. It requires a “we” not a “me” mindset and the ability to influence without authority. So why on earth would you behave differently than that in the run up to a promotion? Stay on the high road. Show you’re the one with the team mindset. Find ways to make your peers look good, not bad. Don’t ask the selection committee to make the leap of faith that your competitive behavior will cease if you get the job.

If you’re a strong performer, you can relax. Good politics isn’t about changing the core of what you do. Good politics is about putting your performance into the context of the pressures of the situation, the prevailing priorities of the organization, and the motives and preferences of the people with power and influence. And if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize these aren’t just skills you’ll need to get the leadership role, they’re the skills you’ll need to be successful once your get there.

Further Reading

Navigating a Difficult Political Situation

When your Team Needs a New Leader

Surviving a Succession Race on your Team

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