Teri McClure: Board Director, Retired General Counsel and CHRO – UPS
LeighAnne Baker: Board Director, Retired CHRO – Cargill
Bentina Terry: SVP, Region External Affairs & Community Engagement – Georgia Power
As we all know, office politics can be messy, at best. At worst, they block productivity and frustrate employees to the point of quitting.
Ever been in this situation?
Your organization has an initiative that needs to get across the finish line. There are key players involved who can either help or hurt the initiative’s success. You’re a team member just trying to get the job done, but because of the politics you perceive around you, it’s challenging to get clear direction, let alone a green light.
Though these circumstances may feel challenging, during Signature Leaders’ April 2021 Strive Kickoff, our panelists provided some great insights. Teri McClure, Board Director and Retired General Counsel and CHRO at UPS, for example advised: “In the end, you still have to be responsive to what your managers or your executives are asking you to do. Recognize it for what it is and just learn to work around it.”
When you take that moment to step back, consider the entire landscape, and keep solutions in mind, what feels like impossible “politics” may simply be a matter of changing your perspective.
Avoiding complicated politics altogether, in some cases, may seem like the most useful approach. During instances where power dynamics feel like they’re getting ugly, Bentina Terry, SVP, Region External Affairs & Community Engagement at Georgia Power keeps in mind the saying, “When the elephants fight, only the grass gets hurt.”
This African proverb motivates Bentina to consider, “When the people above me are doing their thing, how do I just get out of the way?”
Practicing this patience may present opportunities for problem solving, but also keep you from making career-crushing mistakes. “I’ve seen people lose really good opportunities,” Teri acknowledged, “because they weren’t patient enough to wait things out and just manage it as they go.”
So, when you’re feeling like the grass, how can you step out of your own agenda, shift your perspective, and move toward success?
Build Bridges Bravely
Potential politics may make you hesitant to connect with those outside your unit or direct line of command, but keep in mind that the relationships you establish even well before the most immediate problem presents itself may prove to be beneficial in more ways than one.
Bentina asserted: “There’s nothing wrong with you having relationships outside of your chain of management. You should. I always said in my career, I did not want my manager or my leader to be the only person in the room who could speak about me. . . . I’ve always had a sincere desire to get to know a lot of different people because there’s always something that someone can teach me or just someone neat that I can get to know who works in our business.”
These bridges will be most effective if their foundations are built upon more than individual personalities or desires. As Carol Seymour, Signature Leaders Founder and CEO advised, “Put yourself in the position of the organization and their needs, not your own.” From that perspective, identify and connect with stakeholders who have those goals in mind.
Teri agreed. “There are different power points in every organization, and you have to be sophisticated enough to read those power points.” She recommended considering who has influence over the project, and then establishing the right dialogue and relationship with them ahead of time to bring them to your side.
Establishing the right dialogue and relationships means working authentically to understand others’ needs, pain points, and desires for company success.
“When you’re relationship building,” Teri explained, “it’s really more about, ‘Tell me how you’ve been successful in this environment. Tell me what roles you’ve had that helped you see this company differently.’ It’s really asking them about where they have an interest level.”
Asking these questions and showing your real interest in the answers allows others to feel invested and engaged well before any major meetings, where there’s the potential for posturing. If you’ve made an ongoing effort to genuinely connect ahead of time, more than likely, the right people will already be rooting for you and your cause — because you’ve authentically pre-sold yourself (and your mission) before your presentation.
LeighAnne Baker, Board Director and Retired CHRO at Cargill, suggested that when trying to make big change, keep the dialogue around what’s good for the organization. She acknowledged that no one wants to be seen as a political player, so it’s valuable to work instead to figure out who might possibly be against the change, and get them on the right side.
Success Should Remain Your North Star
Staying focused on the overarching goal will help. What matters most isn’t always who — but how and why. As Carol concluded, “I think like everything else, you can wield your power for good or for evil.” And focusing on the overall good will help everyone stay positive.
LeighAnne added, “I think when we feel our own influence, it does stem from oftentimes having a good relationship with all the parties.”
Most importantly? Be genuine, be yourself, but also meet everyone involved where they are. Spending the time to cultivate these meaningful connections with invested parties for the sake of common success will be what gets you all across that vital finish line.