I ASKED A CFO recently: “What’s the biggest mistake that people make in organisations which holds them back from success?” His answer was: “To hold the belief that stuff only gets done through formal channels and visible systems”. Another one said: “Lack of political savvy”.
Of course we’ve known for years that the coffee machine and corridor conversations are where a lot of important things happen. Many people judge that this reality is still “wrong” – that’s not how it should be, it’s not fair, it’s not visible, not everyone (including me!) is involved, it’s not following the right process etc. But let’s face it – this is reality, it’s not just your organisation, your boss, or your colleagues – it happens everywhere, and it’s what humans do. The best thing to do is “get over it” and work out how to live with it and make it work for you.
A manager asked me: “How do you deal with office politics”? My first response to this is: Start by refusing to admit it exists. Politics is just a word used to describe the stuff that’s going on around us with other people that we don’t understand. It is the fact that different people have different agendas, they have skin in the game and they do what they can with whoever they can to advance their agendas. The question is: How do you deal with this?
It’s about relationships – try getting to know and understand the people that are most important to you, and find out what their agendas are. Then see how you can help them, put some credit in the “relationship account” without expecting an immediate return – people want to work with you more if you are not always asking for something, and trust that over time they will repay you. Is this “playing the political game” … or is it just effective relationships building and networking?
Networking can come in many forms, some more visible than others. The advent of the online world has raised everyone’s awareness of what networking is – and for the new generations (Y and Z) it is an integral part of their existence. Interestingly, the online world is quite a structured networking environment (albeit not all is visible to all).
What will remain unchanged is that the more informal networking (offline and online) will continue to be a vital hub of activity, networking is much more than what happens in the formal/visible channels of communication. Don’t think that by going on Facebook and LinkedIn and finding a few more friends, that you have cracked networking. The bar has been raised now – everyone has increasing numbers of online contacts, the question is what you do with them.
Regardless of where and how you network, there is always one fundamental principle: you will have a spectrum of extremes from (1) many/far/shallow relationships to (2) few/near/deep (the ones that know, like and trust you). The questions are: how do you increase your few/near/deep, and how can they help you? Who do they know that can help you, because they’ll be prepared to ask on your behalf? And then how do you “skim” the many/far/shallow relationships in a way that gives them a positive experience of you (however brief) and allows you to spot the ones that might be worth investing more time in?
For aspiring leaders, another increasingly important factor is internal vs. external networking – an organisation can no longer afford or hope to have internally all the resources it requires. One major multi-national corporation states that a minimum of 30% of leadership time should engaging with external networks (not just in the sales context). How does this reconcile with your reality?
The truth is, we all know how to network and build relationships, be it online, face to face or other contexts. But some of us are better at it than others and some invest more time and energy than others. There are ways to improve technique, it does take time and you have to be selective and focused – but the return on investment is your longer term success. If you don’t, it will be a case of “now you see it, now you don’t.”
Stuart Pickles is the former FD of Foster’s EMEA. He now runs AimHigherLeadership.com and is blogging regularly for Financial Director
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