Assessing Power and Politics in Your Organization

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsMuch of the writing about leadership leaves out two of the most critical topics: power and politics. That’s a problem, because the political environment defines the playing field and those with the power dominate the organization’s agenda. Ignoring these facts of organizational life is a formula for futility.

I’ve encountered more than a few great professionals who were uncertain over why they had plateaued in their climb up the corporate ladder. Upon closer review, they discovered that either ignoring or being ignorant of the political environment in their organizations was part of the problem.

Just to make certain you’re thinking through these issues, here’s a checklist of questions to ask and answer about your own workplace. The best way to answer these questions is to become a careful observer of “how things happen” in your workplace.

A Checklist to Help You Assess Politics and Power in Your Workplace:


1. How did the people you perceive as the most powerful get into their current roles? Seriously, what is it they did to arrive at their current lofty levels? Did it emerge from being problem solvers? Did they take and succeed with big risks? Were the rewarded for loyalty or longevity?

2. Who sets the agenda? Typically you’ll have to look below the C-level to find the individual(s) responsible for deciding what gets done and in what order. This individual parses top management goals and objectives and brings them to life. This individual is a power broker. Along with deciding what gets done, they often decide who is involved.

3. How are decisions made? Contrary to popular belief, most decisions take place somewhere below the senior management level. Study the processes of the informal decision-making culture in your firm. Who has a voice? Who has a vote? Who’s consulted? What are the criteria for moving forward on issues? Who can block issues?

4. Who’s working on the most strategic initiatives? Study the make-up and leadership of teams responsible for executing on key projects. How do people become attached to these initiatives?

Graphic image with the words, It's Your Career and other related professional development words5. Who’s rising and who’s falling? Who’s gaining responsibility and who’s losing it? Power is typically a zero-sum game in an organization. For someone to ascend, someone else has to fall…or leave. Harsh, but most often true. Play close attention to the behaviors being rewarded and there are always lessons to be gained from those being edged or pushed out.

6. Who has the ear of top management? I particularly like the idea of observing who makes up the CEO’s “kitchen cabinet” …that informal group of advisors he/she draws upon when faced with critical issues. Surprisingly, this group often comes from the ranks below the CEO’s senior management team.

7. Who does everyone want to work for? Ambitious professionals strive to attach themselves to people they perceive can help them advance in their careers. In many organizations, there’s a senior manager who has developed a reputation as a career-maker. This individual is leading the big initiatives and the closer you are to him/her, the more likely it is that you will be selected for one of these high visibility programs.

8. How toxic is your environment? Gauging organizational toxicity is an imperfect science. I advise people to look at the strength (or absence) of the organization’s values in key decisions. Look at how people are treated. Watch top management closely to see how they behave in their roles. Does their do match their tell? This is one area in particular, where careful observation of the behaviors and approaches of those in charge and those striving to be in charge over a period of time will generate an increasingly accurate reading.

9. How powerful is your boss? In gauging your own power situation, it’s good to look at your boss and understand how she fits in the bigger picture. Is your boss involved in the big issues or part of the CEO’s “kitchen cabinet?” Is she active in both supporting and drawing upon resources and initiatives from other groups? Is she a rising star or a manager who has topped out at her current level?

10. When “It” hits the fan, who comes to the rescue? Is there a go-to person or team that is called upon for tough situations?

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Anywhere people gather, a political environment emerges with some individuals slightly more equal than others when it comes to making choices and gathering and dispensing resources. Instead of ignoring or assuming you are above the fray of these topics, work to strengthen your Political I.Q. by carefully observing how things happen in your workplace. Of course, the difficult issue is to move from observer to participant in a manner where you are engaged in a manner that doesn’t challenge you to compromise your ethics and values. That’s another topic for another day. For now, start paying attention! What you learn might just make your life in your organization a bit more rewarding.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

New Leader Tuesday—You’ve Got to Get Your Hands Dirty

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsIdeas for those starting out or starting over.

While not actively trying out for “America’s Dirtiest Jobs,” as an older teenager striving to pay for my college tuition, I likely would have been a great candidate.

One job involved scraping coal mill parts with a hand scraper and a wire brush as part of prepping them for repainting. Another least-favorite at this same employer found me donning a respirator and climbing into the main tube of a Cleaver-Brooks boiler armed with a high-powered vacuum and a wire brush. My job was to scrape and suck the soot out of the tube.

In yet another testament to what someone will do to earn college tuition, I worked in a chemical packaging factory on the acid line, filling plastic gallon bottles with Muriatic Acid. Inevitably, one of the bottles would mis-align with the filling nozzle, sending acid spraying. If it hit your work pants, it wasn’t uncommon to have them literally begin to fall apart on you later in the day.

The work was dirty, but the pay was good and there was even some immediate gratification. The freshly painted mill parts looked fabulous as they were shipped out for reuse; I enjoyed showing off my clean boilers to prospective clients, and the drive to meet the summer swimming pool demand for acid pushed us to find new ways to perform and break production records. Yes, I actually enjoyed this physically demanding, dirty work.

As I graduated from college and from those summer jobs and moved into my initial role as a supervisor, I confess to struggling a bit with the new challenges. Gone was the immediate gratification gained from seeing your results. The physical exertion disappeared, and I quickly learned that dealing with people wasn’t as glamorous as I had imagined.

It turns out that the work of managing and developing as a leader has its own analogous form of difficult, messy work. While it is softer and gentler on the arms, skin and work pants than my activities above, it is significantly more taxing emotionally. There’s also no avoiding it, or, like the effect from the errant acid-nozzle above, you will soon be exposed.

The best leaders quickly learn that the difficult messy tasks are the difference-makers. They seek training and coaching and they practice these tasks over and over again in pursuit of competence.

The Heavy Lifting and Messy Tasks of the Leader:

  • Delivering constructive feedback—the tough kind.
  • Taking the heat for your team’s misfire.
  • Motivating your team.
  • Dealing with the personal issues of team members that invade the workplace.
  • Firing and hiring.
  • Navigating individual and group performance challenges.
  • Helping people see their true potential and supporting their development.
  • Delivering bad news.
  • Standing up for a team-member when everyone else is on the other side.
  • Reinforcing your firm’s values in your decision-making.
  • Admitting that you made a mistake.
  • Making difficult decisions where the buck stops with you.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The real work of managing and guiding others is just a bit messy, and the payback isn’t often immediately visible. It takes character and courage to tackle these tough tasks. If you’re committed to doing this job properly, it’s time to dig in to the work of dealing with people. It’s also time to rethink how you derive satisfaction from your work. Progress is measured in months, quarters and years. In some cases, you may never know if you had a positive effect. Nonetheless, the long-term results of rolling up your sleeves and taking on the tough tasks is priceless to you, your firm and to many that you positively impact along the way.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

New Leader Tuesday—3 Questions to Bring Your Future into Focus

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsTuesday at the Management Excellence blog is for anyone getting started (or starting over) on their leadership journey.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that I didn’t think about my own leadership legacy during the early part of my career. No one does. After all, who has time to worry about something so squishy and distant sounding when you’re focused on getting things done? And make no doubt about it, I was laser focused on translating the formula for success in corporate life into my own personal gain.The formula in my mind was preoccupied with driving great results by pushing others.

Yes, my style as a young manager was more muscle and not finesse. I was playing a short-game…minute to minute with little concern for the long-term. And for awhile, the scoreboard was in my favor. I grew my responsibilities, title and income at a rapid rate. And then the wheels began to wobble as people cycled through my teams and off to other areas and even my own satisfaction with what I was doing (and how I was doing it) began to decline.

Thanks to a great mentor, I began to understand that the good short-term results were coming at a high price in terms of morale, burn-out and my own professional reputation. I believe he described me as a “machine,” and it wasn’t intended to be flattering. The connotation was more about being demanding and soulless and less about efficiency. He made me think about my approach and my style and I didn’t have to look far to find evidence that supported his case.

The relationships with my team members were shallow…mostly transaction-based, and the environment was demanding. I was demanding. Perhaps a bit of a minor tyrant. I took pride in my “get it done at all costs” reputation. As it turned out, I was running things like a sports team interested in winning a championship now with little concern for the team members or building a culture of excellence that would sustain the test of time.

Over the months following the “machine” comment, he challenged me to think about and then act on the output from three provocative questions. The introspection prompted by these three questions changed the course of my work, my career and likely my life. How will you answer them?

3 Questions to Help You Build a Great Leadership Legacy:

1. At the end of your career at your retirement party, how do you want people to describe the impact you had on them?

I remember laughing at this one. Retirement seemed a long way off then, and today, it just feels like a foreign concept. Nonetheless, this good question challenged me to consider the impact I was having on each individual versus thinking solely about the numbers and achievements. With a few more years under my belt and many remarkable accomplishments from my teams and for my firms, I care very little about the glories of great numbers…those are outcomes we are accountable for to our stakeholders, but they’re never the purpose or the drivers. The great quarters and years are like dusty trophies on a shelf in the basement. What I’m most proud of are the many successes of the great people who got their start on my watch. This simple question caused me to pause and then pivot in my thinking about my purpose in leading others.

2. Who are the leaders from history or in your life (not just business) that you most admire? Why? What was/is it about their approaches or actions that you find inspirational and instructive?

I still love this question and I use variations of it in my different programs and classes. I became (and remain) a student of history and a passionate observer of the effective and ineffective leaders in my firms and in my life. In particular, I’ve developed a long-term obsession to better understand how leaders facing great adversity dealt with their circumstances. Thinking through this question in the context of great leaders of history (or perhaps your personal history…via family members) is humbling. You recognize how important it was to have vision and then overcome extreme uncertainty and hardship while striving to keep people inspired by the vision. Whether it was the survival of Britain or the retention of the entire Union, neither Churchill nor Lincoln knew how they were going to prevail, they just knew that they had to for the greater good.

3. What type of environment do people need to prosper and do their best work, AND what is your role in creating this environment?

This compound question in particular has served as the foundation for my exploration of and experimentation with teams and approaches in pursuit of high performance. Ultimately, the leader sets the environment and issues of respect, trust, credibility and accountability are all wrapped up in forming and framing the environment for high performance. Most of us intuitively understand this at some level, but the question is are you living it every day? The environment I had created as a young manager was anything but healthy.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The comment that I was functioning like a machine irked me. In hindsight, it was pivotal in my career. I’ve enjoyed myself more and I have a reasonable belief that I’ve helped people grow and have helped my firms and teams prosper because of my active cultivation of an approach based on my answers to the questions above. I use a question in my keynotes that challenges leaders to offer a pre-post-mortem on their impact on big initiatives. Extend this to your career, and ask: “At the end of your career, what will you want people to say that you did?

It’s time to start doing it.

7 Lead-Off Mistakes to Avoid as a First Time Manager

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsEvery Tuesday at the Management Excellence blog I share ideas to help those starting out on their leadership journeys.

Establishing yourself as a credible and positive leader is important and challenging. Here are some all-too-common missteps of first-time (and even some hapless, experienced) managers. Avoid them in good health!

7 Lead-Off Mistakes to Avoid as a First-Time Manager:

1-Leading-off with, “Things are going to change around here.” Too many managers enter into a new role assuming everything is broken and that they’ve been elevated to right the wrongs and inanities of the prior regime. Unless your boss has suggested that your function isn’t functioning at all, you need to show some respect for the work of the group, the team members and yes, the prior manager. You won’t win any hearts or minds by suggesting that everyone else was incapable of functioning without you around.

2-Leading-off with some variation of, “I’m the New Sheriff in Town.” I’ve lost track of the number of times a new manager has compensated for his insecurities by overplaying the “I’m in charge” card. The credibility conferred by your title lasts until you open your mouth for the first time. Don’t set a new land-speed record for blowing it.

3-Leading-off with, “Nothing’s going to change.” Yes, something will. Don’t try and assuage concerns about you as the new boss by telling a lie to kick things off. You might even believe that things won’t change, but it’s your job to help things improve over time and that means change.

4-Leading-off with an immediate restructuring. Senior managers inheriting crises make quick calls after assessing talent and workplace dynamics. You shouldn’t do anything in this area quickly. In your role as a new (and first-time) manager, plan on investing a quarter or two to assess talent and dynamics before remaking the group. And don’t forget to ask for your team’s help.

5-Leading-off by listening to just the noisy ones. Chances are, some of the the best ideas and insights are found in the brains and hearts of the quiet people on your team. Don’t equate noise level with gray matter…or even good intentions.

6-Leading-off like a solo consultant. I owe this one to an accomplished consulting colleague who admitted to investing the first 60-days in his first-ever role as a manager (with a VP title) by studying (investigating) everything and failing to engage his team. In his own words, “I squandered a start-up opportunity with my team by boiling the ocean on the business. I operated like a solo-consultant and not a manager responsible for others.” Balance in this case, would have been appropriate.

7-Leading-off by trying to be everyone’s friend. This one is particularly common to those first-time managers promoted from within a group. Sorry, but the relationship has to change. You’re no longer one of the gang.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Treat everyone with respect. Ask questions. Listen more than you talk. Find opportunities to help. Establish a culture of accountability. Share your values. Learn the business. Learn the people. Learn. And then begin to act.



New Leader Tuesday—Quit Walking on Eggshells around Boss Bullies

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsEvery Tuesday at the Management Excellence blog I share ideas to help those just starting out on their leadership journeys.

Almost every person who’s ever held a managerial position has spent time walking on eggshells around a deliberately difficult employee to avoid inciting a confrontation. I describe these individuals as “Boss Bullies.” They’re particularly fond of first-time managers because their tactics tend to work on these often overwhelmed professionals for a period of time.

These difficult characters are almost all the same. They aggressively assert their disdain for you as the new manager. They do everything possible to show their disapproval of your presence and they expect you to show deference. They know just the right buttons to push to get their way and make your life miserable.

I encountered my first one when I was promoted to a supervisory role after just a few months at my first post-college job. This particular individual made it clear through his words and actions that he wasn’t going to be managed or bothered by some newbie. It worked for him for awhile.

I wasn’t physically frightened of this bully, but I definitely allowed his bullying approach to push me off balance. I either avoided dealing with him directly or, if it was essential, I couched my comments and questions in niceties. I went out of my way to let him know that I wasn’t there to manage him, but that we needed his help. He was smart enough to help, but he definitely let me know every time that I owed him one.

Aside from developing a daily stomachache over having to deal with this character, my approach was visible to everyone on my team. It was a formula for failure on all fronts and it had to change. It did.

While I didn’t have a handy list of the ideas below for dealing with the situation, I very clumsily applied the principles and managed to change the nature of the relationship. In this case, the bully respected my assertion of power and became an acceptable…not exemplary, but acceptable citizen.

Instead of walking on eggshells, stomp on them and solve this problem.

Six Ideas for Clearing Away the Eggshells and Dealing with Boss Bullies:

1. Engage. Your instinct is to avoid and ignore. Do the opposite. You need to cultivate a formal boss-to-employee relationship with the individual in question. Without engaging fairly and professionally with the Boss Bully in question, you have no behavioral basis for feedback, coaching or ultimately, some form of discipline, including termination.

2. Clarify Accountability. The Boss Bully understands that his/her approach results in different standards for accountability compared to the broader population. You need to eliminate any opportunity for a double standard by clarifying the individual’s responsibility for results and ensuring that the accountability is upheld. One manager I coached used post-project performance evaluations from team members and the project manager to facilitate discussions on this difficult individual’s interpersonal approach, attitude and other dysfunctional The Boss Bully must understand what they are accountable for in terms of both results and workplace behaviors.

3. Observe Often, Reinforce Positives and Tackle Negatives Immediately. The best way to manage this situation is to observe the individual’s work with others as much as possible and offer clear, specific behavioral feedback. If the bully is a mostly an individual contributor without much team involvement, it’s all on your shoulders to engage often enough to offer feedback. Tackle performance issues immediately and provide positive feedback as long as it is merited.

4. Warning! Don’t Apologize or Attempt to Praise Your Way Forward. It takes time for some managers to overcome their fear of Boss Bullies, and those initial steps to engage are awkward and even frightening for some. Beware the tendency to engage by apologizing for your intrusion, and resist the urge to offer positive praise for behaviors that simply meet the standards that everyone else is accountable for. You weaken your case with the Boss Bully when he observes your visible discomfort and extraordinary efforts to placate him.

5. Build on Progress. Your goal should always be for a positive outcome. I’ve observed more than a few Boss Bullies respond positively to appropriate attention and clear feedback. While I’m practicing without a license on this one, I suspect that some behaviors are cries for attention and for respect. Your willingness to pay attention to someone is a powerful motivator.  As you observe positive progress, offer appropriate feedback and importantly, strengthen the relationship by extending your trust on workplace responsibilities. Assuming that your trust is rewarded with results, keep it going.

6. Know When to Cut Your Losses. If the attention and feedback don’t work, it’s time for the Boss Bully to go. Work with your manager and H.R. team. Remember that they’ll be looking for clear documentation and proof that you’ve been constructively tackling this issue over a reasonable period of time. Don’t do what so many managers do and that is ignore the topic until you can’t take it anymore and then ask for help. Insure that your boss and H.R. are attuned to the situation immediately and document the process over time.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Too many managers spend too much time walking on eggshells. They either avoid the Boss Bullies or, they deal with them in a manner that reinforces aberrant behaviors. Your only mistake here is to perpetuate the problem. Spend too much time walking on eggshells and you’ll inevitably crush some of them. Fail to resolve this problem and you may be crushing your future prospects with your firm.

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