When I was in Business School the mantra was “your focus will be 60% on finding a job and 40% on grades.” Naturally all that meant was the first quarter of school we were all excited, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and grades meant everything. Then when the reality of Summer began to creep in grades went to the wayside while the focus became solely about landing the coveted internship. Then finally once summer was over you either didn’t care about anything because you had a job, or you only cared about getting a job. The lessons learned in the classroom became a distraction.
However there is one lesson I wish we would have had that I would have listened to intently while jotting down endless notes.
Just a simple Office Politics 101 would have sufficed to help us understand that world that awaited us. Now this lesson of course would be for the Corporate America rookies. While I had pretty solid work experience prior to attending B-School, I worked primarily in an environment that focused on merit. Corporate America is like B-school. Your focus is slightly skewed in that you anticipate it to be all about one thing (performance/grades), but it is also very much about something else (who you know/networking).
It’s really tough to swallow that the old adage “It’s not what you know, but who you know” is truth. For those of us that are proud of our work and excited to stand by it, it’s almost a disappointment to learn that it’s not enough. On the other hand though, it is a relief. It says that you don’t always have to have all the answers, all the right answers, nor do you have to be perfect. Sometimes you just have to be someone that everyone likes. When you’re someone that everyone likes, people want to work with you and for you. Your name is easily remembered, and when people are trying to think of the perfect person for that next hot project, you instantly become top of mind. People are even more understanding when you make mistakes because “no one is perfect, and you’re a really great person.”
To get to this point it usually requires some level of politicking. Politicking was something I thought I hated. It seemed to be disingenuous to me, and I loathe the idea of being insincere. However, I realized that I was wrong. Politicking can be what you make it, and it can certainly work in your favor. Office politics aren’t going anywhere so you might as well jump in and play! Here are my quick tips for the politically unsavvy:
1) Play to your strengths. If you’re an out-going person, let it shine. Start up the work softball team, plan the happy hours when everyone’s stressed out, be the captain of fun. If you’re an introvert, set up 1:1 meetings with your peers and higher-ups to capitalize on quality time.
2) Remain sincere. There’s a difference between the brown-noser and the person that means it. The brown-noser is full of empty praise, while the networker is truly interested in spending quality time with other individuals and learning more about them and their business. This is not a pass to form alliances and cliques.
3) Know when to show ’em and when to hold ’em. This is tough for me because I don’t like to “brag” and sometimes I”m not even sure how. Also, I like to share information when maybe I need to keep things close to the vest. Advice I’ve gotten that I’ll share with you: Talk up when you know what you’re talking about, and when you don’t, ask the important questions to help yourself and the rest of the group think broader. When you’re sitting on something great, only share with those in a position to further your idea versus run off with it.
4) Stay two steps ahead. If you work in cross-functional teams, show leadership by always anticipating what needs to be done ahead of time. Anticipate challenges, road blocks, and potential successes that can be accelerated. Your cross-functional team will appreciate it, and laud you as a great team leader to work with.
5) Balance sugar sweetness with piercing fierceness. This is particularly true for women. Bring in cookies for the team one day and you’re the sweet Mom that people love, but don’t take seriously. One bad “off” day and you’re the bitch that no one can stand. Work on getting to the middle. Again, people will embrace those that they like working with, but will also respect those they view as having a backbone. For me, I’m fierce when needed, and sweet when it counts.
The biggest eye opener for me was the realization that office politics were real, and I needed to get in the game. My advice to you is if you’re busy with your head buried in your desk, that’s well and good, but stand up and look around you. Make sure you’re not blending in. Office politics doesn’t have to be about backstabbing and sabotage. You know what’s right and what’s wrong. Make sure you play clean. Others around you may get dirty, but that’s for them to work out with themselves. Your character and integrity will be the things no one can take from you, so keep them intact.