It's hard to feel positive about the term "office politics." For me, it conjures up images of coworkers sucking up to the boss, desperate to secure the next promotion.
Then there are my own poor attempts at playing the game. I once wasted an elevator ride with my CEO by mumbling self-deprecating trivia, when I could have been sharing success stories.
So it was great to talk to Bonnie Marcus, who helped me to think about politics in a whole new way.
Her book, "The Politics of Promotion: How High-Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead," presents a clear framework for anyone – not just women – to have better work interactions. After all, as she puts it, "politics is nothing more than relationships."
Marcus believes that building better workplace relationships depends on being "politically savvy," which she sees as a positive reframing of office politics – a far cry from the manipulative behavior we usually associate with the term.
"If you're really politically savvy, you are aware of what's going on around you, you're paying attention to the dynamics," Marcus explains. "You're paying attention to who has power and influence, and what the culture of your organization is, and you are positioning yourself successfully with all that information."
Her book presents a five-step toolkit for developing these skills, including tips on self-promotion, strategic networking, and sponsorship – the last of which she describes as a "Get Out of Jail Free card."
Like mentors, sponsors share their knowledge and experience. But unlike most mentors, they also go to bat for you. This can be an enormous help for people struggling to get noticed.
"[Sponsors] will actively look for opportunities to promote you – whether it's a special assignment that has a lot of visibility, or a special committee," says Marcus. "Maybe it's introducing you to people who you wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to meet, people who have power and influence."
Put like that, who wouldn't want a sponsor? But you can't just email a senior manager and ask them to sponsor you.
Sponsorship blossoms out of an existing relationship.
"Traditionally, we say a sponsor should be at least two levels above you, not your boss, and somebody who has visibility to your work. They understand the value that you bring to the organization, because, in a way, they're putting their career on the line by sponsoring you," Marcus points out. "So you have to be a good performer, you have to earn their trust, and they need a sight line into that work to be able to do that."
That last part may need a bit of help from you. To catch your potential sponsor's eye, you need to be proactive.
"Maybe there's a project or some initiative in the company they're starting and are really aligned with, and then maybe you want to work on that committee or volunteer on that committee," she suggests.
"One of my former clients found her sponsor because he was the executive on the new women's leadership initiative in her company. She got involved, he eventually asked her to take a leadership position in that women's group, and he learned more and more about her work and eventually became her sponsor."
Marcus says sponsorship can – and should – be mutually beneficial. You may wonder how you can do anything useful for someone two levels up. But you might be surprised how valuable you can be.
"I've had some of my clients offer to be the eyes and ears for their sponsor in the field because they traveled a lot, and their sponsor (who was an executive) didn't and wasn't necessarily aware of how his new initiatives that he was trying to roll out were being received in the field," she recalls.
"Another client offered to help her executive with social media, because the executive wasn't particularly [social media] savvy. So she helped him open up some accounts and get knowledgeable about social media."
And if you can't think of anything specific, just ask.
"You should say, 'How can I best help you?' That's a win-win. That keeps that relationship alive."
The theme of adding value runs throughout her book, whether it's showing a genuine interest in others while networking, or promoting yourself through the success of your team.
This is a useful and refreshing take on office politics, especially for those of us who balk at the very mention of it. Marcus has reframed office politics for the better.
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Have you mastered office politics? Has a sponsor helped you to get ahead in your career? Let us know in the Comments section, below.
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