Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Use political acumen to get ahead

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Life would certainly be a lot easier if our employees and colleagues agreed with everything we said or did.

However, true life intervenes and creates the many challenges we face when trying to influence others to come alongside with our ideas. These challenges are even more prevalent today as top-down, authoritative leadership continues to give way to widespread teamwork.

This new way of working also means that even though you might be the boss, title alone will not be enough to ensure employee productivity and success. As well, a leader can no longer simply be highly intelligent or be known for their high level of emotional self-awareness and control. Successful leaders also need to have strong political acumen. In other words, they need to have a thorough understanding of the interpersonal and political dynamics that organizational structures create and know how to make things happen within this context.

Thus, the key skill required for leading today's collaborative teams is that of influencing others or political acumen. These skills include understanding political power in an organization, being able to frame and sell ideas, influence others, negotiate, persuade, build networks, initiate and manage change and effectively manage organizational crises.

But where does one start in learning these skills? The following tips are only a few of the many strategies.

Understand the nature of organizational power -- Building personal political power and influencing skills requires that you adopt and integrate expert power, agenda power and network power. If you're interested in a management role, work at broadening your skills to being more of a generalist. Also look for opportunities to strengthen your personal and professional network, gain more visibility and broaden your influence.

Assess your current environment -- Is your workplace a high or low political environment. Be aware that highly political people will often make many enemies in organizations with low political dynamics. On the other hand, a leader who does not have good political skills in a highly political environment will soon be squeezed out. Determine where you fit and how you can be successful.

Assess your own power web -- Organizational power is essentially the interaction between a leader and those around them. Therefore, evaluate the power of each person, be they a technician, a gatekeeper, a coach, a contributor, an influencer and/or a godfather. Next, examine how each person leverages their power and determine whether one of these people could be a barrier, a sponsor and/or a supporter as you begin to take steps to influence others.

Go where the power is -- Every organization has well-known power departments. This is where key decisions are made and future leaders are groomed. Find a way to move into this power circle or at the very minimum, move into the power circle one rank below. Find a way to make a difference, develop relationships within this group and become known for hard work and accomplishments.

Build your social capital -- This means making an effort to develop stable, long-term personal relationships at work, within your professional associations and within your community. It means helping others to succeed without the expectation of reciprocal effort. When you help others, help will come back to you.

Avoid being a lone wolf -- Success today requires working with a strong team of individuals all working toward the same goals. One person cannot do it alone. Seek out individuals who complement your expertise and then help each person to excel. Avoid trying to be a hero at all costs.

Earn the trust of others -- Autocratic leaders use fear as a motivator, but this only creates compliance rather than motivation. Other leaders use charisma to inspire others but instead, they often lead the organization astray. Then, there are leaders who have a great need to be liked. However, the only path to good leadership is to build trust and credibility.

Create an appearance of power -- Believe it or not, once you have power, you need to keep quiet. In fact, the more you say, the less that people will listen. Also, pay attention to how you dress as well as the state of your office/work space. A clean and tidy desk denotes power while a messy workspace suggests a lack of control and disorganization.

Adopt the power of language -- In terms of power, everything you say counts. Foul language, the overuse of slang vocabulary and the overuse of the latest buzz words give a wrong impression and reduce your power as well as your respect. Be sure to use positive language to show confidence and poise.

Walk like a duck/talk like a duck -- Wherever and however possible, you need to build a partnership with senior leaders and to emulate their dress, their behaviour and their language. Work towards being treated as an equal even if in reality you are not. When you are accepted as equal, information will be shared and support will be there for your next career step.

Take some risks -- Political power is gained by people who take risks, so if your manager is asking for a volunteer for a special project, put your hand up and offer your services immediately. Always be prepared for these types of opportunities and quickly take advantage of them. In each case, you can learn new skills, show managers what you can do and make a name for yourself.

Be persuasive -- First, see the world through the eyes of others, listen carefully and define the other person's interests. Next, focus on the benefits of solving the problem under discussion, suggest an idea and try to pre-empt any objections by raising the issues yourself. Continue the discussion until you have agreement.

Recognize and overcome resistance -- Recognizing when you are being confronted by resistance is an important skill. Many times, resistance is subtle if not underground. Other times, resistance is blatant such as asking relevant questions. Overcome resistance by developing alliances beforehand. Use a power play only if you have to.

Titles and position power is no longer the path to successful leadership. In fact, the key skill leaders need today is that of influencing. The saving grace; however, is that these skills can be learned.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2012 H2

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