The politics of promotion

With Bonnie Marcus

Hello, I'm Rachel Salaman. When you hear the words 'office politics', what's your response? A shudder? A grimace? Probably something negative.

But looking at the plus side, most of us would have to admit that people who are good at it, get places. Which raises the question, is being politically savvy a skill worth having? And can we be both political and ethical?

Here to talk about this is Bonnie Marcus – entrepreneur, executive coach and the author of a new book called 'The Politics of Promotion: How High-Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead.'

Bonnie joins me on the line from California. Hello, Bonnie.

Bonnie Marcus: Hi Rachel.

Rachel Salaman: Thanks so much for joining us today.

Bonnie Marcus: It's my pleasure.

Rachel Salaman: We're going to be talking a lot about workplace politics, so could you start by telling us what it is?

Bonnie Marcus: First of all, let me say that it's reality. Every workplace, every organisation has politics. Really there are politics everywhere that you have more than a couple of people.

We often think of it in the workplace, but when you think about the dynamics and relationships between people, and influence and power, it happens in our relationships as well as in the workplace, our personal relationships.

And it really has everything to do with how people relate to one another – who has power and influence, and how that power and influence might be utilised, especially in the workplace. Because we know the workplace is competitive and there are limited opportunities for resources, there are limited opportunities for promotion, and so (with that competition in mind) often politics is a major factor in how people reach their goals, and how they navigate the workplace.

Rachel Salaman: I was going to ask you how big a part does politics play in promotion, because of the title of your book.

Bonnie Marcus: Yes, I did a lot of research for the book and I asked the women I interviewed to rank the importance of politics in getting ahead because every workplace is different. And, in fact, every department within a company might be different, so you really need to pay attention and figure out how much politics plays in your success.

And the women [their responses] ranged from 25 percent politics, 75 percent performance, in many cases it was flipped, some cases it was 50/50, personality played into it in some cases – I can't make a generic kind of statement, except to say that it is important and you can't ignore it if you are ambitious and you're looking to be successful in your career.

Rachel Salaman: And just to be clear at this point, how much is this about scheming and manipulation? Because some people think of that when they think of politics.

Bonnie Marcus: Yes, politics has such a bad rap! And it really needs to be reframed because politics is nothing more than relationships.

And, in fact, the people who we call 'political animals', who are manipulative, aren't really what I'd call politically savvy – they're working the politics in a very negative way.

If you're really politically savvy, you don't need to be manipulative: you are aware of what's going on around you, you're aware, you're paying attention to the dynamics, you're paying attention to who has power and influence, and what the culture of your organisation is, and you are positioning yourself successfully with all that information.

So, it's not necessarily about the manipulation, it's about really being savvy.

Rachel Salaman: So why is your book aimed at women in particular?

Bonnie Marcus: It's aimed at women in particular because we live in a patriarchy, and women have very little access to the power circles that perhaps have influence over their career.

Women don't have access to the level of sponsorship that men often do, and we can't discount that there still is gender bias. So, with that in mind, those are some of the challenges that women have and really need to learn how to be savvy about.

Rachel Salaman: In the book, you say that being politically savvy is a skill and not a trait, so anyone can learn it. But what if it feels really uncomfortable, to the point of anxiety, for a lot of women? In your view, is it a clear-cut choice for women – get political or get used to being passed over?

Bonnie Marcus: I think the choice is: get politically savvy, learn how to be politically savvy, or in fact you may get passed over.

The idea of this book came from my own experience when I was passed over for a promotion, because I was focused totally on my work and my performance, and I paid no attention to how decisions would be made about a potential promotion, which I was very qualified for.

Basically I had my head in the sand, and I find a lot of women are in the same boat: we're focused on our work, we want to do really well and we have our head down, and we're not paying attention to everything that’s going on around us that really influence[s] our career.

And so yes, you need to be politically savvy, you need to understand all of those dynamics that affect your success, along with doing your best work. So, it's a combination of both, and it's important.

Rachel Salaman: Your book presents a toolkit to help us become politically savvy. I wondered if you could just briefly describe that toolkit.

Bonnie Marcus: I created the toolkit because you can learn to be politically savvy. And there are five tools in the toolkit. One helps you advocate for yourself in a very savvy way. One helps you to pay attention to particular things in the workplace – like I outline what things you need to look for regarding the dynamics. In other words, who has power and influence? What is the culture? What are some of the things that are acceptable versus unacceptable? Those kinds of things. How to network in a very strategic way, which is important and I know we'll talk about in a bit. How to get a sponsor. And then the last tool in the toolkit is how to work with a coach to help you learn how to use these tools and navigate successfully.

Rachel Salaman: The first part you call 'The Mirror', and that is about self- promotion, which you point out is a leadership skill, or can be considered to be a leadership skill. What tips can you share for shy people who find self-promotion really difficult?

Bonnie Marcus: What I'd add to that is that [it's] not just shy people – most people find self-promotion very challenging, and women especially are brought up with these messages that you shouldn't brag and nobody is going to like you if you brag, and so we feel very uncomfortable – we feel phony, we feel cheap – when we're talking about ourselves and some of our accomplishments.

And, of course, [it's] pretty obvious, if you don't let people know the results you're getting and your accomplishments then you're going to be under the radar. People aren't even going to know what you bring to the table.

So self-promotion is really challenging because of all the baggage that we have. And when people try to self-promote – even those who say aren't shy and they're bold and they're trying it – they really turn us off because it's all about them. You know: 'Listen to me, this is how great I am, and this is what I've done.'

And so there has to be a way where we can talk about our accomplishments and not turn people off, and at the same time feel really comfortable doing it – and that's by identifying and using your value proposition. And the value proposition is how your work leads to successful business outcomes. It's not your job description but how you approach the work, how you make things happen.

And once you identify that, then you're in the position where you can offer to help others reach their objectives, based on your work and that creates credibility and visibility for you, [which is] what you need to really get ahead in the workplace.

So, it's not all about you. You are telling everybody about how you are achieving great results, but it's more about how that work can then help others.

Rachel Salaman: If we move on now to the second of your tools in the book, which is 'The Magnifying Glass', which is somewhat related because it helps us observe workplace dynamics. How does that work?

Bonnie Marcus: I break that down into three things that you need to look for. So the Magnifying Glass is a reminder to pay attention and look, even if it's 'under the covers', so to speak – things that aren't necessarily obvious.

So, the first thing to look for with the Magnifying Glass is what are the unwritten rules. (And by rules I really mean policies.) So, every organisation will have some policies, they put their policies on their website or in their employee handbook. That's obvious. But what are some of the unwritten rules? And what unwritten rules are sacred?

So, an example of an unwritten rule is you have a new job, you're really excited, you show up at 9 a.m. in the morning, and you look around and everybody has been there since 7:30 a.m. And so the unwritten rule is that everybody gets there an hour and a half, two hours before the boss comes in, and they probably stay an hour after he or she leaves.

Now, that's not a formal rule. That's not in the employee handbook that you need to come in at 7:30. But it's an unwritten rule that in that particular department, under that leadership, that's important for you to do if you want to position yourself successfully. If you don't follow that rule, you probably won't get fired but you won't necessarily position yourself well.

The next thing to look for is, who has power and influence? And very often we look at the organisational chart and we think everybody at the top has all the power and influence, but if you use that Magnifying Glass to look closely you'll see that that's not necessarily true – that there are people within the organisation who don't have big titles [but] who really have a lot of power and influence.

And, also, the people who are at the top in leadership positions, who do they listen to? Who do they pay attention to? Who influences their decisions?

Then the last thing to pay attention to is the culture. What does the culture condone as far as behavior? What's acceptable behavior, what isn't acceptable behavior? And is it different for a man or a woman? What does it take to get ahead in this organisation and is that different for a woman? So, paying attention to all those things is really what helps you be politically savvy.

Rachel Salaman: So, you observe those things, you come to conclusions, and then what? You do your best to fit in?

Bonnie Marcus: Well, you observe those, and you understand then how to position yourself successfully. For instance, who has power and influence? When you're building your network, you want to include people who have power and influence over your career, who will help make decisions or be able to open doors for opportunities, and you want to build relationships with those people.

Rachel Salaman: Yes, and in fact that is the next tool in your toolkit. You call it [the] 'Pass Go and Collect $200 Card' and it is all about strategic networking. I was struck by your advice, 'don't limit your networking to people you know and like.' Could you expand on that?

Bonnie Marcus: Yes, we like staying in our comfort zone, and so when we go to a company event, we sit at a table next to all our colleagues or our team or our friends. Rarely do we go outside of our comfort zone, and yet that's important because you want to be able to expand your exposure to other people in the organisation who also have great ideas (who have knowledge about different things going on in the business from maybe a different department), as well as outside of your company and in your industry.

So, the broader your network, the more exposure you get to different people and different ideas.

Rachel Salaman: It's another area that a lot of people find very difficult. They feel false when they're trying to draw people into their network. Do you have any particular tips to help people relax as they build their strategic network?

Bonnie Marcus: I hear that a lot, but in reality, you're really having conversations with people. And the more interest you show in other people, and what they're doing, and finding commonality, the easier it gets.

We don't need to approach somebody again with a formal elevator pitch and hand out a business card. We may approach it better by finding out more about them and showing a real interest in what they do, and using that as a baseline for building a strong relationship. In some ways you can help each other, maybe you recently read an article that you can send to this person who is in a particular field or working in a particular department, that you find out about.

How do you build value? How do you find out how you can build value? It's really by showing an interest in people and asking good questions.

So I think we get hung up on the fact that we need to give this elevator pitch, we need to make thousands and thousands of connections, instead of focusing on quality connections in our network, and honing in more on building and nurturing strong relationships with people – with the workplace relationships that count.

Rachel Salaman: You mentioned sponsorship earlier, and the next tool in your toolkit is the 'Get Out of Jail Free Card', which is all about sponsorship. Could you help us with some definitions? What's the difference between a sponsor and a mentor, and which is more useful?

Bonnie Marcus: First let me say they're both useful, and it would be really beneficial for your career to have both a sponsor and a mentor.

The difference between a sponsor and a mentor – a mentor gives you advice. And it's usually someone who has had a successful career that you look up to, perhaps as a role model (it might even be your boss), who is giving you advice based on their knowledge and their experience. And it's great to have a mentor. It's great to have more than one mentor if possible!

But a sponsor not only gives you advice (and their knowledge and wisdom) from their own experience, but they take action on your behalf. So they will actively look for opportunities to promote you – whether it's a special assignment that has a lot of visibility, a special committee, maybe it's introducing you to people who you wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to meet, people who have power and influence, they may actually put you up for a promotion – but they are people who have power in the organisation to actually bring you up through the organisation to potentially a leadership position. So they have power.

And 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 organisation because, in a way, they're putting their career on the line by sponsoring you. So you have to be a good performer, you have to earn their trust, and they need a sightline into that work to be able to do that.

Rachel Salaman: And so, if you can identify someone like that in your organisation, how do you go about turning them into a sponsor?

Bonnie Marcus: I get asked that all the time! Usually I get asked, 'How do I ask somebody to be my sponsor?' And my first response to that is you don't usually ask somebody to be your sponsor. It's a relationship that grows over time.

Now, as you're building your network in a strategic way, you want to identify these people who have the potential to be your sponsor. Somebody who is a couple of levels above, who does have power and influence, and might be open to being your sponsor.

And then in that case you would find ways to be visible with that person. Maybe there's a project or some initiative in the company that they are starting, and they are really aligned with, and then maybe you want to work on that committee or volunteer on that committee.

One of my former clients found her sponsor because he was the executive on the new women's leadership initiative in her company. And so 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.

So I think you can't ask anybody cold. You need to build trust and visibility with that person over time, and then it might become pretty obvious that that person would move into a sponsorship role with you.

Rachel Salaman: And does it tend to be explicit or is it implicit? Do you have to have a conversation with a sponsor once you get to that point?

Bonnie Marcus: Yes, at that point I would say it wouldn't be uncomfortable at all if you would then ask if they could introduce you to someone, or perhaps play the role of being a sponsor.

Rachel Salaman: It's interesting that in your book you say that a sponsorship relationship should be mutually beneficial. So how does that work, what does the sponsor get out of it?

Bonnie Marcus: It depends on the sponsor, but the strongest relationships are mutually beneficial, across the board. If you look at any relationship, both parties need to get something out of it. And depending on that sponsor identifying what would be helpful… So 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.

Another client offered to help her executive with social media because the executive wasn't particularly [social media] savvy, and so she helped him open up some accounts and get knowledgeable about social media.

So, it depends on the sponsor, but you should offer… You should say, 'How can I best help you?' And that's a win-win. That keeps that relationship alive.

Rachel Salaman: The last tool in your political toolkit is the 'GPS Executive Coaching.' How does this work with the other tools in the toolkit that we've discussed?

Bonnie Marcus: Working with a coach helps you to use all of the tools in the toolkit, and position yourself in the workplace based on that.

So a coach would partner with you to help you figure out, for instance, your value proposition. It's not easy to do. And I give you some exercises in the book for how to do that, but you should do that with a trusted colleague, perhaps your boss or a coach.

They help you to understand the workplace dynamics, the politics, the relationships, as somebody who is not a player right there in the workplace, but who is somebody who is much more objective.

And given the information that you gather about the different relationships and what it takes to get ahead, a coach can then help you to figure out how to navigate [that].

A coach will also help you to build that network, and identify people who have the power and influence over your career, and how to best build relationships with them – as well as how to be sponsor ready, as well as helping to identify a sponsor.

So, the GPS helps you navigate; the coach is your partner in helping you be successful.

Rachel Salaman: And when in a career should someone start thinking of getting a coach?

Bonnie Marcus: I think it's important to have a coach at any point in your career. In my book I talk about the four different stages of political savvy, because over time you become more aware that the politics play a role in your success.

The first stage is what I call 'Naive Nancy' who has her head down and is just focused on the work. And very often at that stage people don't even think about having a coach, because they're just focused on 'how can I do the work?'

But as you move up in the scale and you become more aware, and you have ambition to get ahead, that's the time where it would be very helpful to have a coach.

If you have recently changed jobs or changed careers – it's not just how to succeed in the workplace where you are, it's understanding how to evaluate perhaps a new company. Maybe you left one company because the politics was pretty toxic, well how do you know how to evaluate a new company going forward?

So, a coach can help with all of those challenges and it really isn't necessarily related to your age.

Rachel Salaman: You mentioned toxic cultures just then. Looking at office politics from an organisational point of view, what can senior decision-makers do to create a healthy environment for everyone in the company?

Bonnie Marcus: There are a lot of initiatives now about gender bias, unconscious bias. I think trying to work within the organisation to create a more level playing field is within the scope and the power of leadership, and I think that's really important.

You're never going to get rid of politics, but as you say, once you create a healthy environment – and, in my definition, that would be a level playing field for all employees – then you're going to have a much more productive, successful company.

Rachel Salaman: Is there anything in particular that companies can do to retain their top female talent?

Bonnie Marcus: The first thing (and I say this is probably the most important thing) is you need to pay attention to how women are working their way through the pipeline, and whether or not there is a particular stumbling block or obstacle.

Because very often women will rise to a particular level in the organisation and then they won't go past middle management. So, what's happening there?

I think it's important for every company to regularly do an assessment and take a really good look at how women are progressing within the organization, and what is happening that might hold them back from reaching more leadership positions.

And besides that type of assessment, it's really important to ask the women themselves what they want and need to be successful. Because, very often, organisations will make assumptions that the women need this particular leadership program, or that particular one, and they get something 'off the shelf' or they bring some people in, and it doesn't help because that's not really what the women need in their organization. And that has everything to do with, not only the type of industry, but the culture.

Rachel Salaman: Bonnie Marcus, thanks very much for joining us today.

Bonnie Marcus: You're welcome, I really enjoyed our conversation.

The name of Bonnie's book again is The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead.

I'll be back in a few weeks with another Mind Tools Expert Interview from Emerald Works. Until then, goodbye.


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