The people power of politics – I’m in Toorak. At a fiftieth birthday. It’s a black tie affair organised by three women who went to school together, who have decided to combine all the effort and the costs of the thing into one big party.
I’m the only person in a cravat, a-la-Matt Preston, cause I went to lunch a couple of times over the previous week and I’m so bloated from wine and trans fats, I can’t get my shirt collar done up without turning bright red and flopping around on the floor gasping for breath.
No-one comments, except I do feel I’ve missed the code. (I should have had a shirt run up this morning another size larger. If I just knew where to go to get that sort of thing?) I’m conscious I’ve tried too hard to look good. All the blokes wear outfits that are so uniform, so boring, so exactly the same, it’s plain scary. They fit the mould. And the mould is “Don’t question me. I know what I’m doing. And if I don’t know you, you better be important. Or bloody funny.”
Towards the latter part of the evening, I look around the room. I’ve been introduced to judges, heads of the doctor’s society (would give it away if I told you which one), top legal people (and I do mean Senior Counsel) from big mining companies, owners of well-known retailers. And lots of second wives or second-husbands, depending upon who has the power. The ones who are here have it now, the ex-wives may have a few houses, but you can feel the income of these people pouring through the windows, as much as the rain is dripping down the inside of the marquee out on the lawn.
I think about the purpose of this gathering. I recall the kids of one of the women being introduced around. I think about how she’s recently been divorced and how her kids are sitting on the fence of life, sometimes seeing Dad for a few days in a row, sometimes seeing Mum for a week or so. It occurs to me that the main purpose of this gathering, at least in the eyes of my friend who’s one of the organisers, is not simply the entertainment of her friends.
It’s a not too subtle statement to her kids that she’s the one in the family with the cool, powerful friends. That she’s the one who’s in control. And that she’s the one they need to stay loyal to. It’s a powerful way to establish the pecking order in her kids’ eyes, without them even suspecting that’s what she’s doing.
Your job is like that.
Your career needs these high-points. It needs blockbuster events that set you apart from your peers. That push you up the pecking order until there is nowhere further up you can climb.
Your career is about politics. It’s about perceptions, not realities. It’s about who thinks you can do what. And who you know. Who you side with. Who counts you as an ally. And who would not dare to stand in your way.
Most marketers don’t get politics. They think it’s wrong and beneath them. They go on blithely through their working days kidding themselves that logic, measurement and psychology and science and even fair play are all bound together with self-interest and profit and human nature. Marketers are nice. That’s why we fail to win what we should in the world’s boardrooms.
We stop too early from driving in the knife. We give the other girl a fair go, letting them complete the sentence, or have lunch with the boss without tagging along. We allow the new rep to see the client without us being there. We trust.
It doesn’t work.
If there’s one thing you get from many years of working with corporate Australia and big government departments, powerful people, is that politics is as entwined into every day life as is breathing and wolfing down a sandwich over a working lunch.
Corporate Politics is old
It’s something that has developed in humans from the primordial swamp, rising up through our DNA/genetic chain like our eyes and our brains. We, as the top predator on this sorry planet, are the pinnacle example of billions of years of development.
The creatures who died out through the practice of survival of the fittest, may not have had the political gene. A lack of that vital survivor/killer instinct could have brought about their downfall as much as the fact they didn’t have opposing thumbs, or couldn’t digest anything but eucalypt leaves, like Koalas.
Humans have made an art form of politics for thousands of years now. They have studied the principles of politics as much as philosophy and physics in Plato’s and Pythagoras’s ancient Greece. But nice, naïve marketers have simply failed to grasp politics. I suspect it’s cause there’s no subject for it in the bachelor degree courses offered by the Uni’s.
Way too many of us come from either the science side, where we think that logic should win, (most researchers and many creatives fall into this space) or the sales side, where they think that everyone is the customer, so everyone else should get what they want. And they’ll somehow benefit when everyone else has had their fill from the trough of life.
Politics is vital to your working life. If you get politics, you’ll do well in bigger organisations.
Who are the greats?
My favorites in the political sphere are those who were so good at it, they didn’t even register on the record.
But given I can’t name them, cause they are invisible, rich, but unheard of, let’s list a few who have become household names because of their political leanings. I’ve put these guys in cause they put their thoughts into books one way or another and you can glean lots of good stuff from them all. Niccolo Machiavelli (The Prince), Sun Tzu (The Art of War), Winston Churchill (History of the English Speaking Peoples), Mao Tze Tung (Little Red Book), Bill Clinton (My Life), Barack Obama (Dreams from my father)….. anybody good does at least one book. So probably did your boss, if you work for a really big company… something to remember there.
If you’re an aspiring marketer, who doesn’t have time to read lots of books, but needs a few thoughts and suggestions in her lunch-time, here’s my ‘What to do in Politics’, Marketer edition.
The first 24 hours
There’s the story of Howard Hughes (read The Carpet Baggers), who, at a mere 21, flew in low over the factory in a bi-plane. Taxied up to the factory and parked it in the management car lot. Instantly he calls his first meeting with his management team.
In the company toilets. He’s takes a slash. Makes them all watch as he pisses up against the men’s toilet wall. Told them that what was they were doing with his father’s company. And anyone who wanted to keep doing that could leave then and there….Half of them left. The ones who stayed turned a little explosives company into the Hughes empire, which by the 1980’s, had made him the richest man in the world.
My point? First impressions make or break you. Make powerful first impressions.
The first 90 Days
If you read the executive power books, which the local book-shops and the online stores seem to be bulging with, one of the driving themes is the importance of making sure your first 90 days in a job are electric. If you’ve gotten to 90 days and no-one has noticed you, and you’ve not achieved much, consider if it’s you or the culture and decide then and there whether it’s worthwhile hanging in.
Know your culture
Marketers blossom in certain cultures. Some are warm and moist and energetic and we can blossom and grow and do what we want and become the people we intrinsically want to be. Some aren’t.
What you do to affect culture will make an enormous difference to how your working life pans out in any corporate machine, small or large. Try to determine the real nature of the business before you agree to go there. It’s easer to say no then, than three months into the job where you’ve tried everything and hit a brick wall nine times out of ten. Write yourself a series of questions, that you want X answers to. If you don’t get a lot of crosses in the right boxes, don’t take the gig in the first place.
Shoot or be shot
Some people will see you as an enemy and lie to your face. Think about people’s motivations and whether you help or hinder their goals. Kill (metaphorically, anyway) those who have not got your best interests inherently in their camp.
Never be the bad guy
It’s so easy not to be there when HR takes the argumentative junior into the meeting room and shuts the door. It’s just as easy to write a good reference as an honest one. It’s easy to say hello at a Pub when you run into an ex-comrade.
Debts and alignments
Loyalty is based on one simple principle. ‘I need this person’. If you inspire loyalty in others it will usually come back to help you too. But this is not always so, so you need more than your own expectation of loyalty. You need to make sure the absolutely critical people (and this could as much be the receptionist as the CEO) need to be loyal to you. Don’t ask me how, but you get the idea.
Everyone, in every group, follows established party lines. Any focus group of strangers will show you this system developing in front of your eyes within minutes. Pecking order, teams develop instantly. They work out who has power. (It could be them self.) They decide if that person is worthy of their allegiance, or they can get them on their side, then they draw up lines. Be conscious of your teams and your opposition. All your fellow employees are.
Power comes and goes
Like the tides, political power ebbs and flows. Where there is a vacuum of power, for whatever reason, anyone can drop in and take control. If the PM is sick for a few days, there are literally waves of excitement through the hundreds of politicians who want a crack at the leadership. Everyone wants a shot at the top job. And sometimes it even comes about without a coup….
When a management team changes, you need to slaughter all of the earlier followers, who are not instantly on your team. It’s shallow, sycophantic, totally pathetic, but vital for the well-being of the new leader and their ego. No-one can act with confidence if they feel their people are potentially undermining them, so they always change the team. Keep this in mind for when companies merge, or someone does a take-over. Whomever is seen as ‘from the old regime’ is gone within weeks.
Take your team along
New leaders of bigger organisations invariably bring loyalists with them. The new Prime Minister has her advisors brought across from Dept of Ed or wherever she was before the new appointment. So does this happen in big business. How many times have you seen the CEO bring his old p.a., his old CFO, his old Marketing team into the new operation. Often the new CEO’s package actually involves 6 – 10 key people.
Nice gig if you’re the head hunter.
Your reputation is critical
Your brand is the most important issue in an office environment. You want to be the person others respect, are a bit afraid of, are in awe of what you know etc. If you wrote down the key things you are likely to get cudos for, it would change your focus forever.
Most great, successful people do this automatically. They take advice in the first few days, asking anyone they think might have a clue, and stick to it. Guys like Jack Nasser of Ford, now ANZ, don’t just swan in and think they know. They ask the head hunters, the directors they meet, the receptionist etc. But they also manage their brand very carefully. They wear the right clothes. Ask the right questions. Don’t get too close to the losers. They sack the dead-wood and they punish uprisings whether it’s an un-thought-through question or any disagreement with a polite knifing behind closed doors.
How and why do people get moved up?
Find out what the organisation is really looking for. They may say ‘increase sales’ but what they might mean is ‘make friends with Woolworths’.
Movement has to be north?
Momentum in anything is key. If you are not going forwards, you’re going backwards. Even if you don’t think you are making significant head way, tell people you are. Winners don’t admit defeat. They change the rules.
Fashion the way you wish to be judged
Given anyone can change the way they are judged purely by asking for it to be so, you can take control of your work environment. If you’re better at client relationships, have that put into your ¼ ly assessment. If brand awareness is a thing you can influence, make it a vital issue. (NB. This article is not about what you should do, as a professional marketer. It’s about what will work for your career.)
Choose your leader wisely
If you have to be under the control of another, and most of us do, try to ensure it’s the right person, who gets you. If you have to change your behavior/personality significantly for you to blossom in this role, do it consciously. And don’t be afraid of it. Or move.
I actually personally disagree with this ‘no prisoners’ style of leadership. I think dissenters are vital for quality work. We need people inside who argue about the process and the objective and the method etc. So we in ad land have to encourage a culture of questioning and debate. Because as an agency, we are not simply judged on politics, but we are also invariably judged on actual results, and as an outside supplier, you’re always subject to assessment in an objective, Return-On-Investment way. But I’m running an ad agency, and most of you reading this work within a client style company and your position is much closer to the classic Machiavellian situation than is mine.
If you truly can’t get your head around office politics, seriously consider consulting, one of the great things about being a consultant is that you only have to worry about you and your clients. Not your comrades trying to kill you too.