Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Nina Simosko on office politics - your questions answered

The 2009 Women's Leadership Webinar Series kicked off a week ago with a deluge of great questions on the topic of office politics. Speaker Nina Simosko, in true rock-star style, has since blogged answers to all of them.

QUESTION: How about a situation where employees and execs are situated all over the country, so we work do you achieve the virtual equivalent of "golf"?
Debra, NV (and similar questions from Adriana, ON, Adrianna, IA, Vaishali, CA, Buffy, CO, Ameeta, CA, Sherri, AZ)

NINA: Clearly, this is a tough issue to deal with. Virtual teams make building camaraderie difficult. However, I believe that the fundamental basis of team performance is trust amongst team members and trust can come from dialogue [business & personal], support, performance and other ways which do not necessitate geographic proximity. Again, very tough to replicate the "golf" experience virtually, but not insurmountable if one is willing to work at it in the ways I mentioned and occasionally make the trip!

QUESTION: What are some ways (other than common hobbies) to insert yourself into a coalition?
Jane, CA

JO: Notice who the "key influencers" are in a coalition, and try to build a relationship with them first. Find any common ground -- academic background, technical areas of interest, what they are working on, what they like to read, TV, movies, their family, what they did for the holidays, etc. Have a genuine curiosity for others. Small talk that breaks the ice will get you started.

QUESTION: It seems inauthentic to go around trying to build relationships just for the same of furthering my career. How do you find time and organically meet with influencers?
Christine, TX

NINA: One of the very best ways to connect with people is to offer to assist them in some way. Especially in these challenging economic times, there is no shortage of people who feel overwhelmed and could use some assistance. If you are able to authentically connect with and assist folks with things of importance to them, then they will want to repay the favor and will be available to you when needed. Surely, if it is perceived that you are only reaching out to help yourself, this will not achieve the best outcome. Your efforts to connect with others must be authentic.

JO: We will get more tactical about how to initiate in the April 28 webinar, “Your Sphere of Influence”, but you are right-- you need to find an authentic basis for building relationships with every individual. It's not just about helping yourself -- do it with a mind to help others.

QUESTION: How do you think age factors into office politics and how can you overcome some of the stereotypes?
Sarah, VT

NINA: I do not believe that age should matter. In fact, if you look at some of today's leading companies [Google and Facebook come to mind], the founders and brains behind the organizations are quite young. So, as I stated in the webinar, I am a big believer in performance being the primary factor in one's success within a company. I made reference to someone was saying "my ignorance is my greatest asset" and that expression holds true for someone who might be younger than many within a group or company. For example, someone younger can talk about how using social media tools such as Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, etc. can provide tremendous value to a company with products or services targeted at that demographic group. Likewise, someone older can bring years of experience and potentially an extensive, long-standing network of contacts that someone younger might not yet have.

QUESTION: Can you comment on our ability to change the game of office politics rather than adapting?
Kelly, WA

NINA: Changing the game is very difficult, if not impossible. However, that said, it may be worth trying in some circumstances. In my own career, I have had to learn the rules of the game in each of the companies that I worked for. However, I was able to create an environment more of my choosing within my team which downplays politics and fosters more open communications.

QUESTION: What suggestions can you give when there are conflicting / competing priorities, even when we are trying to achieve an ultimate goal?
Margaret, CA

NINA: Interesting timing on this question as I just wrote an entry on my blog called "Pick Your Preferences" in which I discuss this topic. Generally, we must make choices, sometimes difficult ones, about our priorities. I welcome your thoughts on this entry and hope it addresses your question to some extent.

QUESTION: What would you recommend when the politics are women-centric not man-centric?
April, CA

NINA: I guess the knife cuts both ways….even during our webinar, we discussed the "good old boys network", but clearly there can also be politics that favor women in some companies too. I think that the same rules ought to apply in these circumstances and that results ought to be the most important goal, not gender or politics.

QUESTION: If you find yourself in an office where the "games" that are being played are borderline between being ethical or not? If you don't play along you're 'black-balled' and if you do you feel bad about yourself and the situation. How do you handle this?
Linda, DC

NINA: As I stated in the webinar, I am a believer in taking the high road at all times. I have seen too many situations where people compromised their ethical or moral compasses in the name of their job and I simply don't agree with this approach. I would rather pursue what I call “authentic leadership” styles than have “false achievement”. I wrote about this very topic in “What Can Leaders Learn from Marion” and welcome your thoughts on this topic and blog entry.

QUESTION: What advice do you have for "taking risks" and navigating regarding office politics in the current environment of lay-offs.
Michelle, WA

NINA: I think that risk taking is an important factor in one's success or failure. Calculated risks that are well thought out and appropriately discussed with management are the "right" types of risks to take and when done properly have the support or acknowledgement of superiors. For me, in these difficult times where we are all being forced to do more with less, those that are unwilling to take appropriate risks are not being as creative or innovative as they could be. It is such creativity and innovation which will ultimately help us pull ourselves out of this economic turmoil and I strongly encourage those in my teams to think in these ways....but to be smart about it!

QUESTION: I was laid off from my previous company when I was 8 months pregnant. Everyone around me agreed that I was not the person who should be laid off because I overdelivered on all my goals. The consensus was that pregnancy and the impending maternity leave was a factor. How can we avoid these situations?
Shilpa, CA

NINA: This is an area that borders legal issues and I don't feel that I can adequately address them. I think it is incumbent upon companies to follow the law in regard to handling such situations.

QUESTION: What books have you read on this topic?
Karen, MI

NINA: From Good to Great, Lead by Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results, The 75 Greatest Management Decisions Ever Made and 21 of the Worst, Freakonomics, and Love is the Killer App. This said, I am not much of a “lead by management book” type. However, I really enjoy reading about other leadership examples, business decisions – both good and bad, alternative ways to think about situations, and simple reminders about ways to succeed in both business and life in general.

JO: On the topic of office politics, I like Gail Evans’ book, Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman, and Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office by Dr Lois Frankel.

QUESTION: English is my second language and I'm always very self-conscious if others are going to understand me or take me seriously because of my accent... what would you recommend to overcome this fear?
Vianey, CA

NINA: Keep on talking! Working in a global role, I have learned that accents have NOTHING to do with ability! Don't allow yourself to be held back because of your language skills. After all, those around you probably can't speak your native language any better than you speak fact, I'm sure they couldn't even come close! Keep talking, offering your ideas and you will get better and better. And more importantly, your colleagues will get the benefits of your participation and insights.

QUESTION: Once you identify how your "shadow organization" works, what should you do with that information - i.e. where should you try and position yourself?
Erica, TX

JO: I recommend identifying who the effective influencers and coalitions are – those people in your organization who know how things work, who make great things happen. Build relationships, with no agenda in mind. I can promise that if you reach out to a couple new people every week, take a genuine interest, and stay in contact, over time you will be amazed at the ideas, synergies, opportunities etc that show up, just by being open and showing a genuine curiosity about others.

QUESTION: Nina, what are some of the 'rules of the game' that you have encountered?
Shelley, TX and Kay, CA

NINA: I have encountered issues of being the only woman in the room, being younger than many of my colleagues, etc. but I have always kept my focus on delivering value and results. I believe, based on my experience, that outcomes matter the most. If you can deliver what is needed, gender, age and other things are less important.

QUESTION: Do you feel you MUST engage in office politics in order to be considered successful?
Jane, WA

NINA: Politics are a reality and one must not ignore them or do so at their own peril. I am not a fan of politics, but I have learned that ignoring them can have negative consequences. So, I do believe that we all must understand the nature of the politics within our respective companies and participate to the extent necessary.

QUESTION: What if you do not respect the key influencer?
Denise, CA

NINA: In regard to not respecting the key influencer, this is a personal matter which one must deal with on their own terms. What I mean by this is that if you don't respect them due to moral or ethical issues, you may wish to leave the organization. If, on the other hand, you don't respect them for other reasons - performance, reason for being in the position, etc. - then you need to understand the politics of the situation and make your decisions accordingly. For example, if the key influencer is in their position because they are related to a higher up in management but not truly competent to do the role they have, you must recognize that performance is not valued as much as relationship.

QUESTION: At what point do you determine that the politics are not in line with your values and that the organization is not the right one for you?
Janet, CA

NINA: This is a subjective decision as each of our values are personal. However, I would not recommend anyone stay in a position where they believe that they would be encouraged or forced to compromise their values or morals. Of course, these economic times may demand that we do all that we must to keep our job and income, but at some point, we all get pushed too far. Fortunately, I have not had such situations occur in my career.

JO: In my experience, women tend to stay longer than they should in a culture that is not a match, or in positions where a manager is putting a lid on their career development. Building relationships and getting to know people better can do a lot to build appreciation of diverse of values and perspectives, so give that a genuine effort for at least a few months.

QUESTION: What would you recommend as far as being successful in understanding office politics if you're coming from the different culture/country?
Tetyana, WA

JO: Whether starting a job in a new organization, culture, state or country, my top tip would be the same: map the shadow organization during your first few months in the job. Play the role of observer at first, noting what you learn, but at some point your confidence will picks up. You will feel ready to jump in and begin building your own relationships and coalitions. If you meet someone who seems to navigate the environment well, ask them to mentor you on company culture.

QUESTION: How to deal with the generation gap in the office (those who worked for 30 years for the company vs younger employees in the team)
Tetyana, WA

NINA: As we discussed during the webinar, to quickly learn about the politics of an organization, whether I am simply a new employee or coming from a different culture/country, I would ask others who have been around for a while and seek out those that seemingly have influence within the group or company. People like to be sought out for advice or guidance and generally, at least in my experience, are willing to assist others. As for the generational gaps, I believe that those who have 30 years have extensive experience and networks that can be of great value, while younger employees may have more technical savvy or comfort which can add value, or perhaps efficiencies. As they say, it takes 9 players to field a baseball team. So, we each must play our respective positions to the best extent possible so that our team has the greatest potential of success.

QUESTION: Any input around what if one of the rules of the game is belonging to a specific religion?
Denise, CA

NINA: I tend to leave religion out of the office and believe strongly that this is the right course to take. My religion does not and should not matter in terms of my ability to do my job to the best extent possible. If there are cliques forming around religious bases, I would bring this issue to the attention of HR and ask them to handle it appropriately.

QUESTION: What do you do when your manager looks like years of experience instead of performance?
Sushma, CA

NINA: Understanding the criteria that are valued within an organization is critical to one's performance and success. However, if years of experience is the criterion that is most valued rather than results or performance, then you may need to consider if this is something you are willing to invest years in or if you would be better off in a position where performance was more highly valued.

QUESTION: Playing golf, exercising with a person of influence - Isn't this a situation where you are taking advantage of a relationship for selfish reasons?
Kim, CA

NINA: I don't see engaging with a person of influence, be it on the golf course or in a gym, as selfish. For me, I love to exercise and when traveling on business, I regularly use the gym facilities in or near the hotels that I stay in. It is purely coincidental that a very senior executive within my company also likes to exercise and use the facilities when traveling. So, it is somewhat often that we find ourselves on treadmills or other exercise machines that are right next to one another and we are able to strike up conversations which often relate to business issues. I don't do this for selfish reasons, but certainly feel that my relationship with this person is stronger due to our shared interests and time together during exercise. As for the question on remote site, see my prior answer(s).

QUESTION: Do family or children pose any types of challenges for Nina or Jo?
Eloise, WA

NINA: I don't have any children so that does not pose any issues for me. And, my husband is a very understanding person and fortunately he understands the demands of my career and supports me wholeheartedly, which is truly a blessing since I know that this is not always the case for people with careers as demanding as mine.

JO: My situation is similar to Nina's. I invite you to join our April 28 webinar, and ask Genevieve Haldemann who she balances a young family and a demanding job. Our December webinar attacks work-life balance issues directly too.

QUESTION: Please share tips for dealing with team members who are not pulling their weight.
Tershea, TX

NINA: I am not a fan of carrying dead weight. Each year, I recommend that people within my teams are stack ranked and we drop those that underperform. Especially in these very demanding times, there is not a chance that we can carry underperforming personnel. As I have been known to say, a motto of sorts that I like is "achieve or leave".

QUESTION: Nina - Earlier you said, Leadership is about skills not gender" and then later you said, "It's not what you know but who you know". Doesn't one statement contradict the other? Doesn't the 2nd statement an example of office politics?
Aida, WA

NINA: I do not see these statements as contradictory to one another. Leadership is about skills and results. Leveraging one's network to achieve the desired outcomes is not a bad or political way to do your job to the best extent possible. I know some managers who are brilliant at doing the work themselves given their knowledge, but at the same time, I know other managers who are fantastic at facilitating the necessary outcome by bringing the right team of people together to get the task at hand done. However one gets to the desired outcome, it is this result that I am most focused on, barring, of course, doing so legally, ethically, etc.

QUESTION: You mentioned connecting with others outside of the office. What are your recommendations at connecting with remotely located leaders/colleagues?
Dixie, MO

NINA: Technology can be a great asset in connecting with others who are remote from you. I use email, phones, instant messaging, Twitter, blogging, etc. to communicate with those in my network. The blogging gives those who don't know me very well a chance to learn about my views/perspectives on things while many of the other tools that I mentioned allow me to keep open lines of communication with anyone, anywhere at anytime!

It's not too late to join the series. REGISTER NOW and get a video replay of Nina's webinar appearance.

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