Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Get Comfortable with Corporate Politics

The Proverbial “Love-Hate” Relationship
Very early in my career, I was a technical support engineer and was pretty good at it. In fact, many colleagues asked me “You’re great with customers. Why aren’t you in Sales?” I would quip “Well, I have to sleep with myself at night.” You see, in my profession, I was dealing with all the problems that bad sales people created e.g. wrong expectations about what the products they sold could actually do. Also, I had a problem with money being the primary driver of my decision making and thereby clouding my vision for what’s best for customers. On the other hand, I also understood that salespeople are “royalty” in the company. They are the ones that take on a lot of risk and deliver the revenues that feed product innovation and ultimately my paycheck. Thus, I had another saying “I love sales people twice a year… when I get my 6-month bonus!” It’s apparent why some salespeople get away with questionable actions.

In the latter part of my high-tech career, I transitioned into Marketing. I was catching up with Larry, a CMO colleague of mine when he described his “love-hate” relationship with Sales. “When they hit their number, it’s because they are great salespeople. But when they miss their number, it’s because Marketing didn’t deliver the support they needed - air cover, leads, tools and training, competitive intelligence, and more.” Larry also shared a memorable exchange he had when his VP of Sales asked “Why don’t you drop everything and get your whole team to help me make my Q1 number?” Larry responded “Because I have to help you make your 2011 number!”

CEOs create their leadership team to execute the corporate strategy for the company. Every line of business ("LOB") function has clear goals to ensure the company hits the quarterly and annual plan. But misalignments in priorities frequently manifest in functional and even departmental goals. Although Marketing, Sales, and other departments have a shared commitment to the “corporate plan,” they frequently diverge in how to get there. 

Typical Line-of-Business Tensions
Every company has natural tensions between business functions. Here are some examples:
  • Marketing-Sales: Marketing is responsible for both near-term (qualified leads) and long-term (market positioning, thought leadership) initiatives that support Sales, but Sales mostly cares about the immediate-term e.g. “how are you going to help me make my number this quarter?”
  • Sales-Engineering: Sales needs more product features to sell, but Engineering is constrained by resources. They also disagree about which features are most important for customers. And Sales doesn’t primarily care about product quality, unless customers start complaining – causing Sales to waste valuable “selling time” reviewing product issues.
  • Engineering-Services: Engineering frequently wants to release more products faster, and often defines “done” as code-complete, QA-passed.  But Services is very concerned about “whole product” – end-to-end product quality, documentation, installation, usability, supportability, support readiness, etc. Low ratings in any of these categories will eat into Services margins and create customer satisfaction headaches.
  • The list goes on with Finance, IT, HR, etc.

Corporate Politics – “Love it or Leave it” is Not an Option
In the same way that the US constitution is designed with the 3 branches (Legislative, Executive, and Judicial), each corporate function along with their natural business tensions are like a built-in “checks and balances.” Getting alignment between business functions is not difficult to achieve provided the right leadership team and process is in place. In this economy, high-tech companies are demanding higher productivity and greater results to catch up to or out-pace their competitors. This puts you and your colleagues under a lot of pressure to perform. When you depend on another business function to get your job done, you don’t have a lot of time or patience for bureaucracy or politics. However, you need to find ways to embrace these tensions or you will spend all your time “fighting the system” vs. getting it to “work for you”.
  1. Build Strong Relationships – Once you get to know someone at a personal level (and vice versa), it’s much easier to work through professional difficulties and disagreements. Developing mutual respect and personal connections among colleagues lays the foundation for constructive business relationships. As a former CMO, I’ve had some of my greatest breakthroughs when I’ve vehemently disagreed with my CTO on our Go-to-Market strategy. But since we were good friends, we were able to respect each other’s position amidst our heated debates and got to a common point of execution. This would not have been possible if we had an antagonistic relationship
  2.  Play Psychologist – “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” is one of Steven Covey’s famous quotes from “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” If you’re able to understand other people’s incentives and objectives then you will have a valuable perspective and greater ability to communicate with them effectively – and only then should you advocate your position. We work extensively with high-tech executives on how to successfully navigate through “Line of Business Tensions” so they’re able to influence decision-makers.
  3. Embrace Conflict – One of our earliest blog posts talked about why avoiding conflict is a bad for your career. It’s certainly easier said than done, but when you are in the heat of conflict, don’t take it personally. Business is business so you should expect that each LOB has their own business interest in mind. A good person with the best intentions may disagree with you and that doesn’t make them a bad person. Get on the same page so you can agree to what can and cannot be done. For example, Marketing execs should work closely with their Sales VPs to map out quarterly programs. You only have a limited Marketing budget and resources so get your Sales VP to agree on what’s most important to her and then lock-in the plan with her. That way when her priorities change (and they will), you can both come back to the mutually agreed upon plan. 
  4.  Stay Focused on the BIG PICTURE – You lose credibility when you’re viewed as a person who acts out of self-interest. The more you demonstrate that you are thinking outside and beyond your own personal interests and LOB function, the more you’ll be viewed as a team player and leader. Earning the trust and respect from other executives will give you more influence on big decisions and will swing those decisions in your favor.

Distractions and disruptions from corporate politics will sap away your valuable time and energy. Your ability to focus solely on what you have control over is a necessary survival skill. Thriving in a corporate culture where people play fair and by the rules is ideal so that you don’t have to waste time an energy looking “behind your back.” On the other hand, if you are able to master the ability to mitigate and filter out the toxic effects from people who are overtly trying to undermine you, you’ll be able to rise up to the next level… where the political dynamics are most certainly even more intense! More on that in a future blog post….

What strategies have you used to work through corporate politics? Please share your experience. If you found this interesting, please use the toolbar below to share it with your network.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A 2012 Resolution: Keep Your Enemies Close

“All’s Fair in Love and War”
“Good news!” is what she said to me on the phone. She timed it while I was traveling, so it would be harder for me to react to what I saw as yet another attempt at professional sabotage. Over the years, I had become very suspicious of her because of “honest mistakes” that either hurt me politically, helped her, or both. This one made it crystal clear. There was no chance this one was a "mistake."

We’ll call her “Nicole.” Roughly 3 months before, our department had reorganized and our GM decided that Nicole’s favorite direct report (who we’ll call “Martin”) was going to be moved onto my team. Nicole had hired Martin originally, and groomed him for over a year. They had the highest level of respect and loyalty for each other.

Meanwhile, I had just extended an offer to a very promising young candidate. The “good news,” according to Nicole, was that she had suggested to Martin that the new employee joining my team should report to him (effectively promoting him to Manager), and that Martin was very excited about the plan.

Nicole’s tone was enthusiastic and friendly on the surface. But she knew that the position she had put me in would be damaging. I could either go along with the plan, in which case Martin would get an effective promotion orchestrated by Nicole, or I could undo the plan, in which case Martin would perceive me as taking away a deserved promotion. Either way, Martin would end up being even more loyal to Nicole (with the promotion) or would be demotivated in his new role (as an individual contributor) because I blocked his promotion. Checkmate.

This was a huge professional “wake up call” for me – that there were actually people who would set traps to undermine other employees for their own benefit. Because I was responsible for outbound product marketing and Nicole ran inbound product management, avoiding her was not an option. I came to the realization that I was now at the stage of my career where I had to “grow up” or be crushed by the “big boys” (and girls). I had to find a way to work with Nicole.

Beware of Your Enemy
Inevitably, everyone in high-tech encounters professional enemies i.e. adversaries that undermine your professional reputation, conflict with your value system, and sound your internal alarm for “fair play” and “justice.”

As common as personality conflicts are in the workplace, they are the toughest problems to solve because you’d simply prefer not to deal with those types of people on any level whether professional or social. Socially, you can control who you interact with. However, broken professional relationships can be cancerous to your career success:
  • Wasted Time and Energy – it takes a lot of energy to dislike someone. This negative energy is wasted in matters that are counter-productive to the business. It also takes away from your job satisfaction.
  • Lost Productivity – avoiding someone who is on your team or who is part of your natural workstream makes for inefficient work.
  • Stalled Career Advancement and Promotions – it’s easier for your manager to promote you if she knows that there is consistent support throughout the organization. Adversaries can do a lot of damage to your reputation and make it hard for your manager or others to support your promotion.

On the other hand, if you’re able to work through these differences, you can do a lot of good for yourself in building up key skills as well as your reputation. Managed properly, people will recognize you as:
  • A Team Player - Companies spend millions on “teamwork.” At Oracle in the mid-90s, Ray Lane was adamant in rallying every employee in every function to focus all energies on beating Microsoft instead of fighting each other. If you can be a role model for “teamwork” and create highly functional cross-organization teams, you will significantly increase your chances of getting more responsibility and rising up the ranks.
  • A Leader - Leaders work through differences and come up with solutions. Anyone can point out problems. Great leaders always find a way to work with all types of people and to motivate them to a common cause.
  • Politically Savvy - You simply can’t avoid “Politics,” because “Politics” still exist everywhere and won’t avoid you. Playing good politics is required and it doesn’t mean you have to compromise your values. True North by Bill George provides a great foundation for understanding how your personal values align to your professional goals. People will respect you as someone who understands the game, but doesn’t “play dirty.”

“Keep Your Friends Close. Keep Your Enemies Closer!”
By the time HR gets involved, it’s usually a lose-lose situation or at best win-lose i.e. someone will lose. While it’s improbable that you’ll get along equally well with every person in your workplace, it’s also impractical to think that you can turn all adversarial relationships around. Take the first step to improve a bad situation. It’s to your benefit (as the old saying goes) to “…keep your enemies closer.” Here’s how:

  1. Be the bigger person - If you lower yourself to internal infighting, people above, across, and below you will notice. And even if you “defeat” your enemy, people will be hesitant to build strong relationships with you because they don’t want to become your future “victim.” Resist innate behaviors to defend and attack by controlling or better yet disconnecting your emotions. Some of my greatest professional missteps were caused by inability to control my emotional response and reactions.
  2. Stay in frequent, close contact – this gives you an “early warning system” so you can look out for their tactics. Find things in common to talk about. Look for “windows of opportunity” to make small talk. Then build up to non-work related topics, hobbies and shared interests to discuss. If you can find a “real person” within your nemesis that will help you to relate better to him in business situations down the road.  It’s also possible that you can slowly build some trust over time, but don’t be so na├»ve in thinking that given the opportunity he won’t throw you under the bus!
  3. Keep focused on the business - Business is business so don’t make it personal. You will set an example for your team and send a strong message up your management chain if you are committed to put your interpersonal issues aside for the good of the business. It’s useless to worry about things that aren’t in your control. You can’t control what other people do (to you) but you have complete control over what you can do for the business.
  4. Promote your enemy - Most of my executive clients have the greatest difficulty with this part. Finding ways to promote your enemies will clearly demonstrate that you are not competing with them and instead are focused on company success vs. your own personal agenda. This is a very powerful technique to disarm your enemies and demonstrate to the organization that you’re well above petty in-fighting.

Since then, I’ve faced many more “Nicoles” (and “Nicks”) in my travels as a high-tech exec. At best I’ve been successful in turning difficult relationships into productive, collaborative ones. At worst, I’ve kept my arch enemies at bay - limiting their damage by keeping them on my radar.

What strategies have you used to work through personal conflict situations? Please share your experience. If you found this interesting, please use the toolbar below to share it with your network.