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Politics in the Workplace — How It Works and How Women Fit Into It

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Jun. 17 2015, Published 3:30 a.m. ET

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Cathie Black, a former chair and president of Hearst Magazines, was appointed chancellor of New York City schools by Mayor Bloomberg in November 2010. Mayor Bloomberg believed Cathie was the right candidate based on her extensive management experience. But it was apparent rather quickly that public opinion was against her. After just a few months in the job, a NY1/Marist poll revealed that just 17 percent of New Yorkers approved of her job performance.

Cathie had an incredible track record. She navigated to the top in the publishing world, where women executives were a rare commodity. Despite her obvious success and savvy, however, New Yorkers viewed her from the outset as an outsider to public education, and therefore incapable of doing the job. They looked for every opportunity to emphasize her weaknesses and never gave her a chance to prove herself. What looked like a new challenge and opportunity for Cathie turned out to be a blindside. In April 2011, she was forced to step down. Cathie fell victim to the politics and the power of public opinion. The politics derailed her.

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What lesson can we learn from Cathie Black’s experience? Here is an extremely competent and prominent female executive who was able to reach a leadership position because of her talent, hard work, and political savvy. Yet she was blindsided and unable to overcome the strong political barriers. This clearly demonstrates the necessity for all of us to understand the political landscape and identify potential landmines.

Every organization has unique political dynamics. In fact, each team within a business line or function often has a different language, different success metrics, and behavioral norms. You have to be willing and capable of adapting not only to get ahead, but also to stay ahead.

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Politics can make or break your career. This is especially important for women to understand. To our detriment, we continue to avoid workplace politics and set ourselves up to be blindsided and passed over for promotions.

You must ask yourself where you would be today if you had been more politically savvy and tuned in to the way decisions are made in your company. Most important, what is possible for you in the future if you are willing to learn how to effectively navigate the realities of the workplace? What is possible if you are given the tools to master the politics?

For decades, women’s advancement in the workplace has been the focus of research and conversation. Unfortunately, we can only point to limited success in this area. Women are inching their way up to leadership positions, but their progress has been very slow. Currently, women hold only 5.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 5.4 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions.

Are we frustrated yet? You bet!

We are certainly well prepared and well educated. Women now hold 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and 51 percent of all doctorates. We now earn 47 percent of law degrees and 45 percent of all master’s degrees in business. We enter the workforce with optimism and ambition, and then our goals for career advancement are not realized.

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Many theories explain our lack of progress, but the bottom line is that the optimal way for women to circumvent obstacles is through political savvy and relationships. The culture and politics in our organizations still make women’s ascent to top positions extremely difficult. Sometimes the politics is so powerful and overwhelming that even super stars like Cathie Black cannot survive. For women, the politics is often complicated by gender bias. This was certainly true decades ago when we faced overt discrimination.

For instance, Elizabeth, an executive in the bio/pharma industry, told me her story about her first job out of college. She was one of the few women working in a company that made flavor and fragrance materials. Three weeks into the job, one of the salesmen came into the lab with a request. Elizabeth quickly volunteered that she could make that happen. The man replied, “No, you can’t. You’re a woman.”

Elizabeth said she was shocked at the time and will never forget this incident. She said to herself, “Wow. I thought I could do anything and then I realized there are other people who aren’t going to let me do everything because I’m a woman.”

Timi Hallem, a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, tells her story of gender discrimination early in her career as an attorney:

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“I had a 3-year-old and a 10-month old. The managing partner of the firm came into my office and told me that the firm was going to reduce my salary because I was less valuable now that I had children. Because I had young children there were things that the people who worked with me would not ask me to do, and therefore, that made me less valuable to the firm. I asked whether I’d ever turned anything down or refused to do anything, and was told that that was not the issue—that, no, I had not. But that there were things they wouldn’t ask me to do—and that in and of itself made me less valuable. So my pay was reduced, and I thought about leaving. I actually interviewed elsewhere, and then I decided that would, basically, give them too much satisfaction. I decided to first work on building up my practice to the point where they’d be really sorry when I left. Instead, within six months, they restored my pay and gave me back what they had taken away, and decided I didn’t deserve to have my pay cut since the clients were clearly happy with me.”

For those of you who have recently entered the workforce, I’m sure these stories are shocking. We rarely see examples of discrimination this overt any longer. Now we have the law on our side—it is no longer legal or politically correct to discriminate against women based on their gender—but this has forced gender bias to go underground. Second-generation bias, as it is commonly called, is more challenging because it is subtle, and women are blindsided by it every day.

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The point is that you never want to be caught off guard by this. Political savvy helps you to understand which people in your organization support you and support the advancement of women. These are the people you need to build relationships with. Political savvy also helps you to uncover those who are less likely to help you because you are a woman. This is not always easy because these people may justify their behavior based on other reasons, but with keen observation skills and focus, you can learn who pays lip service to the promotion of women and who doesn’t. Bottom line: You need to figure out who are your allies and who are your foes.

Lisa, one of my clients and a senior executive in the banking industry, tells me that the boys’ club still exists in banking and these informal networks are difficult for women to access:

“Twenty years ago, men were pretty overt about the fact that they didn’t really care to make an effort to include women in their inner circle. I think, at this point, it’s less overt, but it still exists. And there are different reasons. I think there’s definitely an element of men feeling like, if they say the wrong thing, or do the wrong thing, they’re going to get sued for harassment. So, they need to keep their guard up. Sometimes I think there’s a ‘women versus men’ type of thing, just in terms of the kind of things that men will do together—and they won’t invite women. Not even for drinks.”

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Lisa tells the story of how a senior manager at the bank with whom she had a great relationship did not invite her on an all-day fishing trip, yet invited all her male counterparts. Lisa had lunch with him a couple of weeks later and asked him, “If you knew I liked to fish, would you have invited me?” And he said, “Probably not.

She says, “It was a man who I respected, who I knew liked me very much—and who was very much a straitlaced guy, and there was never any question that he treated men and women equally. But then, there’s the off-campus event, and he didn’t invite me. It’s these types of events where people let their guard down. That’s where people talk about things that you may not talk about in a formal meeting. And that’s where you build relationships. To be excluded from that because you’re a woman excludes you from those important conversations.”

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To Lisa’s point, she may never get invited on fishing trips with her male colleagues. She may never be asked to go to Monday night football events because she’s a woman. You may have had similar experiences. It is still important to find opportunities to connect and build relationships with these men so they can get to know you beyond your work and your presence in formal meetings. Stay tuned, because access to these informal networks is achievable with political savvy. It is possible to create bonds with the men in these networks even if they don’t include you in their activities after work. You have to be creative and make it happen!

Another thing I’ve learned listening to women is that they understand the importance of “leaning in” and asking for what they want and need, but when they assert themselves it can backfire because some men are threatened by their assertiveness.

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Lori relates her current challenge with “leaning in” at her company: “The higher you get in an organization, the older the men are that you’re dealing with, and the less receptive they are to assertive females. I surprise men when I am assertive. And it disturbs them at some very basic level. And those are the folks who are my audience. They’re who I need to persuade, and who I need to have some confidence in my capabilities and my leadership. And if I strike them personally on a level that makes them uncomfortable, it puts me automatically behind the eight ball. Their basic understanding of female behavior is challenged. I’m looking for collaboration and some equal footing—something they would gladly give somebody my age who was a man with a family and demographic that they have.”

Do you get a similar reaction from men when you speak up or offer a different opinion? Isn’t it worth your while to know who would be most receptive to your ideas and the optimal way to communicate with them to avoid landmines? That requires political savvy!

Unconscious bias rears its ugly head in other ways as well. Bias shows up in the stereotypes men and women have relative to work and leadership. For example, I hear from women that they are no longer considered ambitious once they have children. They are frequently passed over for positions that require more travel. We can experience this type of bias from both men and women who hold beliefs that women who are mothers should behave in a certain fashion. And of course, we still earn less money than our male counterparts.

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There are people in your organization that make assumptions about you because you’re a woman. It is not always obvious why we are not given the same opportunities as others. It’s critical, therefore, to clearly communicate your goals to your boss and other decision makers who have influence over your career.

How you position yourself in the company with key stakeholders is critical to overcoming this bias. Learning how to effectively articulate your career aspirations and your achievements is an important aspect of political savvy. Identifying the people who would benefit from this information is another critical component.

Another challenge women face is a lack of confidence. Do you wake up at 3 AM in a sweat because you’re wondering if you have what it takes to succeed, if others will discover you really aren’t that smart? Our internal demons can hold us back. Many women tell me that they believe they aren’t good enough to make it, and that it is pure luck that they have achieved any success. Their self-doubt prevents them from speaking up and giving their opinions, from asking for more compensation and responsibility. I hear from these women that because they have a need to be liked and please others, they take on too much work and don’t delegate. As a consequence, they are not perceived as having leadership potential in an environment that rewards visibility and credibility.

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Lack of confidence holds many women back from engaging in politics and leaning in. What I have come to realize through my coaching practice and discussions with women is that many of us don’t understand our contribution to business outcomes. We don’t recognize our value. Identifying your value proposition is the necessary first step to understanding and believing in your contribution to the company. It inspires your confidence to put forth your ideas and ask for what you deserve. It fuels your ability to build relationships of trust and influence by offering to help others based on your value proposition. These relationships assist you in navigating the workplace by giving you important information about its politics and by promoting you for new opportunities.

In this book, you will learn the significance of self-promotion as both a leadership skill and a political tool. You will learn savvy ways to communicate what you and your team have accomplished and how to sell your ideas across the organization to build political influence.

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