When the Old Rules for Success No Longer Apply

A friend of mine who recently assumed her first senior-level position asked to schedule some talk time to discuss the topic of organizational politics. She has moved around and up through the years and has generally been regarded as a superstar wherever she’s been. But what worked in the past doesn’t seem to be working now, and she’s having trouble making sense of her new organization’s culture—and, more important, what it takes to succeed in her new role.

She began the conversation by admitting that she was overwhelmed by the amount of stakeholder management that is required in her role, and said she was not sure the investment of time was really worth it. “I’m not actually getting anything done. It’s just talk, talk, talk. What am I accomplishing with these people?” she asked. She went on to explain that her peers did not seem to do any real work. “They just schmooze all the time. They aren’t producing any results, but they keep getting new resources. I don’t get how things work here,” she explained.

While it can be hard to adjust to a new organizational culture, my friend’s bigger challenge was making the transition from individual contributor to senior leader. Production matters more in the former, while relationships matter more in the latter.

I suggested she consider two strategies to get on track. The first was to create a list of her 20 most influential internal and external stakeholders and commit to touch base with each of them individually at least once a month through at least a call or email. “Consider asking them for advice even if you don’t think you need it, though you probably do,” I suggested. The second was to make a research project out of observing the rising stars at her institution. I encouraged her to pay close attention to what those people do and say, and to make notes about the people with whom they spend the most time. Their strategy was working for them, so it might also work for her.

She seemed pretty skeptical, so I’m not sure she will take my advice, though given her nature, I’m sure she will at least ruminate over it. She concluded our conversation by asking an interesting question: “Where is all this written down? Is there a book or something?”

What are the best readings you’d suggest on the topic of organizational politics? If you were writing a book on the topic, what would be titles of the chapters?

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