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 badsales 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, Itransitioned 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 thisquarter?”
  • 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 tocommunicate 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.

 

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The ExecCatalyst blog covers topics related to leadership, career advancement, hiring, finding the right job, company cultures and office politics, and general management. The authors have extensive experience in high-tech in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and have gained experience at small, fast-moving startups as well as large, global technology firms.

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