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Managing People Politics

Managing People Politics

Line up partners, position your enemies and control those on the fence - six lessons in being a leader.

Reprinted with permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpted from Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading by Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky.

Copyright 2002 by Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky.

One of the distinguishing qualities of successful people who lead in any field is the emphasis they place on personal relationships. This is certainly true for those in elective office, for whom personal relationships are as vital as air is to breathing. The critical resource is access, and so the greatest care is given to creating and nurturing networks of people whom they can call on, work with and engage in addressing the issue at hand.

There are six essential aspects of thinking politically in the exercise of leadership: one for dealing with people who are with you on the issue, one for managing those who are in opposition, and four for working with those who are uncommitted but wary - the people you are trying to move.

Find Partners

Finding partners is sometimes easier said than done. Both your own faction and other camps will happily watch you take on the challenge alone.

Partners might push their own ideas, compromising your own. Connecting with them takes time, slowing you down. And working with a group might dilute your leadership - a drawback if it is important that you get credit, or if you want to reassure yourself and others of your competence.

Tom Edwards and Bill Monahan worked in different parts of a manufacturing company in the Northwest. Tom, who worked in information technology, had found in Bill, who worked in sales, a reliable ally for moving the company kicking and screaming into the world of high-speed IT.

Bill not only worked on the IT adaptation within his own group, but he gave Tom credibility on the issue companywide.

Tom and Bill were also good friends, and their families socialised with one another. One evening over dinner, Tom shared with Bill his strategy for getting the senior management team to approve the purchase of a new information management system at a meeting the next day. In the long run, the new system would save the company millions of dollars, but in the short run implementation required a difficult and painful transition in which some folks, including some people in sales, would probably lose their jobs.

Tom sensed some coolness in Bill after he laid out his plan and asked whether something bothered him. "I wish you hadn't told me," Bill said. "I need to protect my people on this one, and now you've given me some important information as to how I can do that before tomorrow's meeting."

In the end, Tom did not lose the alliance because Bill had openly shared his conflicting loyalties. But more often in such cases, an ally like Bill would have just listened, and in the end, he might be tempted by the easier option of staying loyal to his sales group and, in their interest, abandon Tom. All the while, a person in Tom's shoes might show up at the meeting thinking he had done his groundwork, only to find that his ally had done some preparation too and was taking action to derail the project.

It's a mistake to go it alone. Before your next meeting, first make sure you've made the advance phone calls, tested the waters, refined your approach and lined up supporters. But in the process, find out what you are asking of your potential partners. Know their existing alliances and loyalties so that you realise how far you are asking them to stretch if they are to collaborate with you.

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