On Excellence: Making politics pay

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The Independent Online
ALL organisations, even the one-person variety, are infuriatingly political. That is, if politics infuriates you.

Frankly, I love - but also ignore - politics. Both frames of mind are important to success in business or most anything else.

Anyone who loves accomplishing things must learn to love (yes, love) politics. Moreover, for better or for worse, politics is as important for dictators as for democrats. You can't take people where they aren't willing to go. Saddam Hussein understands this as well as Mohandas Gandhi did.

Politics means inducing and managing creative contention, giving people air time, building winning coalitions. Politics is the human element (there is no other) of the implementation process. We are all in favour of getting things done. We must, therefore, be in favour of politics. Politics is implementation.

The best leaders, including sole proprietors, who by definition depend on others for survival, spend day and night massaging relationships and egos (ie, working at politics).

Politics is about releasing the potential in followers, inspiring them to remake your vision to fit their passions, and then to implement it. But politics is simultaneously about squelching potential, because successfully implementing anything means we can't all get our own way all the time. Politics means loving people - getting a kick out of being around folks at the front line (the real army of doers at a hotel or at a factory), and enjoying the fray itself.

To engage lustily in politics at Bill Clinton's level, or yours or mine, also means developing a tolerance for bloody noses - often our own.

Those with a thirst for action, especially once they've developed a record for getting things done, will make enemies or provoke cynics who see all politics as brown-nosing (which, of course, is largely true).

And that leads to my second point: the best way to practice politics is to ignore politics.

I've worked in many companies where 'office politics' was the primary entertainment, taking up hours of every day. What a waste, to engage in such stuff - or pay attention to it.

While there is no more important activity for implementers than politics (relationship-building), there is no more useless activity than worrying about office politics. For heaven's sake, don't sap your energy and your time fretting about the flanking manoeuvre that some colleague is pulling on you. Just get on with selling your own proposals, gaining adherents, field-testing your ideas, whatever.

Most flanking manoeuvres, it turns out, are not malicious. They are the acts of people who - heaven forbid - disagree with you and are working just as hard to get their way as you are to get yours.

But, you protest, some engage in genuine backstabbing.

Tsk, Tsk] If your back isn't already a mass of scar tissue from past wounds, then you were never elected president of your class and you certainly are not the person who would have founded the CNN network or merged Time Magazine and Warner Brothers into Time-Warner Communications.

Sure, some folks spread rumors about you, trivial or outrageous. But don't put your boss down as an idiot. The boss has his or her own scars and wouldn't be at the top if he or she couldn't tell the difference between raucous disagreement (your colleague thinks your proposal is stupid, even dangerous) and malice (he claims that on weekends you hold up 7-Eleven stores). The truth is that the psychopaths who practice office politics for the sake of politics generally get their just deserts.

'All power is trust,' Margaret Thatcher once said. She understood that although one must tack and jibe to survive in the real world, one's word is one's bond. Effective lawmakers such as Senators William Cohen of Maine and Bill Bradley of New Jersey understand this - as does any sensible corporate boss.

Real creeps can waste your time, give you fits and now and again they can win one. But the best way for you to lose is to take them seriously and fight slur with slur. You'll end up shooting yourself, professionally, and not just in the foot.

Business ought to be fun. And for it to be so, politics must be fun. Ask any decent salesperson. Sales is the premier playground for politics. That is, salespeople have no formal authority whatsoever over the person who most influences their success or failure - the prospective customer. The seller needs, of course, a good product at the right price - but there are usually several of those to choose from. The real difference between winners and losers in the selling contest is trust and building relationships - ie, politics.

If you don't love politics - and ignore them - you are in for a rough ride, and an ultimately ineffective one.

TPG Communications