The Politics of Professional Success

With nearly a decade of professional experience under my belt, I’ve learned that professional success is, beyond sheer ability, is largely a reflection of one’s political accumen.  I’m not talking Obama vs. Romney politics. Instead, this is the game that one must play when relating to colleagues, from the new intern to your direct report to your CEO.

This is something I think as a whole women are not good at, and when they are, they can come off as fake or backstabbers. Women who do really well in business are very attuned to how they present themselves, physically and verbally, at every instance. They know how to make allies in the right places. They still stand up for their own ideas and what they believe are the right decisions, but they are always one step ahead, carefully crafting their next move.

This is likely true of all business professionals, beyond those who are scientists and the like who are allowed to sit out the game in order to focus on generating innovation and new products. Even then, anyone who wants to manage that process needs to get into politics.

I wish they taught this in school. The biggest challenge is regaining your position and momentum once you’ve slipped. You have to view your entire professional career as a long, ongoing political campaign. You show what you can accomplish, who you can win over, what leadership power you have, even if you do not have direct reports. You must “make friends and influence people,” according to that popular book.

It’s the make friends part I’m personally terrible at. This is extremely challenging as it requires not only the ability to deliver collected, concise speech in the board room, it also requires just as much ability to talk over drinks about topics not related to work at all. This is difficult, especially as a woman, because more often than not you are not invited out to these events. You may be invited to larger — the whole team is going out for happy hour type events (usually I find I’m one of the few women who goes to these events) — but when it comes to the VP or CEO going out for a 1on1 dinner to celebrate success, chances are that’s happening between two men, not a man and a woman. There are exceptions to this, and I’m sure the women who get ahead know how to play their cards right. I imagine having children is actually a benefit here, as you can, on a non-professional level, discuss kids, parenting, and even have your kids hang out with the children of your colleagues while you spend time with the adults and watch a football game.

In any case, point is, if you really want to get ahead, you need to think like your own campaign advisor and plan every thing you say, wear, and do, in order to improve how your colleagues view you and admire you. Just like a presidential nominee would struggle from a failure in his race, so would any professional seeking to prove that one or two mistakes does not diminish their abilities to lead, gain collective trust, and make good things happen.

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