The prevalent debate over the plight of women in the workplace focuses on whether organizations or women themselves are to blame. Why aren’t women further along in terms of representation at the top of organizations and government? What’s the hold up? Having put in my time, coached and consulted, my view is that any either-or approach to the problem is too simplistic. Moreover, no amount of telling companies they’re missing out if they don’t promote women to senior management is going to change things. Sure, some senior executives will reach out to women, but not enough to make a big difference.
So what’s the answer? It’s a complex one because the way women are raised in most cultures, including the U.S., discourages their recognition and management of power and politics. And yet these are at the heart of success.
I’ve written about this in both The Secret Handshake and It’s All Politics. Why? Because it became quite clear to me years ago that knowing how to communicate, persuade and negotiate are critical to success in almost every career. But without an understanding of how politics and power function within organizations as well as competence in managing both, the likelihood of women advancing in male-dominated organizations is low. And it’s going to stay that way.
You have to know how to read between the lines — to know when what is said is not what is meant. It’s important to recognize that more important than what people say leads to promotions is what actually does. There are four primary types of political arenas in organizations: minimally, moderately, highly and pathologically political. If you’re a political purist who believes firmly that competence is what makes the difference in advancement, you’d better be working in a minimally or moderately political division or company. If you’re a purist and you’re working in a highly or pathologically political arena, getting to the top is likely not going to happen. You need to be a street fighter.
What I’m advocating here is that more women need to become savvy with regard to the political cultures in which they work. Certainly men need to do this too. If, however, the organization is run largely by men, then how to get ahead is easier to learn for men. After all, the people running the show are like you. Modeling their behavior is easier. It’s not a cinch or everyone would be in line for CEO, but there’s much to be said for not having to cross the gender divide to follow in the footsteps of the higher-ups.
I’ve written about this subject at length, so I’ll just say this for now. For many women power is an uncomfortable concept. For most men I’ve met it isn’t. Politics is not much different. Too often women, as I once did, think that promotions should be fair. The fact is that they often aren’t. Fair has little to do with work. As one CEO explained, “It must look as if it’s fair.” But looking fair and being fair are very different.
If you want to get ahead, you need to find out what matters and make sure what you do facilitates the accomplishment of that goal. Furthermore, the link between your work and the goal needs to be made evident. Connections with people who make promotion decisions are crucial. Make sure that your work passes the VCR test: visible, central and relevant — that you’re not spinning your wheels on work that is not valued.
These are just a few considerations with regard to power and politics. There are the day-to-day interactions to consider as well. In Comebacks at Work, Chris Noblet and I wrote about what to say in difficult situations. How you get yourself out of a corner is valued in most organizations. What you say at critical choice points is remembered. And learning what it means to lead is as well.
If you want to get ahead, start learning how power is used where you work. Observe whether your political style fits the political arena or whether you need to become more savvy. Pay attention to who gets ahead and how. And if you are not suited to the place where you work and the top is your desired destination, start looking around. For men and women success is a matter of fit. If you don’t fit, learn how to change that or find a place where what defines who you are is valued. No amount of climbing a ladder in a place that doesn’t suit you is going to get you to the top. Find out how they define power, what constitutes leadership and how they manage politics. Be observant. And learn from those who’ve gotten where you want to go.