More Lessons from the Greater Boston Women in Leadership Symposium

After the weekend to reflect on the event last week, which I initially wrote up here, I decided to add another post about how all of the learnings can apply to office politics and networking, whether you’re at a startup or a mid-large corporation (or both, like me!). All of the women leaders in EMC have learned to navigate both of these (often) minefields with courage and grace, as do startup CEOs, and world leaders.

EMC Corporation Ladies at the Greater Boston Women in Leadership Symposium

EMC Corporation Ladies at the Greater Boston Women in Leadership Symposium (yours truly is bottom left)

Winning in office politics is all about human communications and relationships. As Carrie Webb Olson just recently learned, after 13 years of being an excellent lawyer, perfecting your trade is a great end-goal but it’s not the end-goal, it’s not enough – in fact, working in a team with others effectively is just as important (if not more so). Think about how many times you’ve been stuck on a mundane task with an awesome team, and how much difference this made? As opposed to working on a terrible team with an awesome mission. This is absolutely true in a large corporation where the work can often seem endless and meaningless. The team, and more importantly, how you function in that team make the difference between success and failure, for both the team and your career within that company.

Carrie talked *with extreme candor* about how, in the past, she had “managed up.” Customers and partners loved her, but not necessarily her peers and her assistants. Without the support of her peers, she realized she couldn’t be as effective as a partner as she would like. She thought that simply because she was working hard and was assertive and efficient, other people would want to work with her, simply because she could get the job done dependably and adroitly.  However, until she realized that people need to feel value and respected, she had trouble getting colleagues to join her team. The lesson here is that a culture of mutual respect and emotional connection will encourage others to work with you, even under the harshest conditions. As she grew personally and professional, and she reflected on these teachings, inculcating them into her life, things have turned around for her; “listening is a big part of it,” she says, and “make time for people, and learn about people personally.” Now, politics has become a navigational tool for her in her career and her firm.

As Socrates recommended, if you seek to understand other people rather than fighting to be understood, you will be more effective in your communications. Try not to talk as fast as possible, and always listen with both ears. Also, understand that relationships are built on reciprocity and trust is the foundation for everything. Karma will always come back to you ten-fold.

Ritu Jyoti also reminded us that politics is not a negative word. It is a tool to do great things within an organization—but user beware. It can be wielded for good, or for evil (no comment about the present state of affairs in Washington). Ritu’s CEO, every day, fills his calendar with phone calls – he calls people within the organization and talks with them about what they’re working on and worried about. He uses this as a way to understand various viewpoints and ultimately make the right decision at the end of the day. If you understand what others are struggling with and what their perspectives are, then you can use this to make more informed (nearly crowd-sourced) decisions.

You actually can’t survive without office politics (I dare you to try). The higher you rise in your career, the less you actually use your forms of authority. As Stephanie Sonnabend reminded us (and as I learned in business school and then promptly forgot), there are seven types of power:

  1. Position power;
  2. Charisma power;
  3. Information power (360 degree view of the company);
  4. Expertise power;
  5. Relationship power;
  6. Punishment power; and,
  7. Reward power.

According to Stephanie, the eighth type of power is the power of reputation. The key is to understand where you derive your power in whatever job or duty you hold, and realize that you can use this to manage perceptions and expectations.

And on the point of reputation, according to Carrie, she’s noticed one particularly striking difference about men and women when comes to reputation. When a woman is late to work or has to leave early, she is constantly explaining herself – “I’m late because… I need to leave early because…,” etc. But a man just says “I’m leaving at 3PM” or “tomorrow I’m coming in at 10AM” – he doesn’t give an explanation or a reason or an excuse. This leaves people to assume he is doing something important and that the important work will get done in the end. This is a great point that even I need to take to heart. I always feel the need to offer up an explanation and get people to understand the “why” – but sometimes the why isn’t important at all, and in the end, the work just speaks for itself.

Juliette Mayers reminded us that it’s all about learning who has the power to help you, and working within their own personal agendas to serve one another.  You can leverage these people, as they will have eyes and ears throughout the company, at all levels. Internally and externally. People often overlook their internal networks and the importance of cultivating internal relationships within parts of their company. Doing so early will always pay dividends down the road, and make sure others in tangential to your core team in your organization know who you are and can speak on your behalf. In the end, these people who you’ve made a point to work with, talk to, and network with, will be your advocates when you’re not in the room because they believe in you. Politics can be used as a very powerful force if used correctly (again, hopefully for the force of good!).

In order to leverage politics correctly, the first thing you have to do is add value to your corporation, whether it’s a startup or a large company. Take a look at what you’re doing and see whether it aligns within the vision of the organization, even if it’s not your formal role. If you feel that you don’t have the opportunity to influence change or do anything meaningful, you need to find a way to contribute and elevate yourself within your job description. This will help you thrive, not just survive. Once you understand how to add value, it’s important to make other people understand that you are adding value – this is the self-promotion piece, and it is actually just as important as the work itself. Have a plan of how you will network strategically. Write it down, identify who the key players are, and make sure you are spending your time wisely.

Finally, Danielle reminded us to think about the context that other people are under – they may have things going on driving their behavior that we don’t have full visibility into. You can only control what YOU do, but make sure this overlaps or at least is related to what other people care about and what their bosses care about (in other words, understand what motivates people!). You can’t always control the outcome but you can control what you do.

And, of course don’t underestimate the value of networking. Are you tired of hearing me say that by now? And, don’t feel guilty about it. Women can have the tendency to feel that networking is the same as using people, and then because of this association, abstain from it. You don’t have to make networking a huge project or chore – just do every day little things that you can do that can be networking based. The how is just as important as the what. It’s called HEARTS, as Juliette explained – it’s just not what you do it’s how you do it. HEARTS is:

  • Honesty;
  • Energy/Enthusiasm;
  • Attitude – positive always;
  • Respect;
  • Thank you – gratitude;
  • Smile – being approachable and helpful.

For Carrie, and me as well – we actually didn’t realize there was a negative perception to networking from the perspective of a woman. We both like to have nice lunches and dinners and coffees, and go to interesting events with other interesting people that we share affinity or expertise with, and moreover we like connecting with people and spending time on interesting people and ideas – it turns out this is called networking, and there’s not a reason why this has to be a negative thing!

Watch this video of the event (care of Sheryl Chamberlain) to learn more, and be sure to read her blog recap as well.

Now it’s your turn. Are you ready? Time to get out there!

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Chandra is passionate about travel and technology....

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