This article is part of our Stories of Tech Leadership series where we explore challenges, thoughts, and struggles of courageous leaders in technology.
Chief Technology Innovator @ Rhosys
When I was just fresh out of college, in my first job, there were things I didn’t quite understand. For example, there were those giant meetings with tons of people - you know the kind - there’s a slide presentation, you don’t know why you’re there, and it’s the most boring thing ever. And yet you go to these meetings because “that’s how things are done”. For me, I always like to understand the details, “why is it like this” - that’s one of the reasons I went into science and engineering field. When something is happening, like a meeting is scheduled, and I don’t understand why, my first instinct is to question it. So I would ask: what’s going on here? Help me understand why we’re having a meeting. What are we hoping to accomplish? My questions usually didn’t result in answers.
You hear a lot about “politics” and it’s easy to assume such big, purposeless meetings are a flavor of politics. I always said to myself that I’m not going to play any political games. Politics are out of the question for me - I want to deliver as much value as I can, I want to help my product, my company be successful.
But what does “politics” really mean? There was an article I’ve read recently which said it nicely - you’re not encouraged to deliver value, you’re encouraged to deliver visibility. That’s mostly what people mean by “political games”. Anything that results in a positive kind of visibility for you but doesn’t actually deliver value falls for me into the political arena. It can manifest in different ways. “Oh, I talked to the CEO today” - you may think that it’s so great for your career, that you made a connection or impression, and it doesn’t really matter what you talked about. Someone else, perhaps even the CEO, may care more about the impact of that conversation - did my conversation actually help that engineer be more productive? That’s the difference between visibility and value.
In one of my previous jobs I was doing something (I won’t go into all the details) and my manager gave me most confusing feedback. It’s wasn’t like “hey, you’re not being effective” or “you’re unable to accomplish what I think you should be”. Nor was it feedback focusing on an outcome, like “you’re going to cause a huge loss to the business” or “here’s an opportunity you may be missing”. It was none of that. Instead, the feedback was: “AB and CD [initials of two other people] care that you’re not doing a good job”. I was just like… WTF!? First of all, who are they? This was crazy! I was able to decipher AB, but with CD I didn’t even know who they were. I just couldn’t think of anyone whose initials would match, so I just stood there with a “WAT???” expression on my face.
You see, I consider my manager to be the person responsible for my growth, for making sure I get the right thing done. Just saying that there are those two people higher up in the hierarchy who don’t see me favorably, well, that’s not very motivating for me, because I simply don’t care about it. A better way to phrase it for me would be “hey, you’re not being effective in the organization because you’re not delivering as much/as well as you could be”.
That’s when, for the first time, I’ve realized my manager was incredibly politically focused. It was something she was actually really good at. I was sort of disgusted by it in a lot of ways. But what I realized as well, was that my manager wasn’t great at giving feedback. She herself cared a lot about what her managers thought, and assumed that’s also what other people wanted to know. However, she wasn’t able to convey that in a meaningful way, nor back these “thoughts” with concrete evidence. I realized this was an opportunity for me to give her feedback in return.
So I shared with her, that for me, what really drives me forward is talking about the outcome. Let’s talk about specific actions or circumstances that you are unhappy with, why you’re unhappy with them, and what your expectation is, rather than anyone else’s. Because, you see, when you have a feedback conversation, you should be attuned to whom you’re talking to. The communication has to match, what you want to say has to be heard.
It was a struggle for her, partially because I don’t think she was ever in a position where things weren’t working out perfectly. Everyone does a great job when everything is easy. Being a leader is way more challenging when you perceive a problem. Anyway, she was a relatively new manager and simply wasn’t experienced in dealing with different problems. She was also never faced with a leader giving her feedback, or one who wasn’t driven by highly visible, political actions.
That’s when it really connected for me how politics work. It was a surprise to have that experience. It’s one of those things that you know it’s going on, but you’re never “in it”. This whole encounter was a good opportunity for me to see how being in the middle of a political game looks like.
Going back to the topic of those giant meetings seemingly without purpose - it took me a while to realize that some people schedule meetings and they have no idea why. A meeting may be the right thing to do, but they’re unable to justify it. Now I know that trying to get to the source, the root reason, to ask “why”, is a fool’s errand. While asking “why” may be an incredibly valuable tool, it just won’t work in this circumstance. It took me a while to realize that instead of trying to understand someone else’s reasons while they struggle to explain them, I could also take a different approach. There are some things I know could be better in our organization, or better for my product. The question became: can I use this meeting as an opportunity to do something about it? Can I use this for exchanging important information so I can make better decisions later? It took a long time for me to realize I could use meetings as a fulcrum to improve things I care about, irrelevant of what the initial point of the meeting is, even if a meeting was organized for political reasons.
It’s important to recognize that politics are all about the visibility. Some people care more about it, other people, like myself, care more about the outcomes. Now that I understand it, as I’m trying to find my “tribe”, looking for places to work and people to work with, I’m looking for specific things. I’m looking for signs that leadership is focused on delivery, working in a way that aligns with my values. This insight helps me recognize and avoid a longer term problem of organizations caring about visibility while ignoring the value. I know such organizations are doomed to fail, because political visibility does not equal success.
When I was just fresh out of university, I had no idea what that really meant.
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