This article was originally published in Leadership Excellence in 2010.
As the economic downturn takes hold, corporations around the world are starting to take drastic action to shore up their balance sheets, reduce their exposure and make radical moves to ensure they survive the looming crisis. Some are taking action because they are feeling the pain, while others are taking preemptive steps to reduce the risk of catching a cold later.
In these corporations, individuals are also taking stock of their position and starting to worry. It is noticeable that as the downturn gathers pace, so too does the amount of political activity at senior levels. Different ideas will surface about the most appropriate course of action to take. Powerful people will quickly start to exert their influence to gain agreement to their ideas. That these ideas also save their own jobs should come as no great surprise! Those that set themselves in opposition to these powerful people suddenly become extremely vulnerable.
It is often said that, in times like these, the wrong people exit the organization. Even highly skilled and talented individuals are threatened by those more adept at managing the political dimension. As the downturn progresses, this latter group is likely to become ever more ruthless in their pursuit of survival. The body count could be high! Survival rates depend on the strength of an individual’s political base — the network of allies and friends around the organization. In times of crisis, these can be tapped into to establish what is really going on and, critically, help work out what to do for the best.
Our work involves helping people with talent and integrity survive and thrive in highly political environments, and here we outline some of the latest thinking coming out of our work. This will help you to become more capable of protecting yourself in a political crisis and reduce the risk of it occurring in the first place!
Step 1: Analyze Your Political Base. Work out who is in your political network. Split these into supporters (those who will help you if asked) and advocates (who will be proactive on your behalf). Notice how your base maps onto the organizational structure. Where are the gaps? Think through how powerful the people in your network are. What else do you notice here? Perhaps most of your network originates from the New York office, or started life in sales roles. What action does this analysis inspire?
Step 2: Strengthen Your Base. Strong relationships will only stay strong if they are kept fresh. Lack of contact could mean that, when needed, the support has evaporated. Who do you need to reconnect with right now? What can you do to rekindle the relationship? Focus on the most powerful and important people within your network and try to move them towards becoming advocates.
Step 3: Consider Worst-Case Scenarios. It is very difficult to predict how an organizational crisis will take form, yet any attempt to set down the possibilities will help to provide you with early warning and give you the opportunity to take action to improve your position if it happens. So work out three or four main possibilities for how things could take shape over the next six to nine months. How would each of these options affect your political base? What impact could they have on you?
Step 4: Expand Your Political Base. Based on the probable scenarios and your impact assessment, where do you need to find new friends and supporters? Invest time and energy in building new relationships and beginning collaboration in areas where you may need it in the future if one of the scenarios emerges. Building new relationships in times of crisis is tough, so if you can begin this work early, you’ll be in a much better position later if the worst does happen.
Step 5: Pump Real Value into Your Base. Work hard to deliver value to those in your network so that they view you as someone who is crucial to the organization’s long term success. Avoid getting a reputation for only talking to people when you want something. Looking at the priority people in your network, consider what life might be like for them right now. Is there anything you can help them with — something that might help them toward their goals? Sometimes just sending them an article you noticed in the press and thought they may find useful can make a big difference to the relationship. The point is that you’re demonstrating support for your strategic partners during a time when many managers question whom they can rely on.
Step 6: Engage with your Allies. Take every opportunity to stay close to those who matter in your political network. As trusted allies, open up the scenario debate with them and see what they think about the possibilities. They may not have thought it through and will be very glad you helped them start thinking in this way. You’ll gain new ideas and intelligence from the synergy of thinking things through together. This joint work with your allies will improve the prospects of survival — of your careers and your ideas.
If your organization is currently in crisis and the political storm is raging, all of the above still apply, except you have to do them faster and the scenario is clearer! You’ll also be handicapped because everyone will know that a key motivator for all of your words and actions is survival, so expect some suspicion as to your motives. Your best chance is to focus on established relationships and work together with your allies to build greater insight into what you all need to do.
The bottom line is that in business you cannot always win. No matter how polished your political skills, or widespread your network, there are no guarantees. However, what we can guarantee you is that if you pay careful attention to the points made in this article, you will stand a better chance of surviving the credit crunch with both your career and your integrity intact.