People have a lot of negative feelings about company politics, and rightly so. Fast-growing startups and large corporations are especially likely to have people grasping for power, since there's so much potential power to be snagged. This is the exhausting sort of politics most of us hate, which wears out good people and sends them towards the door.
But there’s a more subtle way to play politics, which is less about power grabs and more about using human psychology and motivations to keep the ships moving in the right direction.
It’s one of the most useful things I learned at my first job as product manager at Twilio. We often had to work across teams to sway internal energy in the direction we thought was needed. Our team reported directly to the CEO, but as always there were other folks who had their own priorities (occasionally personally motivated or power-grabby). Therefore you can imagine how projects and initiatives were regularly pushed and pulled in directions we didn’t believe were best.
To play effective politics, you should avoid making moves directly onto the outcome you want to happen. Instead, you'll be best served by understanding the forces at play on that outcome. Then work to encourage those forces move on your behalf.
For example, let’s say you want your company to invest more in the UX of its products. And to make that happen you believe a new team should be created which is focused on improving UX initiatives across the product team, with you in charge.
How would you go about making this happen?
Let’s be honest. Going directly to the CEO, head of product, or whomever will be the ultimate decider is unlikely to end the way you want. Most companies just don’t run that way, and the decision maker is unlikely to be so easily swayed.
If the CEO of your fast-growing startup is the ultimate decision maker on creating this new UX team, it’s likely they are heavily motivated by the sales team’s desire to close more deals and with loud feedback from large customers.
You’ll find they listen closely to the head of sales when they say they'd like to see a team focus on improving the product's UX, especially if it can be related to some large deals which were recently lost. So you'd be best served by working with the head of sales to make them believe a UX-focused team would listen to their needs and quickly deliver. Mention that you need more buy-in from the CEO. Run a similar process with the head of customer success, whereby you find a way to communicate clearly how their job would be easier if this team existed.
What you’re trying to do is have those people advocate on your behalf to the CEO. The CEO will want to remove roadblocks for these people. Their #1 job is to help them get back to closing more deals. This UX team needs to be presented as an obvious win for the business and customers as a whole, not you as an individual.
As long as you can do that effectively, you’ll find more people on your side when pushing for things you believe are right. Instead of grabbing power when it becomes available, you’ll become someone who makes your coworker's lives easier. Now… you just have to follow through on that part. 😉