Tired Of Corporate Politics Limiting Your Career? Here’s How To Rise Above (and Transform Your Company Too)

Tired Of Corporate Politics Limiting Your Career? Here’s How To Rise Above (and Transform Your Company Too)

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Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash
The late organizational scholar Warren Bennis once said, “Leaders must encourage their organizations to dance to forms of music yet to be heard.”  
His advice reminds us that leadership requires, among other attributes, the courage to lean into the unknown and guide others safely toward it, not through control but with inspiration, influence, and intention.
But in today’s companies, we incorrectly assume that those in leadership roles are influential leaders. Not only are many executives incompetent at truly leading and exerting broad influence within their organization, but many individual contributors and junior managers are more adept at building relationships and engaging others around a vision beyond their immediate domain.  
Often the leaders who fail to work well across functions are still rewarded, while forward-oriented junior employees find themselves stalling, simply because their title doesn’t grant them authority yet. This scene is classic corporate politics at work. It brings frustration for aspiring leaders who want to impact their careers and their companies. Even worse, it keeps the company from being agile, competitive, and transformative in a rapidly changing business world.
Bennis’s use of the word “dance” when referring to leading an organization is perfect because it is just that: a constant giving-and-taking between siloed leaders and departments that don’t have authority over each other and often don’t even consider collaborating unless forced to do so.  
When stuck in the quagmire of corporate politics, the complexities of human nature lead to various coping mechanisms. On some days, colleagues in different departments of the same company will navigate conflict well, and on others, they will resort to highly ineffective, even damaging behaviors. These behaviors can range from outright hostility to more “polite” yet passive-aggressive behaviors like avoidance and political maneuvering. And that is when the turf wars begin.

In my work as an executive coach in Fortune 500 companies, I’ve regrettably seen how these turf wars damage otherwise well-intentioned leaders. They have so much more to offer the broader enterprise yet get left behind in their impact and career. Why? Because the outdated norms of how work gets done block them at every turn (e.g., don’t step on toes, stay in your lane, and wait until your boss promotes you before taking the lead on new initiatives). 
Companies that over-rely on people with authority to make decisions while not including those who lack a title to get involved minimize their potential to be extraordinary. They create unnecessary frustration among their leaders and employees who resist collaborating across silos or hierarchies and ultimately miss out on creating value together.  
There is good news, however, and it comes in the form of a compelling book that just came out this week, one that I highly recommend to leaders and employees at companies of all sizes.  
Written by renowned executive teams expert Keith Ferrazzi, Leading Without Authority provides a blueprint not only to endure the frustrations of corporate politics but to become a leader that drives better business results and transforms the way people work with each other.  
I had the pleasure of sitting with Keith to discuss his latest book and why this topic is so important to him on a personal level.  
The power of “co-elevation”
Leading Without Authority continues to share Keith’s perspectives on the power of relationships for business and career success, just like his first two New York Times Bestsellers, Never Eat Alone and Who’s Got Your Back. But based on over a decade of his work consulting executive teams, he introduces to readers a call for a brand new operating system at work, one that reflects the need to transcend company politics for the betterment of the business and the needs of those that run it.  

Keith Ferrazzi
He calls this concept “co-elevation,” where leadership is no longer positional (i.e., based on the title), but based on a system of “fluid partnerships” and “self-organizing teams.” Keith sees this as the necessary and inevitable future of leadership and teams. Co-elevation is a way of working where colleagues at all levels and within any department, co-create. And they courageously hold each other accountable with coaching, rather than avoiding or competing with each other. 
One of the book’s lessons (though it may be hard to accept) is that when you find company conflict or intransigence hindering your impact, you may be the one to blame, not your colleagues.  
Regardless of your title or department, you must build the team you need by influencing others, not blaming the team you have (or complaining that you don’t yet have direct reports). Those that don’t proactively enlist and inspire others to support their vision, or see themselves as a victim of their colleagues’ behaviors ultimately limit their impact and results. And just as you must proactively inspire and influence others outside of your domain to help you create more value, you must be open, vulnerable, and willing to be enlisted as a trusted teammate.  
Enlist more teammates and be open to being enlisted 
Earlier in his career in the ’90s, after graduating from Harvard Business School, Keith earned a coveted entry-level consulting role at Deloitte Consulting. Early on, he recognized that he didn’t enjoy the typical “grunt” work of spreadsheets and number-crunching assigned upon joining. He decided to play to his strengths, which were in building and leveraging relationships, so he began marketing informally and generating business leads for Deloitte.  
His willingness to leverage his talents, despite what he calls a “humiliating” first-year review, caught the eye of senior management, and he soon was given the authority to develop a marketing function at the company.  
As he said, “I never let a title (or my lack of one) stop me.” This proactive approach was Keith’s first demonstration of “leading without authority,” recruiting people to informally support his vision until he formally was promoted to become Deloitte’s Chief Marketing Officer (and youngest partner).  
He moved on to become the CMO at Starwood Hotels and Resorts, but now comfortable with a great title and authority, he writes: “I didn’t spend as much time building strong relationships as I had at Deloitte. I’d assumed that my new global role would give me and my team the authority to achieve great things.” And when the company decided to decentralize the marketing function, Keith found his role diminished. 

Keith Ferrazzi
Keith Ferrazzi
In that experience, he shares two lessons. The first one is that people with authority can get complacent and miss out on engaging and “co-elevating” others who could be valuable teammates but are outside of their reporting structure.
And the second lesson is that many people are on the sidelines without authority or a formal team (like Keith was pre-CMO at Deloitte) yet want to contribute and can offer tremendous value. 
So how can you begin to make co-elevation a part of your leadership approach? The cases in the book offer a great deal of direction and too many to present here. But one of Keith’s suggestions as a starting point is to “earn permission to lead.”
Why seeking permission is better than expecting compliance
When we are in positions of authority, the idea of asking others for permission to lead them almost seems backward. But at the very core of human nature, we know that no one likes being told what to do. And those that sit outside of your chain of command are even less inclined to follow your orders.  
If you need to enlist more people across silos to get your job done or want the opportunity to do more than your boss is letting you, you must shift your mindset. You have to stop expecting and start serving. It’s the only way to lead them when you have no authority to leverage or influence to motivate them. 
Earning permission to lead essentially is about attracting others to follow you, not commanding them to comply. You are pulling them toward a mutually positive outcome and dance to the music yet to be heard, as Bennis put it, rather than pushing them based on your own needs.  
This approach co-elevates and ultimately positions you as a leader with strength, not weakness, because you are confident and wise enough to serve others before expecting that they help you. 
As Keith writes, “this ability to enlist team members and sustain their commitment is perhaps the most widely undervalued competency among leaders attempting to achieve transformational change.”  
He told me, “the old social contract was that ‘I live in a world of coexistence and I only collaborate when I can’t get the job done.’ 
“But the new contract is understanding that I can only get transformative outcomes when we do it together.” 
Collaborating and co-elevating are not just necessary for execution; it’s essential for any innovation that is required to succeed in the future.
The new social contract of work
Keith told me he wrote this book to signal the need for “completely transforming the social contract of work within companies.” I asked him to elaborate on what the old social contracts were and where he sees change happening.  
He shared, for example: “the old social contract was that we sit in a room and we notice something wrong, but we don’t say it aloud, hiding behind being polite [to respect hierarchies], but then speaking about it later. 
“This kind of behavior is low-integrity and saps innovation from the company and ultimately value from shareholders.”
He added, “another example is that the old social contract stipulated that if I am low in the organization, I can’t lead since I don’t have the title.”  
And, “I can’t coach and give feedback to my peers because I’m not their boss, and they also can’t give me feedback.” 
These working methods are outdated, and as Keith shared in a chapter called Co-Development, co-elevation only succeeds when you create a mutual sense of accountability and earn the permission to coach each other.  
Indeed it will take courage and vulnerability to give feedback to someone who doesn’t report to you and accept feedback from them. But when you ask permission to engage with each other to co-elevate and co-develop, you build trusted relationships that lead to even more transformative outcomes. 
It starts with you
As Leading Without Authority reminds us, today’s businesses can’t survive unless they shift entirely the way they incentivize and support collaborative effort rather than hierarchical decision-making. Also, managers can’t excel in their careers if they only pay attention to the team they lead on the company organizational chart. 
Don’t be deceived into thinking you can’t enlist teammates beyond what the static company structure tells you, as long as you influence them from an intention of shared motivation. And don’t assume that those that report to you are going to be consistently supportive, nor that the people who don’t report to you wouldn’t want to collaborate if enlisted with care.
“Your team is whoever and everyone that is needed to get the job done,” Keith told me. It’s your job as a leader to creatively transcend the corporate silos and hierarchies placed in front of you. You can do so by broadening how you define your team, opening up yourself to their needs, earning permission to serve them, and then enabling candor and honesty in how you hold each other accountable.

Giving feedback to your managers is a challenging, yet essential exercise for effective leadership. Access Nihar’s handy list of phrases to use that enable tension-free feedback here.
Follow Nihar on LinkedIn here.

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