Rules of the game for corporate women

Nov 06 2007 by Michelle Brailsford Print This Article

Why do so many women struggle with "being political"? They possess all the skills they need to succeed in the political arena – but all too often, no-one has taught them the rules of the game. So here's a crash course in how to play the game without becoming a man in a skirt.

What makes an individual successful in the "political arena"? According to research by Dr. Rick Brandon and Dr. Marty Seldman, successful politicians possess both mental empowerment - they "think and feel" positively about politics – as well as the skills to build a powerful reputation, network and presence within the organisation.

Plenty of women conduct themselves with style and grace, excelling at public relations and relationship-building. All of this comes easy to women. Research shows that women are more intuitive, able to use both the right and left side of their brains simultaneously and more emotionally intelligent. They possess the skills that lead to success in the political arena.

So why do women struggle with "being political"? The answer was summed up by a delegate on a course I teach to help women become more organizationally savvy, who told me, "I just don't want to play the game!!"

I wondered, "is it all games that you dislike, or just this one?" She replied that she very enjoyed games of skill like tennis and golf, games of chance like Monopoly and black jack and was also keen on crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

But when I asked her why she found these fun but disliked political games, she was stumped.

The answer lies, I believe, in two basic facts. First, she considered this "game" an unseemly and unnecessary one to be avoided if at all possible. Second, no one ever taught her the rules to the game of politics.

Her father had taught her the rules of golf. Monopoly comes with a set of rules on the lid. The rules to Sudoku are printed above the game in the newspaper. If my delegate knew the rules, would she be willing to play? I think the answer is yes!

So, here in black and white, I will attempt to codify the rules of the game for women.

Rule #1: Like the lottery... you have to play to win

It defies logic that many of the women I coach believe that by taking the high moral ground and refusing to "play the games" that they will win in the end. What other game allows you to win, loose or come in 5th place when you choose not to play? Being the bench warmer is not a desirable position to hold.

Rule #2: Don't get upset, get even

My mother used to say to me, "Don't get upset, get even." I am not encouraging anyone out there to "get even" literally; what I mean is get yourself on a "level playing field"by recognizing the political nature of all organizations and the need to be strategic in order to effectively do your job.

Emotional upset, indignation or denial about the politics that are going on around doesn't improve your chance of being influential and having impact. Why not channel the energy you expend fuming about all the Machiavellian behavior into finding a way onto the playing field?

Rule #3 Treat stakeholders as they would like to be treated

I used to have a boss that would say, "It isn't wrong, but I wouldn't do it that way!" Everyone has their own way of doing things. We look at ideas, recommendations, and proposals through our own set of lenses. Either you can convince your stakeholder to buy a new pair of specs or you can polish and present your idea such that it looks beautiful through the specs your stakeholder is currently wearing.

Rule #4 Be yourself, but be the best self you can be

This advice is given by Jessica Miller, co-author of "A Woman's Guide to Successful Negotiating" about flexing your negotiation style. You must be authentic or you'll lose all credibility. The same holds true for being politically savvy.

I don't want to convince my women delegates to become "men in skirts". Know your unique strengths and leverage these to support your success.

Rule #5 A good idea alone is not enough

Any business knows that it isn't enough to have a fabulous R&D department. You must also have a sales and marketing function to go out and sell the ideas to the public. You probably generate a number of fabulous ideas. But do you know how to brand, market and sell the idea to others? Often, when we fail to get our ideas heard, we assume it must be a faulty idea. Or the right idea presented at the wrong time. Perhaps it is a case of the right idea presented at the right time but to the wrong person or in the wrong manner.

Rule #6 Don't light a candle and hide it under a bushel

When I worked in the Netherlands I often heard it said that "tall trees get blown about the most." In other words, if you stand out from the crowd, you'll be noticed. And in the Netherlands, being noticed is not necessarily a good thing.

The Dutch believe in equality. No one is better than anyone else. No one should stand out. Many of us were raised with strong parental or cultural messages about self-promotion. "Don't brag." "Pride comes before a fall." "Full bottles are quiet; it's the empty ones that make all the noise" are just some examples.

Working hard but then staying quiet about what your accomplishments is like lighting a candle and hiding it under a bushel. First, no will see you shine. Second, your career could extinguish from lack of oxygen.

Rule #7 Past Performance Predicts Future Behaviour….For Women!

Research shows that men are promoted based on potential while women are judged on their track record. If your accomplishments are not visible to others, opportunities are not likely to come your way.

People are talking about you; especially when you don't deliver! So when you do deliver, you better find a way to talk about it!

Your track record counts and the decision-makers must know how many races your have completed, what place you came in and what you are doing to ensure the next win.

Rule #8 The world isn't fair and the sooner you realize this, the better!

Women, more than men, tend to believe in a meritocracy; that the world is fair.

But some people are blessed with great intelligence; others possess great beauty. Some of us have access to better schooling. Others have parents who can open doors. Some of us have natural talents in the area of sports, art or music. Some of us don't. This isn't fair!

But as Eli Harari, founder and CEO of SanDisk said, "time is the great equalizer". And how we use our time determines whether we have an advantage.

So take a look at how you manage your time. Do you spend as much time communicating upward as downward? Do you spend time gaining operational and/or P&L experience? Do you spend time managing your team's brand? Your own brand?

Rule #9 There are friends - and there are allies

Women tend to want to work with and build relationships with people they like. Friendships play a significant role when it comes to levels of engagement. We know this from Gallup research conducted on Employee Engagement. But all of our work relationships don't always have to be "friendly".

I am not encouraging you to build relationships with the "sharks or Machiavellians" in the organization. But don't fail to form a valuable, strategic relationship with someone at work simply because you wouldn't choose to be friends with them if you met them in a social setting.

Rule #10 Only Powerful people Can Effect Powerful Change

When I encourage my female delegates to build up their power base, they cringe. Names like Imelda Marcos, Edi Amine, Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic and Mobutu Sese Seko come up.

Why? Why don't the names and faces of Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Condoleezza Rice, Steve Jobs, Archbishop Desmond Tutu or Melinda Gates come to mind first?

I encourage the women I coach to answer the following questions, "If you had power, what would you do with it?" Their answers are all about making a difference, having impact and enabling positive change. They would use their power wisely.

So now that the rules are clear, I hope that the women reading this will understand the importance of being politically savvy and be more comfortable "playing the game".

It seems many talented women managers are just not interested in climbing corporate ladders and are leaving to start their own businesses. My hope is that one day I will see more of these powerful women staying and make a real impact at the tops of their organizations.

About The Author

Michelle Brailsford
Michelle Brailsford

Michelle Brailsford is is a founding partner at Jupiter Consulting Group, LLC, a boutique learning & development consultancy dedicated to adding life back into work. She focuses on the people side of her clients' businesses and in particular, organisational politics and personal power.