by Christopher Hoenig

Playing Defense in Political Situations

Mar 01, 20007 mins

No one is immune to the dangers of an overly political environment. The difference between success and failure is having a solid political defense.

It will happen. Sometime, somewhere in your career, you will find yourself a leader in political hell. In all likelihood, you won’t see it coming. It will be more than a simple, transparent office vendetta or confrontation. And although there are an infinite number of variations, it will probably look and feel something like this:

A major systems development project fails, with lots of money wasted. Everyone is tempted to find a scapegoat. Budgets are very tight. Line business units fiercely protect their turf. The CEO has his own new projects to push–all part of a dramatic technical vision–that have little in common with those of the business units. The company either never had a CIO or it hasn’t learned to value one as part of the team.

By the way, this is a true story. And it gets worse.

An outside consultant recommends strengthening the CIO function. You are placed in the interim position–pending formal selection of a candidate. After a look under the hood, you find the IT organization has some critical technical and personnel weaknesses, which you have insufficient money to fix. To compensate, you must disappoint both the CEO and the VPs by eliminating 60percent of their applications budget.

It doesn’t stop there. At least one of your colleagues has it out for you personally and begins to exhibit controlling behavior. You are left out of meetings you previously might have been included in. Your adversary mounts a campaign for a major new expenditure that you know–and he knows you know–will put you on the spot and weaken your position.

All in all, you have both the leadership opportunity of a lifetime and a giant, red bull’s-eye plastered on your chest. The question is, how do you survive and succeed?

I’ve seen and worked through situations like this more than once. Unfortunately, professional competence gets you only so far. The difference between success and failure is having a solid, effective political defense. But before we go into the elements of a defense, it’s worth answering one important question. Why is politics so hard for CIOs?

The standard explanations include the following: As technical professionals, CIOs are too rigid and rational; they tend to be less effective interpersonally; and the CIO position is at a peculiarly tough vortex of political forces. Most CIOs don’t embrace the political dimension of leadership. There is a germ of truth in each of these, but I believe the real answer is simple: Most CIOs just don’t try very hard.

Politics and politicians generally get little respect–with good reason. As a result, most CIOs don’t embrace the political dimension of leadership. But a good political defense has an honorable purpose: It allows you to take risks in difficult situations and do the right thing without suffering unfair consequences. No one in business–or in any other walk of life–is immune to the tyranny, character assassination, manipulation or exploitation of an overly political environment. Every organization gains if its people are strong enough to do the right thing when necessary, not just follow orders or capitulate.

Strategies That Work

One of this century’s most infamous American presidents, Richard Nixon, used to say, “Either you’re on top of the job, or the job is on top of you.” This advice gets at the core of dealing with challenging political situations.

The truth is, much of your fate will be determined before the crisis starts. Either you will be prepared or you won’t be. A good defense takes time to build. So even if you aren’t being challenged today, make your plan now and prepare. Here’s my own personal list of key elements for a bullet proof political defense.

Assess the lay of the land. Make an assessment of the key players and stakes. Try to find out exactly who’s doing what to whom and what’s at stake. Get help or advice if you need it to step back and figure out the true state of play.

Know your escape routes. It’s surprising how often this simple idea is neglected. There’s nothing like having enough money in the bank, a network of professional contacts, an up-to-date resume and standing job offers to give you the confidence, poise and leverage to take on whatever you’re confronting.

Know the goals, the games and the culture. Survival requires showing clear connections between everything you do and where the company is going. Moreover, your style needs to fit within limits of accepted culture and behavior. It won’t help you to be perceived as “out of bounds” in a tension-filled situation.

Find sponsors and patrons. Build strong relationships, internally and externally, with people who count and have real influence. This is the network to draw on for help and advice when your moment of crisis comes.

Build a political base. Cultivate allies. The right allies. These can be people you’ve done things for or who have done things for you. There are times to sow and times to reap in life. Take the time now to sow some seeds.

Strategies That Don’t

I’ve found there are a set of common errors in political defense made by even the most seasoned executives. You can go a long way just by avoiding these classic pitfalls:

Don’t focus on politics and forget performance. Overreacting is as big a mistake as under reacting. And don’t sink to the level of your opponents. Maintain your integrity at all costs, and concentrate on solving the right problems.

Don’t dig a foxhole and get defensive. The paradox of a good defense is that it doesn’t look like one. The more you put up walls, the bigger that target on your chest looks. Get out front, stay open and aggressively identify and communicate existing problems to your superiors and colleagues.

Don’t squander your political capital. Use it only for the most important fights, where you have a good chance of winning.

Don’t knock yourself out. Poor nutrition and lack of sleep can significantly increase your own stress and emotional volatility. The poor judgment and impulsive actions that follow won’t help you at all.

Don’t sit on your winnings. Being a leader means keeping up with what’s going on in the outside world. The most efficient way to stay current is to have a “speed dial list” of outside experts to call in if your political future begins to hang on a technical or management issue where your experience base is weak.

In combination, these dos and don’ts make an ironclad political defense. But you’ll never have all of these elements in place, at least not all at once. Sponsors retire, allies turn, objectives change. The base you built a year ago may be worth little tomorrow. So tend your political foundation like you’d tend a garden. A resilient defense needs to be actively managed in response to what’s happening in the environment around you.

Odds are, you’re a better politician than you think.

Christopher Hoenig has been an entrepreneur, government executive (director for information management and technology issues at the GAO) and consultant (McKinsey & Co.), and is author of The Problem Solver’s Guide: Essential Principles for Making Decisions and Getting Results, to be published October 2000. He is now CEO of Exolve, focusing on next-generation web-based problem solving.