Leadership Series: Relationships, Relationships, Relationships!

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“It’s all politics anyway.”

We’ve all heard this phrase. People say it when they don’t get that dream job or big promotion. Leadership is as much about crushing setbacks as it is soaring successes. I know a whole bunch about stumbling blocks. I’ve lost four campaigns for public office, a prestigious executive position, and nearly lost my life.

On the other hand, I’ve coached a high school varsity basketball team, served in public office for four years, traveled across the country as a vice president for a major corporation, and founded a professional leadership academy in collaboration with Stanford University’s Center for the Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.

Through it all, I learned what it takes to achieve career goals. In this series, I share my experiences and my secrets to climbing the ladder of leadership. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is the value of developing and nurturing meaningful professional relationships.

“It’s all politics anyway.” Right?

You’re damn right!

Well, sort of…

Getting a leadership role requires great work product, strategic thinking, perseverance, and an ample supply of people skills (aka political know-how and savvy). Keep in mind that I use the word “politics” with a lowercase “p” to distinguish it from the cutthroat Elective Politics we see on the 24-hour cable news networks. What I’m talking about is the cutthroat politics we see in schools, the workplace, and just about every place people interact.

Politics isn’t a dirty word. Understanding that it’s a fact of life when working with people and learning how to manage that process are the best kept secrets for leadership development and advancement. It’s about relationships, relationships, relationships!

Too many talented Latinos and Latinas tell me that good work alone should speak for itself, so they don’t understand the need to learn how to navigate the tricky waters of organizational politics to land a leadership role. Getting ahead is all politics anyway, they assure me.

If you agree with that statement, stop reading now! This series isn’t for you.

Moving up the  organizational food chain is about good work and politics. One doesn’t work without the other. In his book, Hardball: How Politics Is Played Told By One Who Knows The Game, political commentator Chris Matthews advises that “it’s not who you, it’s who you get to know.” It’s great advice. Do yourself a favor and buy the book.

What does Matthews mean by his provocative statement? Essentially, you have to build relationships with the right people. In today’s social media “friend” acquisition frenzy, many aspiring leaders judge their value by the amount of “friends” and “Likes” they can accumulate. That kind of online shotgun approach to professional relationship-building doesn’t work.

Developing and nurturing meaningful professional relationships is hard personal face-to-face work. Here are three steps to help you get started:

  1. Determine who in your organization (or the community) is actually influential.

I call these folks the decision-makers. They manage the resources that everyone else is trying to get their hands on. Many of these types of leader have a title and authority to move resources around. Some don’t. The trick is figuring out who is who. This is a challenging endeavor.

There are many people running around looking and sounding like decision-makers. Beware of them. Most aren’t. One of my favorite quotes comes from Frank Underwood, a fictional character in the Netflix series, House of Cards. Underwood warns that, “proximity to power deludes some into thinking they wield it.”

So how can you identify the real deal? It’s usually not the people who have to tell others that they are leaders and have influence. True leaders are too busy managing and allocating resources to tout their value. When attending an event or meeting, the decision-makers are the ones others are lining up to see and take photos with. They’re not the people asking for a minute to chat or take a photo.

You should make time to study subtle actions and dynamics in a room. When going to a reception, leave the wine at the bar and use your time wisely to survey the situation to determine who is “wielding the power.” At a meeting, spend time studying who the boss is listening to, not the other way around. In short order, you’ll begin to figure out who is who.

  1. Strategically begin getting to know the decision-makers and the people close to them.

Building meaningful relationships is strategic. Once you’ve figured out who has the influence and authority to impact your leadership journey, introduce yourself (no photo requests, please). Be prepared to deliver your elevator pitch. Have a quick and friendly chat and move on.

Identify who the decision-maker listens to and begin the relationship development there. There usually is more than one person that fits this job description, so work in concentric circles starting with the most accessible person in the circle. Be genuine, sincere, and confident as you develop these professional friendships. Once trust is built, you’ll be invited into the next level of the concentric circle and a step closer to a leadership role.

  1. Follow through!

Make sure you follow up with decision-makers and those close to them right away. It could be via text message or e-mail. The best method is writing a personal hand-written note. Buy a stack of custom-made cards for this purpose. Your message should be brief and simple with an invitation to touch base over coffee or lunch, whichever is most appropriate.

When you get the chance to work with decision-makers, be honest about your talents and abilities. Don’t make a commitment you can’t meet. Credibility and follow-through are critical to demonstrating your potential for advancement. Say what you do and do what you say…and always follow though!

Work hard, be genuine, and get out of the office to meet people, the right people. It’s not ALL politics, but it’s difficult for decision-makers to notice you if they don’t know you and your work, despite a great work product. So politics is important. Be strategic. Remember, it’s not who you know, it’s who you get to know. Or, as a veteran executive once told me, “it’s who gets to know YOU.”

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