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Get ahead with political savvy

Being politically savvy is a learnable skill. Here's what you need to know.

5 min read


Political savvy

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Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Bonnie Marcus and is an excerpt from The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead “


Have you ever wondered why some people seem to get a free pass? Their mistakes are minimized and their achievements maximized? Doors open for them and they enjoy the spotlight without a tremendous amount of fanfare. They may or may not be as competent and talented as you are, but everything they do seems to work in their favor.

These people are politically astute. They have learned how to work the system in a subtle way. They have gained favor with those in power and this is not by accident. This is a skill. The fact that they have achieved this status without being viewed as manipulative and self-promoting only confirms their skill.

Politically savvy people develop a sense of intuition that helps them to circumvent potential landmines. They observe the environment and take note of what is rewarded and what is disregarded. They observe how people succeed and what is important to the people in power. This observation is critical to developing political skill.

How well are you tuned into how decisions are made in your organization? These decisions are often not as straightforward as you might think, and the people with power and influence are not necessarily those we see in the upper rankings of the traditional organizational chart. 

How strong are your relationships with key stakeholders and influencers? Politically savvy people have not only identified the power brokers, but have developed relationships to increase their visibility and influence.

How do you become politically savvy? 

You need to observe, listen and ask questions such as: 

  • Who is getting promoted and why? 
  • With whom do they have relationships? 
  • How are people rewarded in your organization? What did they do to get noticed? 
  • What types of behavior are not rewarded?
  • Who can be your champion?
  • Who seems to be in “favor” and why?

Are there certain people who have access to the leadership team? In her bookIt’s All Politics,” author Kathleen Reardon addresses the importance of observing the environment and learning about potential danger. She mentions primatologist Franz de Waal’s studies with chimpanzees. Chimpanzees don’t make uncalculated moves. They are great at observing the social landscape.

“They are always keeping track of each other, always thinking about the next social step. Three chimps form coalitions and work together to assess their surroundings and deal with potential enemies.”

So it seems that even chimps are politically savvy to some degree! This awareness of their environment and willingness to work together contributes to their very survival. 

We also need to develop a radar system to understand potential roadblocks and danger. This radar comes from a keen understanding of the people and culture of the organization. This radar system comes from the knowledge that can only be obtained from the inner circles within the workplace that both influence and make the rules of the game.

Betsy Myers, former senior official in the Clinton administration, chief operating officer of Obama’s first presidential campaign and now founding director of the Center for Women in Business at Bentley University, speaks to this point in my recent interview with her.  “I think you have to be conscious of how you come across. You have to watch for what’s going on around you – that you can’t just operate; you can’t just do your work. There’s a bigger picture, and you have to stay conscious of what’s going on around you. I think that’s the big thing – that there are more pieces to the puzzle. Where do you fit in to the puzzle?” Betsy suggested that you ask yourself these questions:

  • Who are the stakeholders here that care about the work that I’m doing? 
  • What are the relationships that I need to build? 
  • What are the relationships that need to be improved or strengthened?

Part of being politically savvy is saying, “What is it that I’m trying to do? And, when I approach someone whose help or involvement I need, I ask myself how can I help them reach their goals?”

So, part of being politically savvy is being able to sell your initiative and your idea or the reason why you need to be at the table, because you actually are — not just because they like you, or, you know, you’re fun, or you’re smart, or whatever it is — but that you actually help them further their goals.”

Betsy adds that there are two parts to being politically savvy. “Being conscious of the world around me — who is in my corner, who’s not? What relationships do I need to build, to spend more time on? And then, being strategic about how to move the ball forward.”


Bonnie Marcus, M.Ed., empowers women of all ages to own their ambition and talent. An executive coach and author of “The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead” (Wiley 2015), Marcus is currently writing a book about women over 50 in the workplace.

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