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The importance of political savvy for leadership success

How to navigate office politics? Know the rules, who has influence and who can help you.

4 min read


The importance of political savvy for leadership success


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

Though many of us may dismiss the importance of political savvy or find it distasteful to engage in politics, it’s essential for your career success. No career is built in a vacuum, and we not only need allies and champions to support us, but we also need to understand the company culture in order to position ourselves effectively.

How do you get a grasp on your workplace’s culture? Answering these three questions will help you assess the subtle workplace dynamics.

1. What are the unwritten rules in your organization?

All companies have some policies they expect you to follow. But paying attention to the unwritten rules helps you to understand the reality of the workplace dynamics. It helps you define the expectations of behavior and performance.

Unwritten rules, like what it takes to get ahead. You may believe that it simply takes great performance, but the reality is that very few companies are true meritocracies. What beyond performance leads to success?

Take a good look at the people who’ve made it. What relationships do they have? How do they communicate? What projects are they working on? How do they create visibility and credibility for themselves in a way that’s acceptable in the company culture?

What behavior is acceptable and what is not? Is it different for each gender?

What unwritten rules are sacred?

2. Who has power and influence?

You can’t assume that the organizational chart will help you answer this question. If you look closely at the dynamics in your department and company, you’ll see that there are people with big titles who may abdicate their power and people who don’t have leadership positions who have a great deal of influence. This dynamic constantly changes so it’s challenging to keep tabs on it. It requires your ongoing focus.

Are there favorites? How did they become favorites?

Are there people who have recently lost their influence? What was the cause? Who recently gained influence and how?

Who initiates change? Does it start with senior leadership or does it start elsewhere? Who are the changemakers? How do they build influence?

Answering these questions helps you understand how the culture works.

3. Who can be your sponsor?

Mentors can help guide you to make good decisions and learn new things to gain more expertise in your field, but they don’t necessarily take action on your behalf. A sponsor does just that—they serve as your spokesperson every step of the way. They create opportunities for you to prove your value and make powerful introductions on your behalf.

As you look at the people who have power and influence in your organization, can you identify a potential sponsor? That person should be at least two levels above you with a sight line to your work.

Look for ways to become more visible with a potential sponsor. Find out what they’re passionate about and volunteer to help with their initiatives. Build credibility and visibility over time. Sponsor relationships develop with trust.

We’d all like to think that our company is a meritocracy and that the only thing we need to do to get ahead and stay ahead is to continue to perform well. Great performance is important. But what you need to recognize is that it takes both great performance and political savvy to get ahead. Understanding the culture is critical to help you position yourself effectively.


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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