#GHC14: Jo Miller – Office Politics

My notes from Jo Miller’s Office Politics workshop at GHC. See also: her article on this topic. I thought this workshop was fascinating, I’m definitely one of those people who hates politics but as she outlines the strategy of the “Shadow Organisation Map” I found myself thinking that seemed totally doable!

Come in new, one of the first things that hits is the cultural differences, have to figure out what to do. Similar to living as an expat.

The Emerging Leader’s Quandary

What’s the greatest roadblock we face as women when we want to advance and move to the next level?

Greatest roadblock is one that we hit when we least expect it. You’ll come across it when you are doing great, delivering results, not leading to the bigger project or promotion. Everything isn’t connecting and leading to what you want.

Can’t get higher-level job without leadership experience… but can’t get the experience without the job.

How do you break out and establish yourself as a leader without waiting for someone to tap you on the shoulder?

Don’t wait for permission or an invitation to lead. Don’t wait for someone to promote you.

“I feel like I’m the best kept secret in my organisation”. What it meant, came out of school/college as a top performing student, did well in masters degree, got recruited to company. Rotated through assignments. After 7 years felt stuck, leading a small tech team in finance department. Felt like she had qualifications, experience, background, track record at a level, but perceived at somewhat less.

Until she found ways to close that gap, she just wasn’t going to attract that next level role or assignment, or promotion that she felt she was ready for.

Did eventually close, using some of these skills.

Biggest challenge: office politics. Was really holding her back.

Don’t jump out of bed every morning and say “how do I play office politics to the best of my ability and win today?”

Men getting promo over her, why? Played the game. When asked if willing to play that game if it would help her to get ahead. She exploded “I refuse to schmooze, and manipulate to get ahead in my career”.

Don’t want to play it, don’t see it as a good thing, but big thing that holds us back.

Asked 169 professional women how they handled office politics. Over 80% said they ignore it, or reluctantly play the game where necessary.

In LinkedIn’s 2013 survey of 954 women, 23% reported office politics as their biggest frustration.

Ruderman and Ohlott show many women managers view politics as “evil” and find engaging in political behaviour
 to be difficult and painful. (2002)

Why not ignore it and hope it goes away?


“…avoiding (office) politics altogether can be deadly for your career. Every workplace has an intricate system of power, and you can – and should – work it ethically to your best advantage.” – Erin Burt, Seven Career Killers.

Not a game that you win at the expense of everyone else loosing.


People who are politically savvy have compelling reasons to better navigate this:

  • Better career prospects.
  • Better career trajectories.
  • Seen as more promotable.
  • Less likely to derail.

Up to now probably:

  • Ignore. (think it will go away, rarely the case).
  • Think you need to turn into someone you don’t like.

Third way: be positively politically savvy.


4 Competencies of Positive Political Savvy:

  • Social astuteness – look at what is going on around you, form some conclusions from that.
  • Interpersonal influence.
  • Networking ability.
  • Sincerity.

This is what shows us is at the core of being able to navigate office politics but in a positive way.

Who do you know who has mastered this?

As you consider this person, what are some characteristics this person has that helps them manage this?

No longer think of this as office politics. Think about ‘organisational awareness’: Being a savvy observer of the communication and relationships that surround you in your organisation.

Number 1 tool to help you build up and strengthen that skill.

Org chart – who reports to who, who is in what team, who manages who. Org chart does not tell you enough of what you want to know to navigate your organisation effectively. Who is the go-to person you want to go to to make things happen, but you need to know in order to be effective yourself.

Doesn’t tell you when someone has risen beyond the level of their competence.

New concept: shadow organisation. Map out who works with who, who reports to whom. Where is power and influence, what direction does it flow in, all of the stuff you need to know.

Exercise: draw out the 5-10 people you work with most. Include yourself.

  • Draw a line between any two people who have a really solid relationship.
  • Broken line between any two people who clearly do not get along.
  • In either case, worth thinking about how that relationship came to be this way.
  • Add an arrow about which way influence flows. Does information flow downwards through the hierarchy?Are there people who are managing upwards?
  • Coalitions: From time to time might be aware of groups, where 3 or more people who have come to support each other. Draw a (misshapen) circle around them.
  • Key influencers: Have a few key people who have a higher level ability to influence and lead change. Might not have a high profile position, but have added ability to be able to lead and make things happen. Also mark negative influencers.
  • Verticals: individual has a direct manager who is a coach and a sponsor to them. They are moving up faster than average. Exciting point in career, being challenged, growing, accelerating up.

Note on coalitions: Calling it the boys network instantly disempowers you. And there might be women working effectively with them too. Don’t assume, take a closer look – how did it form, what is the glue that perpetuates?


Continuing the story with the woman who didn’t want to play politics. Took step to map organisation and see for two months.

Some things she recognised:

  • She herself had a small, strong coalition with direct manager, few peers, employees working for her.
  • Had no relationships that stretched out outside of finance dept into other areas.
  • No relationships with people she could have been working with to get her job done more effectively.
  • No relationships reaching upwards beyond her direct manager.
  • Created a networking plan to close those gaps.
  • Manager had a strong coalition with a group of her peers. Had written it off as “good old boys network” and disempowered herself.
  • Found something in common, all finance geeks.
  • Decided once a week to pay attention, read financial pages, used that information to have informal networking convos.
    Found some women in the “boys network”.
  • Bosses boss had a lower level employee considered to be the VPs right hand. People were either aligned with those individuals, or found it hard to have a voice. Saw importance of building relationships with those two key people.
  • Observed them in meetings, saw who they were influenced ideas, who they collaborated with.
  • Saw they liked fresh info, because finance was something of a silo.
  • Needed to learn more than what was in front of her and around her team.
  • Through convos at employee resource networking groups found product development team, this group wasn’t that prestigious, but they knew what was going to change before things became official.
  • Through networks became much more informed on what was going on in the company.
  • Built relationships with VP and RHM, until they started to seek her out.
  • Network grew, influence grew.

A lot of this is about sponsorship, HBR article “why men still get promotions than women”. Special kind of relationship, beyond giving feedback and advice but uses position to give opportunity. Women tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored.

Consider if you might be one of those high potential women who might be being over mentored and under sponsored.

“A sponsor is someone who will use their internal political and social capital to move your career forward within an organisation. Behind closed doors, they will argue your case.”

“Are all your sponsors in the management chain directly above you?

“I recommend that everyone have three to four sponsors outside of their direct management chain.”

—Michelle Johnston Holthaus

As a result of mapping out organisation for two months, found things started to move in career. Built network around her, built a more supportive environment, became a key influencer. As a direct result of the steps she took, got promoted two times in 18 months. Now a VP herself. One of the people who promoted ahead of her, now reports to her – and is very happy to do so.

The Rules of The Game

Understanding the unwritten, unspoken, rules of the day.

Every organisation has them. Will not find them in your employee handbook, might be the opposite of what is written in the handbook. Have to be aware because they might hold you back.

Need to know what they are so you can be productive and effective.

Often contradicting – get consensus, vs act first then ask for forgiveness.

Example of a woman who started playing golf to better connect with people. Said about it:

“Golf is now part of my job description”


  • Identify some “rules of the game” in your organisation.
  • What are ways to navigate ethically and effectively within these rules?

Please do not think I” telling you to play the game if it’s not a good for for who you are and your ethics. Know what the rules are so you empower yourself to have a choice to play, or not to play.

E.g. most influential people were the smokers. Created a workaround, created a network another way.

Three Ways to Generate Quick Wins

In every org there is someone who is great at navigating. Find them!

  • Navigates well at all levels.
  • Keeps of the “institutional memory”.
  • Gets a “quick read” on people and groups.

Build an influential coalition.

  • It can be quicker and easier to get great things done from the grass-roots.
  • Make a list of like-minded individuals.
  • Go out of your way to support stuff that is important to them.
  • Ask for their support for something big.

“It is not enough to have a bright technical idea. I have seen too many projects led by great, passionate people fail because they tried to be the lone influencer. You have to get the right people in the boat with you. You have to engage the entire human fabric.”

Don’t like the unwritten, unspoken “rules of the game”? Become a game-changer.

E.g. of Nora Denzel, everything late night in bars. Made a 4pm Friday happy hour, with set start and end time.

Pay attention to the scope of your influence and look for ways to expand your reach.

Notice when you have the power to “change the game” and seize the opportunity.


Finding sponsor:

  • Look for people with a track record.
  • Find ways to become visible to them.
  • Share your career goals with your leaders.

Advice for creating connection with people you don’t see, travel not an option, don’t have normal occurrence for interaction.

  • Shame in person not an option, In person is best, seize every opportunity (breakfast, lunch, dinner).
  • Have informal “getting to know you” hangouts online. Bring favourite beverage, pets. No meeting or agenda.