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Managing Office Politics?
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It's Not (Always) A Dirty Business
Here's why you need to get over your distaste for office politics
by Rosemary Lavinski
Do you believe that if you are good at what you do and work hard you will get ahead? Do you think making the boss look good is brownnosing? If so, you do not understand corporate politics. Like it or not, "being political" and knowing how to "play the game" are important skills that you must cultivate to get ahead.
Mark Williams, a health services technician in the United States Coast Guard (USCG), notes, "It is not enough to do a good job. Hard work alone does not lead to success. Lots of people think knowing your bosses and what they need and want is 'selling out.' I see it as being a team player and good networking. It is important to develop relationships with those in power and who are where you want to be. They can be good role models."
This attitude has helped Williams to become the first black person to win the leadership award for the Enlisted Person of the Year for the Northeast Region of the USCG -- and the only person to win it twice.
For many, "political" is a dirty word. In their book, Work Would Be Great if it Weren't for the People (Hyperion, $12.95), co-authors Ronna Lichtenburg and Gene Stone write, "All politics really boils down to is the play of human interactions at work that can make your job either easier or more difficult. Being a good office politician means that you know how to turn individual agendas into common goals."
Most people are clear about what they want their company to "give them." There are powerful economic forces today that encourage employers to gratify employees' needs. And there is clearly a labor shortage of competent professionals. Companies must now invest in keeping their employees satisfied. A key to developing political savvy in the office is presenting your needs in a way that appeals to the common goals of the company.
How do you determine the common goals of the company? "Always treat people above you as though they were your main client," detail Lichtenburg and Stone. "This involves recognizing strengths and weaknesses and helping bosses capitalize on strengths. Good sucking up requires work. You don't just throw compliments at everything in sight. Study your target."
You must be a bit of a sleuth to understand the political power structure of an organization. A good detective asks a lot of questions, knows how to establish rapport with members at all levels of an organization, and works to develop those relationships. By being a "good detective," you will better understand both the formal and informal
In your quest, don't neglect the importance of a broad-based skill set. "The most important question to ask yourself today is: How can I leverage my "intellectual capital" so that my skills are flexible and marketable in the global economy?" observes Jasmine Scott, former business consultant and trainer for Prudential. Having these skills and consistently performing in a way that exceeds expectations will certainly get you noticed. But without political savvy, you won't get very far.
by Rosemary Lavinski
You get hooked up with those who can help you put them to the best use for your career. Office politicking is largely dependent on good people skills. "Being people smart is a multifaceted intelligence, not limited to your political skills or your social graces...," writes Mel Silberman, Ph.D., author of PeopleSmart: Developing Your Interpersonal Intelligence (Berrett-Koehler, $16.95). Silberman notes, "Good people skills are a must for any job."
Sometimes "knowing what not to do is just as important as knowing what to do," says Marilyn Johnson, director of sales for the Enterprise Server Group at IBM. She manages specialists who sell to the top 1,500 IBM accounts. Having parlayed a background in education into a 24-year business career, Johnson knows all about smart office politics.
She believes that knowing the do's and don'ts can prevent your fast-track career from derailing. For example, you should avoid:
Good political skills can help circumvent the glass ceiling and "benign neglect" with which women and minorities particularly struggle. The glass ceiling, states Johnson, "is a dense layer of white males with decades of experience. We need to ask these men to share the wealth of their experiences."
Don't be afraid to choose mentors from among this important socio-business group. "We are sometimes hesitant to network with them," says Johnson, who has found many helpful and encouraging white male mentors over the span of her career. It is a fear that must be conquered if you are to get ahead.
Indeed, getting up the ladder to the next step in your career won't be simple. However, the following five points, combined with your own personal career plan, will help make the journey a little easier:
BLACK ENTERPRISE - YEAR 2000 APRIL ISSUE
Stay In The Game
One of the fastest growing areas in the consulting field, executive coaching has exploded in popularity, just behind management consulting. Today, there are an estimated 10,000 full- and part-time coaches, and the number of coaches entering the field has doubled in size every year for the past three years, according to the International Coach Federation. Why all the sudden popularity?
Most people work with an executive coach for the same reasons they might seek a personal fitness trainer: they want to improve their performance and image. A coach can help you develop an agenda that focuses on building on your strengths and sharpening your skills to shore up areas that need improvement. Business and career coaching is an individualized but collaborative process that has time limits and focused goals. It's designed to help you solve problems, increase your strategic thinking, improve your communication skills, create a politically savvy, positive self-image and develop ongoing career goals. Like its sports metaphor, business coaching is results oriented; there are systems of accountability incorporated into the process to move you forward or deepen your insights.
While the idea of training to improve your business skills is not new, what experts realized was that there was no follow-up. "Busy executives need help to make the necessary changes in real time on their jobs," say Douglas Hall, Karen Otazo and George Hollenbeck in "Behind Closed Doors: What Really Happens in Executive Coaching," Organizational Dynamics (Winter 1999). "Just knowing what's wrong isn't enough to make the changes. When coaches work well with executives, the results tell the story," they add.
Even entrepreneurs are consulting with coaches when analyzing their organizations and/or themselves. Some, like be 100s CEO David R. Duerson of Fair Oaks Farms in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, have consulted coaches like A. Ray Charles of Chicago to help them evaluate their performance. "As an entrepreneur, working with a coach gives you a confidante with whom you can share your experiences and get a second or third opinion," says Duerson. "Charles gives me the spiritual side of being a CEO, and gets back to me with what is the biblical perspective on my business. There's something about having that verifier that gives you confidence," he adds. That reassurance can be a vital element for entrepreneurs, since there may not be the benefit of a formalized corporate structure or that experience in a CEO's background.
Says Charles: "Entrepreneurs who seek our service have a desire to do what's right in God's eye in their business and personal relationships. My role as a coach is to reveal the right principle, process and position that will empower them to pursue not only a good plan, but a God-centered plan."
"Unlike a management consultant, an executive coach does not come in and fix the problem for you, then leave. A coach partners with you to elicit how to resolve issues and achieve your goals. And they stay with you through the process," says Amy Watson, a spokesperson for the ICF.
While African Americans are part of the growing trend toward using coaches, participation has been relatively low, according to Josie M. Lindsay, CEO of Bell & Lindsay Inc., a leading executive and organizational development training firm in Macedonia, Ohio. "Although I have a large corporate practice, less than 5% of that practice includes requests to coach African American executives," says Lindsay.
The reasons African Americans don't seek or aren't chosen by corporations for coaching are unclear. Lack of familiarity with the process may be part of it. "I was aware that coaching existed, but when I heard 'executive coaching,' I thought it was reserved only for vice presidents or CEOs," says Gaile Dry-Burton, training manager for Loral Skynet, the satellite communications company in Bedminster, New Jersey, and a client of Bell & Lindsay.
African Americans may be reluctant to seek support and direction for professional goals outside their inner circle of family, friends, colleagues and the church. Most likely the reason is that African Americans still must cope with the prejudiced belief that their performance will be inferior because of their race. "I had reservations about making myself vulnerable to my white peers because I felt I needed to do superior work and didn't feel safe sharing my shortcomings," admits Dry-Burton. Still, many other professionals-black and white-who have had coaching are reticent about discussing their experiences for fear they'll be stigmatized for needing professional help and yet others feel that coaching is a private affair and prefer anonymity. Whatever the reason, African Americans who often have few mentors and role models in corporate Americaare underutilizing a service that could make a difference in their career and business success.
COACHING BLACK EXECUTIVES
"I chose Lindsay because I felt she understood firsthand the dynamics and difficulties of being a successful African American woman in predominantly white male corporate America. Josie is like my business therapist. She helps me process and understand organizational dynamics, broaden my political perspectives and explore alternatives before I take action," explains Dry-Burton.
The image of coaching is also changing. "Five years ago people were very selective about who they confided in about seeing a coach.
It was assumed that seeing a coach was indicative of a performance problem.Nowadays, when a company recommends an employee seek a coach, it's considered a perk," she explains. Corporations are highly selective about people they identify as candidates for coaching. More often than not, it's only offered to high-potential individuals in whom the company wants to make an investment.
How do you know if it's appropriate to ask for coaching? Explore the possibilities with your human resource director. Find out the company's policy on coaching. If you think you have a fighting chance at senior management, it's worth exploring whether your company would help you groom your skills to become a stronger leader.
Along with two other managers, Arnold Johnson, 33, manager of annuities and new business processing for a major insurer in Horsham, Pennsylvania, was offered coaching services by the vice president of his division, who pays half the fee while he and the others pay the balance. The vice president offered the resource because she felt it would be valuable to their development.
"I wanted a different perspective on how to improve performance and continuously motivate a staff that did relatively routine tasks," says Johnson, who manages a staff of 65. For a fee of $150 per person per month, Johnson and his two colleagues participated in a group coaching session via telephone for one hour per week for three weeks per month. In addition, each manager had an individual, one-on-one, 30-minute session per month where they were free to set their own agenda with coach Val Williams of Professional Coaching and Training Inc. in Edison, New Jersey.
CORPORATIONS BUY IN TO COACHING
If a company hires a consultant to coach an individual, the process has four fundamental dimensions. It starts with setting the criteria for success in the context of the organization. This requires understanding the cultural and political context in which the coaching is to take place as well as understanding the performance imperatives desired. The second step assesses the individual against the success criteria of the organization to gain insights into what development is needed. This process may be facilitated through the use of a feedback tool called a "360-degree assessment," which looks for feedback and observation of performance from peers, superiors and staff. Sometimes even spouses are requested to give feedback.
In some instances, coaches may shadow an executive for a day to observe the individual's management style. The third step maps out an action plan to meet those developmental needs, while the last step launches the action plan along with follow-up procedures.
Usually this kind of coaching is paid for by the corporation and can be expensive. Remember, the primary client is the person or corporation paying the coach. Private fees range from $100 to $450 monthly or may be based on a percentage of the annual compensation of the employee when paid for by the corporation. In the ICF study, 98.5% of clients said their investment in an executive coach was well worth the money.
If the organization is footing the bill, it's important to establish a clear expectation of goals and what information the coach will pass back to the corporate client. These kinds of coaching arrangements are usually made for senior executives, many of whom are uncomfortable with this kind of coaching relationship. They feel they are expected to "have all the answers" and often feel uncomfortable sharing vulnerabilities, which may not be kept confidential. If they did not request a coach, they may see it as an indication that senior management is unhappy with some aspect of their performance, which is sometimes true.
Can you refuse to participate in a coaching relationship? It's probably not in your best interest to do so. You may be viewed as not being a team player or not motivated enough to seek continuous improvement of your skills.
Coaching To WIN
www.coachfederation.org. The website of the International Coaching Federation-the largest association of professional business coaches-has a free coach referral service. The site helps you select a coach using your specific criteria (including race, business specialty or region) by putting in a "Request For Proposal" or RFP online, which is sent out to members who can respond to you. Or contact them for a free referral at ICF, P.O.Box 1393, Angel Fire, NM 87710; 888-423-3131 (general) or 888-BE-MY-COACH(referrals only).
www.coachreferral.com. The website of "Coach," the largest coach-training organization in the world, the site has a searchable directory of member coaches you can contact. Coaches can be requested by race, among other specifications. The organization also offers a free information kit for prospective coaches. Or contact them at Coach University, P.O. Box 881595, Steamboat Springs, CO 80488; 800-48-COACH.
www.SHRM.org The website for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), these HR professionals have chapters around the country where members meet monthly. Members include coaches and trainers. Use them to network and find a coach in your area.
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Rosemary Lavinski 71 attributes her success as a career coach, social work psychotherapist and educator to her experience with a rich variety of social work skills and settings. She credits her solid foundation in the field to her preparation at the Columbia School of Social Work where she was in the first class to concentrate in the world of work. She has spent 27 years providing social work services to individuals, couples, families and groups in diverse environments, including out-placement agencies, mental health clinics, an international adoption agency, hospitals, a church and a community center, as well as private practice. She worked as an employee assistance specialist developing, designing, administering and implementing EAP services in such divergent settings as the DC37 Health & Security Plan and the U.S. Coast Guard.
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