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Archive for the ‘Internal Politics’ Category

I often ask the same question about universities. I have compared them to cities, and their presidents to city managers. Their presidents have an executive team just as do city managers. And each executive has a staff. But true managerial influence pretty much stops there. Beyond the top team, it’s mostly a matter of personal and political influence, and possessing the appropriate communication skills.

It’s popular today to suggest that what we need is a corporate CEO as president, and that government and political experience are not necessary.  Some would even argue that Washington experience is a liability.

But those who think that successful corporate CEO’s can make successful presidents should consider the reality of the total landscape, and exactly what kinds of skills and experiences are actually needed.

Presidents have little reliable control of what happens beyond their immediate team. Through their team they communicate policy directives to long-serving career people who must be relied on to fit these directives into the realities of their daily work… around the country and the world. Sometimes it works. Often it doesn’t. So presidents must repeat and persist. They must also persuade congress to act. But to do so requires adequately accommodating different levels and amounts of opposition. Otherwise nothing gets done.

Some would therefore argue that governments already have become too much like businesses to function effectively. These people say that big political donors today behave too much like corporate investors and board members, with their own profits more their concern than the public welfare.

My view is that the essential communication skills needed to lead governments from cities to nations are situation specific and strategic in nature. Listening, finesse, savvy, persistence, coalition building, an appreciation for strategic  compromise, and a tolerance for ambiguity, are skills fundamental to the job.

The thought of electing a president with no political or government experience is indeed troubling. Certainly leading governments can and should employ more “business-like” practices. But governments are completely different work environments, and the experience and skills necessary for effectiveness must be suited to those realities.

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“If I didn’t have to deal the politics in my institution I could really make a difference with what I learned at this institute.”

That what was I was hearing after each marketing and communication summer institute I chaired for professionals in higher education. Based on my many years experience I found myself responding by telling them they should plan to spend at least half their time dealing with internal politics. I said that, but then quickly realized that this was a topic that we rarely discuss in our classrooms and conferences.

All this led me to writing a little tongue-in-cheek book about university politics called Learning to Love the Politics (www.case.org/books). What surprised me was that people outside of higher education started telling me that this was the biggest problem they faced in their organizations as well.

The book simply analyzes various leadership styles, anticipating typical barriers to supporting a more sophisticated marketing and communication program. It further describes typical situations and behaviors, and then it adapts grassroots politics techniques to deal with them.

The book further argues that internal politics are best handled within a framework of an “education strategy.” This simply means finding ways in one-on-one conversations and meetings to educate opinion leaders about the effectiveness of your work, and the specific benefits to them of supporting it. This sounds obvious, but few of us actually do it because it requires thinking ahead and organizing our work into brief easily explained categories.

Loving internal politics might be a stretch for many of us, but it is actually a subject matter that can be mastered. There are effective strategies and tactics and they clearly demonstrate how losing a few battles can actually lead to winning the day!

 

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What is the consequence of arguing against ideas or programs without providing alternative solutions? Simply put, you are leaving your audience hanging with the most constructive part of your message missing. Such an approach might gain support from sympathizers in the short run, but it is likely to prove insufficient in the end.

Republican legislators have spent the last several years objecting to the president’s initiatives and policies without offering specific alternative solutions. Now the new speaker of the house said this week that this will change. This new development is important, but for practical reasons it might be easier said than done.

While the politics of “no” leaves the communication loop incomplete and audiences ultimately unsatisfied, it still is much easier to rally people around their common dissatisfaction with a situation than it is to get them to agree on a solution.

This dilemma has also appeared in foreign policy matters. There was widespread support for the rhetoric to oust the Iraqi government, but there was no agreed upon plan to replace it. In Egypt it was easy to rally people against the government  but impossible to find agreement on who and what should replace it. The situation has been the same in Libya and elsewhere.

Now we are facing the same dilemma in Syria. Even if the US engineers the ouster of the current government, what will follow. What kind of government? Who will lead it? What will it cost? Who will pay?

This is both a political and communication reality. The lesson is that in the long run it is impossible to have success by only  objecting to the current state of affairs. In the short run it might seem to work, but over time it will become apparent that tearing down without a plan for what follows can leave entire nations in endless turmoil.

On this issue, political leaders with a truly international education might ultimately be our only best hope. This is because a global  education will feature multicultural forums for both the systematic nonpartisan examination of ideas and programs, and for finding pragmatic workable solutions.

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This week deputy news editor of the British publication Times Higher Education, John Morgan, wrote that if the UK exits from the EU there is a potential loss of its annual 1.2 billon pounds in research money, and along with it the future of important multinational research projects. Such a move also raises questions about the flow of students and faculty between European countries.

I have previously written about the potential of the globalization of higher education to enable the development of significant new multinational, problem-solving focused research projects… as well as the development of international leaders. Unenlightened government policies, however, will make these goals very difficult to reach.

Simply put, government policies matter a lot. Government roles are changing everywhere. They can either enable or block progress. Some governments are mostly interested in enhancing their country’s prestige. These tend to focus support on science and technology. And some of these are mostly interested in upgrading only a handful of their largest universities. Others are primarily focused on creating and quickly filling jobs.

Washington seems to be headed in this jobs direction, ignoring the need to prepare students to deal with future career changes or the consequences of the rapid globalization of everything.

US higher education policy is being debated right now. But much of the partisan political rhetoric shows no appreciation for the role universities can play in restoring US global prestige, or in international leadership development, or in working with others to solve international problems.

University leaders and communicators, however, have the tools to make the case for higher education’s potential to make the world a better place. And when many speak as one the impact can be quite powerful.

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Helen Thomas was the very first female reporter to cover the White House. She was an aggressive questioner, sometimes abrasive, always direct and insistent, and yet loved by most who knew her. Indeed, she became a legend.

Sadly, Helen passed away this past week, and as I watched long time journalists reflect on their years of working with her, I could not help but think, “How did she pull it off? Aggressively and overtly persistent…and still loved!”

I am sure most of us have met aggressively persistent people in our work. In my world  most of them wind up disliked, or at least not admired. But then there are the occasional Helen Thomas’s who can be very argumentative, even rudely interrupting, and yet still end up loved and remembered as absolutely wonderful people and treasured colleagues.

Helen would challenge White House spokesmen and presidents alike.  She would press relentlessly for answers they did not want to give. Then, follow-up and press again. She was always insisting on more transparency and was determined in her search for the real inside explanation. And still, she was loved by everyone, including the presidents. In short, Helen was a true leader in her world.

Leadership is a topic that fascinates me. I like to identify the various styles that emerge in different types of organizations and situations at different times. I try to analyze what it takes to lead in each setting? Some persistent people I find actually become self-destructive.  Some simply fail. But others are surprisingly effective.

I have found that the most successful leadership styles emerge in natural ways from  each person’s total personality characteristics. In other words, they appear comfortable in their own skin. But in addition, their total personality also seems to fit acceptably within the organization’s overall nature and culture.

Helen seemed to be able to find appropriate spaces and times in each work day for being direct and insistent. And she always came off as self-confident, informed, and  single-mindedly focused on getting her reporter’s work done successfully. Equally, she found places where she was able to laugh, make jokes, collaborate with colleagues, and even occasionally receive and give hugs. In the end, her sincere and genuine humanity always came through.

I say, “Bravo Helen Thomas. I admire what you achieved. You were a true pioneer.” But to my colleagues I also say: ” You better fully understand all that made her successful before you try her style! It will take all of Helen’s many qualities to make it work!”

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Since writing a book about internal institutional politics, I have had many conversations with colleagues probing their deep inner feelings about their work environment and the people they must deal with in order to get the job done. Many of these feelings are subconscious, but they can come to the surface in heart-to-heart conversations.

For example, one executive told me about the guilt he felt when he had to admit to himself that the incredible talent of a subordinate was threatening to him.  The executive was not proud when he confronted the reality that he actually was preventing a person on his staff from having contact with other executives in the organization, and was not approving his participation in external projects. “It’s this guy’s job to put me out front, not for him to steal the limelight,” was the executive’s attitude. But, of course, he was only setting up a barrier that was holding back the career of a very talented professional.

Another person admitted in a conversation that he was fighting the feeling that he was really hoping a colleague who was getting attention for his talent would ultimately fail. This person had excuses for his feeling such as, “this person is getting too big for his britches.”  But the truth of the matter is that this is a classic case of professional jealously.  And the harm done was negative “office talk” about a professional’s genuine achievements. This situation is what reinforces the classic, “you can’t be a profit in your own land,” reality.

Another person admitted that she was doing things to impede a colleague’s recognition because she just didn’t like him. Questioning revealed this to be a common case of personality conflict.  “He makes me mad every time he opens his mouth,” was one observation.  Another was, “when he walks into the room he makes my skin crawl!”  Sometimes a person’s style is a problem for the entire office. But more often than not it is a problem between two people, and the behavior of one of them can become destructive to the well-being of the other.

Truthfully, it’s not unusual to feel unhappy about co-workers’ successes and to have difficulty celebrating their achievements.  Whatever good happens to them can feel like a setback to us. It’s a common feeling that is rarely admitted, and rarely dealt with directly. 

Indeed, most of us are in denial about our feelings, and make up excuses for them if we must. We simply conclude that the person is a selfish corporate climber, or an elitist social climber, or just a plain ego driven maniac.  “He thinks it’s all about him,” is what we say. But the truth often is that he (or she) is merely trying to advance his ideas and exercise a sincere passion he feels for making a difference.

My little book “Learning to Love the Politics,” attempts to look at leadership styles and typical barriers to individual advancement and support, and to propose some ways to deal with them. This book is mostly about university politics, but many of the situations are universal. Internal politics are in fact the big barriers to professional  achievement everywhere, and many people never have realized that they can work hard and actually be penalized for it.

There is no doubt about it, our unspoken feelings can be destructive. Getting them out in the open so we can deal with them is a major step toward organizational and individual progress.

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Last week I met with a group of visiting educators on campus to help us review our graduate program in the Schieffer School of Journalism.  They ask me bluntly: What should be the “value added” benefit of a graduate program in journalism and strategic communication?

I confidently told them I thought that the “value added” of a professional school’s graduate program in these fields should be to help the students learn how to deal with the surprising and sometimes frightening workplace realities confronted by professional communicators in all organizations… all of those things we never get to cover adequately in lower level tactics and professional practice courses.

I also stressed that it is likely that these students will need to take more courses related to the topics they will be communicating. i.e. business, politics, international affairs, education, recent history, etc., and to become more exposed to how academic research in the various communication disciplines informs the practical world.  

But my list of the key “value-added” topics related to working in and with organizations includes to learn to think more critically, to manage complex issues, to make strategic plans that actually work in rapidly changing daily turmoil, to negotiate skillfully, to solve difficult problems, to lead innovative teams, to deal with corporate lawyers and management consultants, to manage and inspire creative people, to conduct really productive meetings, to make politically sensitive presentations, to deal with time-consuming and ever-present personnel problems, to make priority budget decisions in a competitive situation, and how to initiate research that actually  informs today’s critical decisions. But the most important topic of all is organizational politics–learning how to deal with the inevitable organizational barriers that can prevent you from doing what you now know how to do!!

Internal politics present problems everywhere.  The students may have actually learned something about politics in kindergarten and elementary school, but chances are they have forgotten all they knew!  And unless they were in that very rare undergraduate program, they didn’t get the refresher course.  So, a graduate program is a perfect place to address the specific workplace realities that communicators inevitably will confront head-on.

What do you do when your boss is actually threatened by your talent?  How do you get support from division heads who want to run their own show in every way?  How do you deal with the various leadership styles to be found from top to bottom in all organizations?  How do you get branding standards successfully  implemented?  Most importantly, how do you get widespread support for what you know how to do?  And the list goes on…

And one more point:  The line between journalism and strategic communication is blurring more and more every day.  Our graduates will work one day writing speeches in the White House and the next day in a news organization. They will use the same multi-platform communication tactics, and the best among them will strive to find and report truth no matter what side of the communication business they are on at the time. A properly shaped graduate program therefore is the perfect place to bridge the traditional divide between the disciplines and explore the full potential of a savvy, well-educated communication professional.

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