Conducting Corporate Diplomacy by Michael D. Watkins

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The higher you rise in organizations the more you need to be able to practice the corporate equivalent of international diplomacy. Whether you are striving to transform your organization internally or working to shape the rules of the game with government officials externally, the essential challenge is the same: If you want to achieve your objectives, you need to learn how to effectively identify alignment and build alliances in order to get things done. Failure to master this critical skill can lead to trouble: it’s easy for leaders who are used to wielding authority (and making decisions with their place in the hierarchy in mind) to get frustrated and attempt to impel people to do what they want. Instead of overcoming resistance, these leaders end up catalyzing reactive coalition building; they prompt potential opponents to reflexively close the ranks and build opposing alliances. Indeed, leaders commonly get caught in a deeply debilitating cycle in which overreliance on authority yields increasing opposition, which then prompts even more inflexibility from the leader, and so on. Left unchecked, the result can be a series of increasingly polarizing conflicts between the leader and important players inside or outside the organization. Leaders recently appointed to new roles are particularly vulnerable in these battles; they understand how the organization works and hasn’t yet established alliances of their own, so these are fights they is unlikely to win. What does it mean to be an effective corporate diplomat? Great diplomats proceed from the assumption that supportive alliances must be built in order to get anything serious done. They understand that opposition to change is likely, so they anticipate and develop strategies for surmounting it. They don’t expect to win over everyone; instead they focus on creating a critical mass of support. Most important, they devote as much energy to figuring out how to do things as they do to understanding what should be done. The foundation of effective corporate diplomacy is a deep understanding of agendas and alignments. Leaders put a lot of effort into cultivating relationships in their organizations, believing that these connections will pay off when it comes time to get things done—which is true. It’s wise for leaders to build new relationships in anticipation of future needs. After all, you’d never want to be meeting your neighbors for the first time in the middle of the night while your house is burning down. But this operating philosophy underemphasizes an important point about organizational politics—namely, that there is a difference between building relationships and building alliances In a nutshell, alliances are explicit or implicit agreements between two or more parties to jointly pursue specific agendas. By contrast, relationships comprise a broader class of social interactions, including personal friendships, which may or may not involve agreements to pursue specific goals. If relationships don’t necessarily imply alliances, the reverse also is true: effective corporate diplomats often build alliances with people with whom they have no significant ongoing relationships. Some coalitions are founded on shared interests that provide the basis for longer-term, supportive interactions; others are short-term alliances that push specific agendas and then disband. Indeed, you may find yourself cooperating with people you usually disagree with—except, perhaps, when it comes to achieving a narrow goal involving a specific agenda. When influence matters more than authority, leaders therefore need to focus as much on understanding others’ agendas and identifying potential alignments as they do on diagnosing business situations and defining solutions. It’s all-too-easy to focus on the “technical” side of business: identifying key issues and proposing solutions. The experience of many high-potential leaders doesn’t prepare them to focus on political learning. There are several techniques leaders can use to quickly gain more insight into these political dynamics. The first approach is to make some reasonable guesses about who the important players will be given the business issues you’re confronting; arrange some meetings; and then listen—actively and attentively. Ask lots of questions, phrased in ways that won’t trigger defensiveness. If you aren’t satisfied with an answer, ask the question two or three different ways during the discussion. Propose what-if scenarios as a way to elicit thoughtful advice from the people with whom you’re speaking. The second strategy is to constantly scan for subtle signs of status and influence during meetings, hallway chats, and other interactions. Who speaks to whom about what? Who sits and stands where? Who defers to whom when certain topics are being discussed? When an issue is raised, where do people’s eyes track? Over time, the patterns of influence will become clearer, and you’ll be able to identify those vital individuals who exert disproportionate influence because of their informal authority, expertise, or sheer force of personality. If you can convince these opinion leaders that your priorities and goals have merit, broader acceptance of your ideas is likely to follow. Additionally, you may be able to discern existing alliances—those groups of people who explicitly or implicitly band together to pursue specific goals or protect certain privileges. If these alliances support your agenda, you will gain leverage. If they oppose you, you may have no choice but to break them up or establish new ones. COPYRIGHT 2009 Michael Watkins. Genesis Advisers, PO Box 00083. West Newton, MA 02465. All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, or by any means, without prior permission.

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