Want to Get Ahead in Your Organization? Get Good At This Game.

“What feedback would you give me?” asked Bill (it’s not really Bill, but we’ll call him that for the story).

Bill was the Scrum Master of a team I had been coaching for a few weeks. He and I had been getting to know each other pretty well over this short consulting engagement. Bill worked full time for this company, and had helped advocate for bringing me in as a coach. I thought of Bill as a peer, on a day to day basis. But in this moment of unexpected vulnerability over coffee outside the building, he was asking me as a more experienced person for career advice.

“I have been a Scrum Master for a while. I want to be either an Agile coach or a Product Manager next, and eventually a Director or VP. What do I need to work on?”

I wasn’t prepared to give an answer right away, and told him to let me think about it. Bill was a very capable Scrum Master. There was precious little in terms of tools or process that I could teach him that he didn’t already know at least something about. He wasn’t technical, granted, but he was taking classes online to learn to code simply so that he would have more empathy for the engineers. Bill was that kind of guy.

But Bill was missing something that I felt strongly would unlock his path to the next level. That something could be identified in Bill’s comment that he “hated playing politics” in the office. Ah-ha, I thought to myself. There is something I can help Bill with.

Eventually, as we leisurely walked back to the office, I gave him some advice. The core of that advice turned into a recent article on LinkedIn, “How To Talk To Executives”, which was rather short, and a little snarky and hyperbolic (as my writing can sometimes be). But that article got such a resoundingly positive response from the community, I thought I would extrapolate on the ideas in more detail here. I hope you find this piece useful as you think about what’s next in your career.

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Level Up

The skills required to do jobs change in difficulty and complexity from entry to senior level. This is in accordance with the layers of abstraction embedded in most organizations, as you move from menial repetitive tasks at the bottom of the pyramid, to more abstract and creative tasks at the highest levels.

But what many people don’t realize until they get about half way up, let’s say, is that even knowing what skills you need to possess at a higher level than the one you’re currently on becomes harder and harder to know at all. It isn’t immediately obvious to most Directors, for instance, what it takes to be a good VP. And few VPs have a clue of what it takes to be a CEO, particularly of a large organization.

The reason for this is the skills themselves are less concrete and more intuitive and psychological. The further you go in your career, and the higher you get within any particular organization, the more you must rely on your wits, creativity, and communication skills. In particular, skills become less about doing the thing and more about relating to others in your organization. In a phrase, “playing politics” becomes more and more important.

Learn to Play Politics

You hear the terms “politics” and “political” being tossed around inside organizations a lot. Yet, it’s pretty clear to me that most people don’t know much about the murky world they are referring to when they use those words. To them, it’s just a scary or nonsensical phenomenon that gets in the way of the “real work” of an organization. This fear or confusion about politics, unfortunately, is precisely what will prevent those same people from advancing. In other words, you are either playing politics, or being played. The choice is yours.

Some demystification is in order. What do I mean by “playing politics?” Politics is obviously a large subject of social study, and I am not going to do it justice here in this article. I am, in fact, only referring to a very narrow subset of politics that occurs inside organizations or groups of organizations, rather than the more formal politics that occurs out in society at the level of government.

Politics simply has to do with the concept of governance. I particularly like the definition proffered by Google, as

“the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.”

Read that definition a couple times. I’ve highlighted in bold all of the important words for you. Zero in on the idea of politics within a single organization. Power. Conflict. Governance. Let’s look at each briefly, and then I’ll come back to them through the rest of the piece.

Start with power. Who wields power in an organization? Is it always the most senior person in a hierarchy? Are you sure? Have you ever seen evidence to the contrary? Can you think of a time when a less senior person was able to achieve what they wanted either against or around the interests of a more senior person? I bet you can.

Then there is the concept of conflict. Any organization of sufficient size will have conflicts around access to resources, setting priorities, or choosing a particular strategic direction. Not everyone is going to get what they want in those categories. Conflicts have to be resolved somehow in order for the work of the organization to continue. Sometimes resolutions are light and informal. Other times they are official. They can be very boring or they can be dramatic. But there is always conflict.

Finally, let’s zoom in on the concept of governance. Most of us think of governance in organizations as meetings and long boring policy documents. That’s not really what it is about.

Here is what Wikipedia says.

“Governance is all of the processes of governing, whether undertaken by a government, a market or a network, over a social system (family, tribe, formal or informal organization, a territory or across territories) and whether through the laws, norms, power or language of an organized society.”

Norms, power or language. Now, that’s interesting. Organizations don’t have laws; certainly not in the sense of societies with a judicial system. They may have corporate policies or rules of conduct. But these typically only cover the basics like, don’t come to work without pants, or don’t smoke in the bathroom, and so on.

The vast majority of governance in organizations is at the level of norms, power, and language. Concretely, there may be a cyber security governance body in your company. That body may produce guidelines about what sorts of software architectures can or cannot be introduced into the production servers. A team may need to take some novel approach in order to satisfy a business result, but may be blocked by rules from the cyber security governance body.

There is a clear conflict. Someone has to be wrong. Either the team simply cannot release the product with this novel approach in it, or the governance body will have to change the rule (or give the team some kind of waiver).

And that, my friend, is a conflict that comes up every day in the modern corporation. And the resolution to that conflict can only be found in the world of playing politics.

More on this in a bit.

More Gray Hair

I once interviewed for a VP of Product role at a company. It was about ten years ago, so I was in my mid-thirties. I had been consulting for this company for a few months, doing some work that was half architect and half Agile coach. I had earned the respect of the team and my direct client representative. Then I heard about the VP of Product role. It was at a time when I was getting a little burned out from freelancing, and so I decided to go for it.

I was interviewed by all of the senior people in the organization, including the CEO. I tried really hard to make the case that I was ready for this role. Each person I interviewed with took it seriously and I felt I was given the best chance to present myself. The last person I met, the CFO, finally let me down as easily as he could. He told me that there was no way I was actually going to get the position. Specifically, he said that while I was clearly a very smart and talented individual, I needed a little more “gray hair” before I was ready (yes, he literally said that).

I was hurt at the time. It took me a long time to understand what he was saying. Now, I do. And if I were in his position today, and interviewing my 34-year old self for a role like that, I would give myself the same answer he gave me. He was right.

But what did he mean by “more gray hair?” I was a very skilled engineer with a broad range of technologies under my belt. I had business experience, having run my own shop for many years. I was great at people and teams. And I knew all of the process ins and outs for product development. I was only lacking one critical thing, a hard-to-define but critical skill of being able to maneuver among other senior players in an organization playing a high-stakes game. In a word, “politics.”

To be fair, I still have not experienced being an executive in a publicly traded company yet. And I may never. But I work with them enough that I have a much better idea of what such a role would be like, and what properties and skills it takes in order to do the job well.


If you are relatively junior in your career, you may have the wrong idea about power. Most organizations are hierarchies. And you can look at the hierarchy, watching the various directives come down from above, level by level, and think that power always flows in one direction — down. But you’d be wrong.

I see power in two distinct modes — power over and power to. Power over some individual or group is the the power to compel them to perform some action, whether or not they want to; Power to is a little more like freedom, in that you have the power to act independently, or power over yourself, perhaps.

And power is not uniformly concentrated at the top. For example, in some cases, the HR department or Finance may have more power than the CEO. The CEO seems at first glance like they have all the power. But the CEO cannot literally just do whatever he or she wants. There are accepted norms and behaviors for a CEO, just like everyone else. There are consequences for their actions, particularly when those actions push against tacit cultural norms in the company, or against previously established rules and policies. Sure, the CEO can “shake things up” dramatically, but usually not without some kind of equally dramatic fallout, and fallout he or she may not be able to control or even see in advance. There is risk inherent in exerting power.

Information is also a source of power in an organization. Concentrations of expertise or authority in a particular domain can concentrate power there. I know a company that has an engineer working for them who is the only person who really gets how the whole system works. He may report to the CEO ultimately, but in a way he actually has more power. He can threaten to walk any time, and leave the company in very bad shape.

Thus in any given situation you find yourself, it is important to determine where the power is. It may be in more than one place, and you may be able to leverage power in one place in the organization where you have some influence in order to achieve a result in another where you don’t.

Let’s not forget that language has power as well. How many times have you witnessed a senior person give a very non-answer answer to a request from a junior person? Maybe the junior person walks away not sure exactly what was just agreed to. Senior people have learned to use language to exert their power. They can speak differently to junior staff than they do to their peers. Junior staff can’t really tell the difference.

The higher you go, the less time you have and the higher the stakes are of every decision. Many decisions are made with a quick exchange between two execs in the hallway or some other informal setting. They can do this because they have mastered language that has many layers beyond the literal translation. In fact, 90% of the big decisions in large organizations you will never see, even if you’re sitting in the same room as the people making them. It just won’t be obvious until you master their language.


It is hopefully obvious by now that whenever you have different concentrations of power in different parts of an organization, between different individuals or groups who have different interests, you will have conflict. This is where things get really interesting.

Let’s think of some obvious conflicts. We mentioned the cyber security example above. I just saw that one at a client this year (still yet to be resolved, by the way).

Here is another. We’ve identified a stellar candidate to manage our engineering team, but she’s highly sought after. We’re just one of three companies she’s considering. She’s asking for more salary than we can officially offer according HR policies. We have to move fast, or she will get snapped up by a competitor. We need to negotiate both with her and with HR simultaneously. Where is the power in this situation? It’s obviously in more than one place.

We really want to run some IT projects using the concept of metered funding. But the Finance department runs on an annual funding basis, and all of the project budgets have already been locked in. We need to negotiate with Finance to find some way to reframe those existing budgets to get what we want, without putting them out over their skis. Again, power is distributed, and we may not know exactly how it is distributed until we start negotiating.

This is how conflict works in organizations. It’s constant, dynamic, and navigable to you if you have the right mindset and attitude toward it.


So, now things seem a bit more murky than we initially thought. We thought power was just based on hierarchy. We thought conflicts were just handled by review boards and mediators. We certainly didn’t think of governance as something the least bit malleable. Maybe, just maybe, there is more to this playing politics thing than we thought?

Governance does have a certain formality to it. There are often official “bodies” that gather regularly and craft documents proclaiming justifications for their existence. But this is just the surface appearance.

What is really happening in governance is that a big complex topic (say cyber security, or diversity and inclusion, or something else that doesn’t have its own department) has been identified as affecting a range of different functional silos in the organization. A governing body is assembled with representatives from each of these functional groups to hammer out some agreement or standard for how each part of the organization will work. A large organization will have many of these governance bodies.

Under the surface however, what is happening is that each representative is attempting to manufacture their own (or their department’s) interests into the governance policies. Conflicts will emerge, at which time representatives will negotiate. In a multi-party negotiation, power is once again unevenly distributed. So alliances will be formed, and influence will be peddled, until some resolution is met.

And speaking of influence, maybe it would be a good idea to find out who is on those governing bodies and get to know some of them?

What’s The Solution?

One thing about this article some of you may have already noticed is that I didn’t provide any solutions for the scenarios I presented. They all were left hanging. I did that on purpose. If I just told you a story about how they resolved, there is a risk that you would try to pattern match those solutions in the future. That’s the opposite of what I am trying to teach you here.

There are no clear solutions to these problems. That’s what makes them so hard to solve. That’s what makes senior operators who are able to navigate the seeming ambiguity of power, conflict, and governance within large organizations seem like wizards from some other world to those of us who lack those skills.

But you can attain these skills. It’s not going to be easy, and it will certainly take time. The first step is to acknowledge both that these are skills you don’t have and that they are important for your professional development. The second step is find small ways within your own context where you can try out these skills with relatively low risk.

You can do it. But you may need some more gray hair before you get good at it.

Super-charge Your Agile Teams

If you’re planning to be in the Bay Area this January, 2019, join us for a public workshop that addresses much of the material in this article in concrete and concise ways. Find out more here: http://bit.ly/2PdcfaL