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5 ways to be politically savvy at work, without sucking up

If you’re eager to move up in your career, keep an eye out for these five types of situations that you can use to your advantage.

5 ways to be politically savvy at work, without sucking up
[Source photo: Fallon Michael/Unsplash]
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Today’s organizations are flatter than ever, and that’s good news for employees who want to get ahead. Fewer layers, and less bureaucracy, can mean a more equitable treatment of people at all levels.

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But as utopian as that sounds, there is still a hierarchy—albeit a kinder, gentler one—that aspiring career-minded folks need to climb. The question is how to get to that next rung, and the one after that.

Kissing up to management is not the answer. Most executives are wise to that well-worn strategy, and they prefer junior people who are sincere and authentic.

I recently spoke with senior executive Chris Kowalewski, chief growth officer of Compass Group, the sixth-largest employer in the world and the largest food services provider. He oversees a team of over 400 associates and offered a wealth of insights about how to be politically savvy in rising through the ranks.

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Here are five situations where you can use political savvy to move your career forward:

1. JOB INTERVIEWS

Begin with the job interview. Kowalewski says: “It’s important to go into a company from a position of strength.” Ask yourself, “is this the right company for me? Will I flourish there? In short, come in with your eyes wide open.”

Being politically savvy at this stage means being a savvy questioner. “That’s part of the due-diligence process,” says Kowalewski. “I want candidates to get all their questions answered.” He advises asking questions about the culture and the role of the job in the larger organization. You want to abandon the meek and mild facade that some job seekers adopt and lay out all your questions.

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In the best companies, Kowalewski adds, “look for hiring managers to ask you tough questions, too. They might ask how you will respond to particular challenges, or how you envision your first 30, 60, or 90 days on the job.” Don’t hesitate to get all your questions answered. Kowalewski says that if the company “makes a hiring mistake it costs time, money, and resources. Most importantly, your life is turned upside down.” So it’s in the interest of both parties to have an open and honest discussion.

2. EVERYDAY COMMUNICATIONS

Once you decide to take the job, you’ll want to regularly stay in touch with people above you in the organization who might be able to help.

Kowalewski says, “I tell individuals ‘if you need me, don’t be bashful, reach out.’ . . . I always want to be accessible. It’s a great way to maintain talent. My style has always been that anyone in the organization has access to me. Call me, text me, whatever. I am not going to question why someone at any level is reaching out to me. I’m here to help, to fill the gaps, to make it easier for everyone else.”

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Do all bosses open their doors and their minds to all their employees? Perhaps not. But this is the way of the future, and any politically savvy employee knows that getting through to senior leaders is the path to the top. So keep trying.

3. MEETINGS WITH LEADERS

Third, have the confidence to express your views in meetings, even if your suggestions depart from the accepted wisdom of those more senior than you.

Kowalewski says that when a junior employee shares a viewpoint that is contrary to his, he doesn’t put them down. As a senior executive he feels “it’s okay to be demanding, but not demeaning.” He’ll ask them to explain their reasoning. “What are the facts telling us?” he’ll ask. As he learned from a mentor, “opinions die; facts live forever.” His goal is to get the best resolution.

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So come forward with your ideas, and make sure they are fact based. And don’t wobble with caveats like “I could be wrong,” or “this is just my opinion.” When you share an idea, back it completely. You don’t need to suck up by undercutting yourself. Senior folks will respect you for being clear and confident.

4. ENCOUNTERS WITH YOUR BOSS

Make sure that you have a good relationship with your boss. This doesn’t mean having coffee together or playing golf. In fact, such efforts at friendship can undercut the professional relationship you need to develop. You want an open, honest working relationship with your boss—one in which you don’t have to suck up to be successful.

If you find there is something that’s not quite right about the relationship, take steps to correct it. Suppose you feel unsettled in every discussion you have with your boss. You wouldn’t be alone. The majority of employees do not trust their bosses. Kowalewski recommends approaching your boss to address any persistent tension. Suppose every time you meet with her you feel put down. “Take responsibility and say ‘Hey, help me out here. When we meet I feel a sense of tension. I’m obviously doing something that’s causing things to go off the rails. I need your help to fix it,'” says Kowalewski.

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This is playing to your strength as someone who can deal well with management. “If your boss doesn’t open up or try to help,” says Kowalewski, “you know you’re in a toxic relationship.” That’s a sign it’s time to leave.

5. SEEKING MENTORS

Additionally, it’s important to show political savvy by seeking out mentors. This will enable you to grow your relationships at the top.

“You need to develop mentors on the way to building your career,” says Kowalewski. “A lot of times the mentor may be senior to your boss.” How do you build that relationship with a mentor? Not by being fawning or sycophantic. Instead, be direct and to the point. “When you approach a mentor,” says Kowalewski, “have a clear goal in mind. Say ‘I want to become a better communicator,’ or ‘I’m trying to get to the next level and want to understand those roles.'” Then ask for help.

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When looking for a mentor, pick someone you’ve had contact with. And show that you value them, and you are sincere. Don’t beat around the bush—just ask.

In all these situations you have an opportunity to impress those at higher levels. But, as Kowalewski puts it, “it’s by being your authentic self. The best way to be politically savvy is not to be ‘political.'”