Navigating Organizational Politics, With Niven Postma
Mastering office politics isn’t about playing the game; it’s about defining the rules. Join us with Niven Postma, author of “If You Don’t Do Politics, Politics Will Do You,” in learning how to navigate organizational politics ethically— and yes, it is possible. In this episode, Niven uncovers the hidden dynamics of office politics, the power of leverage, and how to build your career path in this highly political world. Drafting insights from her book, Niven discusses how there are unspoken rules and strategies that shape your workplace, and why ignoring them might be a career-limiting move. On the contrary, learning how the game works and developing “tough empathy” can help you leverage politics and navigate your career. Tune in and learn how to master office politics, achieve professional success, and design a career that reflects your values and aspirations.
Check out the full series of “Career Sessions, Career Lessons” podcasts here or visit pathwise.io/podcast/. A full written transcript of this episode is also available at https://pathwise.io/podcasts/niven-postma/
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Navigating Organizational Politics, With Niven Postma
Author Of “If You Don’t Do Politics, Politics Will Do You”
My guest is Niven Postma. Niven is a strategy, leadership, and culture consultant who partners with clients in diverse industries around the world to ignite or reignite the discretionary energy of people and teams to build an enabling culture and develop meaningful strategies. Niven’s career has spanned multiple sectors and roles, including being the CEO of the Business Women’s Association of South Africa, CEO of Nurturing Orphans of AIDS for Humanity or NOAH, Head of the South African Reserve Bank Academy, and Head of Leadership and Culture for the Standard Bank Group, the largest bank in Africa. She is the author of the best-selling book, If You Don’t Do Politics, Politics Will Do You…, which we will cover in this episode.
She is also a Harvard Business Review and Inc. contributor, a part-time tutor at Cambridge University’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership, and has been a guest lecturer at Stanford University. She’s an expert facilitator on women’s leadership development programs around the world and serves as the Chair of the Board of Cotlands, an organization that does cutting-edge work in the early childhood development sector in South Africa and beyond.
She holds an executive MBA in Systems Thinking, a postgraduate diploma in Future Studies, and a BA in English Political Science. Niven was awarded the Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowship in 2007, and she is in the final stages of completing her PhD. She has served as a reserve police officer for two years and lives in Johannesburg with her partner.
Niven, welcome. Thanks for joining the show. I appreciate your time.
It’s a pleasure to be here.
It’s good to get to know you a little bit. I am looking forward to diving into the world of organizational politics. Let’s start with that. You have researched this topic. You have focused your PhD on this topic. You have written a book on it. Is politics inherent in all organizations?
It’s important to qualify that answer with a definition of what politics is because most people have a single definition of politics. It’s toxic. It’s the Machiavellian. It’s destructive. It’s the stuff that happens that any sane person would run like hell from. That’s a part of politics. The definition that I like to use is contested. Let me say that upfront. The definition I like to use is the one that says it’s about the informal, the unofficial, and the behind-the-scenes activities that happen as we try to sell ideas, get information, accrue power, and get things done. The list of reasons why we do it is endless, but it’s all of the stuff that happens in that informal and official space.
Somebody said to me, “It’s the stuff on your job description. It’s the white space between the words.” That’s where politics is. I like to say to people that all teams, all departments, and all organizations have two sides. They have got the formal, the stuff that is written, clear, and articulated, but there’s always the informal. That stuff is not written or articulated anywhere.
You can choose to play only in the formal. It’s your career. It’s your life. Make the choices you want to. Frankly, in my opinion, that’s like playing soccer on half the field, rugby on half the pitch, or tennis on half the court. The sporting metaphors can go on. Those formal and those informal exist and coexist hand in hand.
Humans are social creatures. Since we are social creatures, anytime you get a group of us together in whatever context, there will be social dynamics. There’s interplay that’s inherent in that. You can use those realities for good or you can use those realities for not good.
Jeffrey Pfeffer at Stanford Graduate School of Business says it well. He says, “If we want more power to be used for good, we need more good people to have power.” This is not an either-or dichotomy. It has to be a much more interesting, nuanced, and complex both-and.
It needs to be more complex both-and. It’s not so much of an either-or or, “I win, you lose,” type of construct. That’s for sure. You talk in your book about the fact that there are different levels of politics in different organizations. You cite some research by Kathleen Kelley Reardon from USC on this from minimal to very toxic. What is that range and how does that manifest itself in what people experience day-to-day?
What she says is exactly right. She speaks about her spectrum from minimally to moderately to highly politicized. In many years of working both in organizations and as a consultant to organizations, I have to say I have only ever seen one minimally politicized organization. There are others that get trotted out. The one that I work for as a consultant may be a little bit more politicized in the actual living of the organization than what I see as a consultant. That’s the one that I have seen.
In minimally politicized organizations, you have got the in-crowd and out-crowd, but it’s minimal. You have got things that happen behind the scenes, but as the name implies, it’s minimal. Pretty much, what you see is what you get. It then ramps up to moderately where these things become more rampant in highly politicized organizations.
In my experience, if you are working in a large organization, you are working in an old organization, you are in one where people have been there for years, so memories and relationships go back decades, or you are working in a matrixed organization, know that it’s going to be highly politicized for good or for bad. It is going to be highly politicized because there are all kinds of things given the nature and the complexity of the people in the organization that aren’t written down and that aren’t codified. What I always talk about in the work that I do is those things are normal. Suck it up. Match your political style and appetite with the degree of politicization that you are going into. These things are normal and you can’t escape them. You can find yourself somewhere on the spectrum.
What is not normal is what she calls pathologically politicized organizations or what I call toxic organizations. They could be even teams or parts of organizations. Toxic is a synonym for poison, and poison is designed to kill you. I am not speaking metaphorically, and I’m certainly not speaking hyperbolically when I say that these organizations will kill people, not necessarily immediately and not necessarily in ways that can put their fingers on.
The stories that I have heard over the years that I have been lecturing about this are about how toxic toxic can get. Frankly, it’s the only thing that makes me grateful for having been in one toxic environment. Had I not, I would have listened to some of these stories with a little bit of incredulity and maybe some degree of frustration thinking, “It couldn’t possibly have been that bad. Can’t you snap yourself together, sparkle up, and get over it?”
Trust me. I have got plenty of sparkles and plenty of agency. It is that bad because it’s unrelenting abuse. It is abuse, fear, and gaslighting. When you are in that type of environment, there’s no sucking it up. You are very unlikely to change that type of environment. I have heard of one instance where someone’s able to change it, but for the rest, it is abuse. Abuse only gets worse.
What’s amazing is that some of these organizations last for decades in those kinds of environments. You wonder, “How does that level of dysfunction exist for so long? How do people survive it?” You went through it from what I have read. From your description of it, it took a real toll on you. I’m sure that you are not different from most other people who are in those kinds of situations.
It does take an enormous toll. I read some research a while ago that said if you have been in a traumatic environment, and there are exceptions, but generally, if you are in something analogous to abuse, you can expect that the recovery from it will take between 2 and 5 times the amount of time. If you are in it for a year, you can expect the physical, somatic, emotional, and intellectual responses to last for between 2 to 5 years. It can be longer, or it can be less. That made me sit up and take notice. I would never have thought that something that only lasted for a few months could take that type of toll, and it did. Fortunately, I got into other situations. Fortunately, it wasn’t the last experience of my career or the only, or the first. It was a nightmare.
It doesn’t take long for that to become so much of your identity. This is not a years-in-the-making thing. It can happen in a few short months.
What people often ask me as well is, “These people who perpetuate toxic environments, how did they last for so long?” There’s an interesting book called Snakes in Suits written by two psychiatrists. Let me be very clear. I’m not a clinician. I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not making clinical diagnoses. What I’m taking from their book is the degree of psychopathy that is inherent in organizations. This is the functional psychopathy. If it’s clinical, you often end up in prison because you do all manner of egregious things.
What I took from that book and my own experience is that people who are abusive are incredibly good at managing upwards. They manage impressions and make it seem as though the only problem is this useless team that they are dealing with. They are certainly not the problem. They are the ones who are trying to rescue the situation.
They are very good at managing impressions upwards. They are often very good at getting results. Those results often happen over a whole bunch of dead bodies, but people don’t look further than the results. They are good at managing the airtime that they have with people in power. That is a vicious cycle because you are managing the airtime and the impressions and getting results, it becomes a single story again, and it becomes their story. If I look at the character that I worked for, he had a sway of destruction through all manner of organizations, but he’s still being equipped. He has left organizations, teams, and departments behind him in appalling shape, and he continues.People who are abusive are incredibly good at managing upwards, so they're managing impressions. Click To Tweet
There probably are some pathologically politicized organizations that are able to still function. They deliver good results on the backs of a lot of people but they are able to succeed organizationally. Maybe this happens more in government-type settings where you don’t necessarily have the same profit and loss construct that will drive whether you continue to exist. It seems there are certainly others out there that don’t deliver results and yet, the toxicity persists.
It’s quite why, how, and what people get used to, and the counterfactual of what could have been when companies are happy with good enough. This is the million-dollar question that probably calls for a few bottles of wine as well.
Stepping back though, people can use this for good and use it for bad, but the reality is you need to learn to play the game if you are going to be successful. You talk about another researcher, Marie McIntyre, who describes four political types. I love her words, winners, martyrs, sociopaths, and dimwits. Talk about how those four play out. That’s her framework for thinking about how you bucket people who play the political game.
I’m glad you liked her model as much as I did. It comes from a more academic article, which does mince its words a little bit more but probably wouldn’t have quite as much sticking power. The reason I included her model as with all models in my book is despite the truth that all models are wrong, some are useful.
What I found useful about this model was it focuses on two things. It focuses on the personal, professional, and your behavior. When I came across it, I thought, “If I had seen this model at a time when I was being a complete dimwit, it would have gotten my attention.” It’s not about your intention. It’s not about my rationalizations and justifications for why I was acting the way I was acting.
If I thought about what people were seeing and how I was showing up, I would have thought twice about how I was showing up. It’s about your behavior. If your behavior’s harming you and the business, then you are squarely in the dimwit absolute twit space. If it’s helping you and the business, then you are far more in the winner space.
It also gets interesting around the sociopath and the martyr. The martyr is all about the business. It is like, “Me, myself, my intention to run marathons, to travel, and to do whatever needs to take a backseat to the business.” This can be your choice. You are entitled to make that choice. Especially with groups predominantly of women, I see that model get their attention and I see that quadrant get their attention. This feeling of, “I’m not sure I ever consciously made this choice. It has become a creeping non-choice habit. I’m not sure that this is a habit I particularly savor anymore,” gets their attention. Then, a sociopath is all about you.
What I emphasize once I share this model is all have the shadow sides to ourselves. We all have situations, stresses, and people that will bring out the best and the worst in us. None of us are ever one thing. None of us, hopefully, are purely sociopathic or purely dimwits. We can go from one meeting to the next and be different players in different quadrants.
What’s valuable about this is to think about what people are seeing in your behavior, what they are inferring from it, what situations bring out the best or the worst in you, and the quadrant in the context you find yourself in, are you predominantly in? Is it one you want to be in or not? If it is, how do you keep it? If it’s not, how do you start to change it?
It then gets a little bit into power and the linkage between power and politics. You can and you point this out in the book, position power or personal power. There are different sources of both. I was hoping you could maybe elaborate on that a little bit.
The original work on power was done by French and Raven back in the 1950s. They spoke about there are various sources of power. Expert power comes from expertise. Legitimate power comes from a position that’s assumed to have power and accrued to it. Referent power is your charisma in which you take independent positions. The list goes on.
The point is around all power, coming back to your point, is what it gets used for. This is why any conversation around power is one that I always want to bring in Martin Luther King’s quote where he said that power without love is reckless and abusive. Frankly, I could think of a few stronger words, but let’s go with his words. Love without power is sentimental and anemic. This is something that when people get it can make a profound impact on how they lead and how they think about themselves.
In most organizations, speaking about love doesn’t come particularly easily or naturally. Take away love and replace it with care, deep care for the work that you are doing, the people you are doing it with, the people you are doing it for. If you don’t have that care, I’m not sure what you are doing at work every day. I’m not sure what you are doing in your career. That care is not enough.
Only care and you are running a support group, but only power to make people jump and ask how high when they do, then you are running a boot camp. Have those two together and you become quite a powerful leader. You become an exemplary leader. You are someone who leaves a legacy that would hopefully be the type of legacy you want to leave, not just for yourself and your career but in the lives of the people who work with you and work for you.
You use the phrase, and others certainly have used this phrase, empty suit. McIntyre describes it in the context of, “How much positional power do I have? How much persuasive power do I have that empty suits the person who doesn’t have any persuasive power but does have the positional power?” Nobody wants to work for an empty suit. You want to work for people who will have that persuasive capability. In some cases, you are probably better off working for people who have lower positional power, but a higher persuasive power. That’s because they will carry people with their words, their emotions, and their charisma or expertise, or whatever the source of it may be.
That’s an interesting point that people don’t often pick up on. In her model, people with low influence and low power are either weaklings or empty suits. The dividing line there is the degree of influence. High influence, either with low positions or high positions, is where it starts to become interesting. High influence are persuaders. I have not yet ever had a group not get this right when I ask them, “Who are the classic persuaders in organizations?” It’s always personal assistants or executive assistants because they are the gatekeepers. As someone said, they are the necks that turn the heads. You underestimate a PA, you underestimate anyone in a gatekeeping role at your peril. Similarly, people with high positions and high influence can make all manner of things happen.
I never use the words good or bad when it comes to your network. I talk about effective, more effective, and less effective. An empty suit with a whole bunch of positional formal power but no real influence is way less helpful in your network than a persuader. I had a delegate say that she was working for a manager. She liked and respected this person. She thought they were fantastic in all manner of ways with their values, their integrity, and their technical skills, and she was applying for a transfer. I thought, “Help me connect the dots here because I’m not sure how this is working.”
She said, “This person is incredibly impressive in all the ways I have mentioned, but they refuse to acknowledge that to be effective in this organization, you need to socialize your ideas. You need to have the meetings before the meetings. You need to continue the conversations after the meetings.” She dismisses all of that stuff as politics, and she’s right. It is political, but refusing to engage in it means that she can’t get the resources and the support for her team. She can’t lay the groundwork for them such that this delegate, despite her affection and respect, was moving to another team where she could be more effective.
In that case, it sounds like the person is an empty suit if you were going to put them into that framework. They are an empty suit by their own doing. Some people are empty suits because they don’t have the makeup to be power players. Some people, though, and it sounds like this person might have been in that category, choose not to exercise their ability to be influential.
I always say to people, “You can make whatever choice you want, but make sure it’s an informed choice and make sure that you understand the risks in those choices.” When people make a choice like that not to get involved in politics, I often find it’s because they don’t fully understand the breadth, depth, and scope of politics. They don’t understand quite the trade-offs because they think that their work will speak for itself. In an ideal world, it would. In this world, it won’t. People will speak, or in this case, not.
I have described this with some people that I have interviewed on the show before. I came into the working world believing in the concept of a meritocracy. It doesn’t work that way. I started in the military. I probably should have known better because the military is typically a very political organization given the unquestioned allegiance to hierarchy and some of the other things that make it harder for the organization to be more egalitarian in the way that they approach gathering input, making decisions, and things like that.
For me, it was a real learning probably in my late twenties that that was not the way the world worked. Over the years, I have certainly seen it play out in some very different ways, including some mean-spirited ways. You can’t rely on your technical ability alone hoping that you will get noticed. You got to socialize. You have got to market what you are doing. Every job has a sales component. That’s what it’s about. It is that influence.
You put it perfectly. One of the things that happens when people hear that this is not the way the world works is they revert to cynicism and despair. That’s one reaction. I hope to move people to somewhere in the middle. That’s somewhere between cynicism and despair on the one hand, and then rampant naivety and idealism on the other hand.
I wake up in the morning every day to do work that matters and changes things for the better, but I’m not naive and I’m not an idealist around it. I’m somewhere in the middle, I hope, which is still an idealist, but a pragmatic idealist. I’m like, “This is how it works. How am I going to be effective to do what I need to do and what I want to do to have the most positive impact in the most lasting way?” Knowing that this is how the world works can be a call to action, and hopefully, it is.Knowing that this is how the world works can be a call to action. Click To Tweet
Since you say that, it’s also useful because we define meritocracy so narrowly. We tend to define meritocracy as the person who can do the best technical job. If you define merit as broader than that, the person who can do the best technical job and builds up and spends time getting the best support, that’s an alternative additional form of merit. Frankly, it is part of your job, particularly the more senior you get.
What I often say is, “As you get more senior, it’s the people below you who are doing the actual technical work. You are navigating the landscape. That is a merit if you are doing it properly. It’s a demerit if you are not doing it properly and reverting to what you started as, which is what the people below you should be doing.”
Another way in which that manifests itself, and I won’t remember the exact words that you used, is the best idea isn’t always the best technical idea. The best idea may be the idea that has the best chance of getting implemented. If I’m optimizing for what’s technically the best, I may choose X, but if I’m optimizing for what I think will drive some form of improvement, I may choose something different because it has a higher likelihood of being adopted. There are many examples where the less good solution is the one that took hold for whatever reasons. You can’t deny that’s also part of the equations. It’s also part of the evaluating merit.
I have got a case study that I have put together on Blockbuster. I have been in strategy my whole career. I thought I knew the story. It’s the typical story. There was Nokia, Blackberry, Kodak, and these huge incumbents. There was the strategic and business model. There was obsolescence and arrogance. The story goes on.
It’s a story of power in politics. If you look at the strategy that John Antioco wanted to bring in response to Netflix, he planned to start streaming three years before Netflix did. Netflix started streaming in 2007. His exit strategy along with two other key elements was brought to the attention of the market in 2004. With politics and power at the board level, that meant he couldn’t implement it. That meant that he left and Blockbuster doesn’t exist anymore.
You see that play out. Clay Christensen’s work, The Innovator’s Dilemma, highlights example after example of where people clung to the present at the expense of the future. Blockbuster is one of those examples. You mentioned Blackberry. They are another one. Nobody is going to want to use a virtual keypad. They all like having the little tactile buttons that they can push. In the end, we all use phones that have screen-based keypads. Blackberries are pretty much gone.
What’s interesting about Blockbuster is they could have come to market three years before Netflix based on their strategy, but there was a power struggle between John Antioco and Carl Icahn who was one of the major shareholders. Despite the evidence and the data from test cases, it didn’t go forward. That’s probably a whole long case study for another episode.
We will save those for another episode. In the middle part of the book, you get into the four skills that are important to political success. Those are interpersonal influence, social awareness, networking, and the last one, which is my favorite, is apparent sincerity. Start with interpersonal influence and talk a little bit about what you mean by that. We have covered a little bit, but maybe pull it all together.
This comes from the work of Gerald Ferris and his colleagues. They have been the leading proponents of these four elements of politics. They have done enormous amounts of research over the years around this. Interpersonal influence is pretty much as the name suggests. It is your ability to get other people to want to do what you want to do.
Coming back to your point about apparent sincerity, I’m reading another book about politics. The moment it looks like you are being political and pulling levers, people will see politics for what it is. If it seems effortless and incredibly sincere, and it may well be sincere because it doesn’t have to not be sincere, your influence becomes exponentially greater. People think, believe, and take you at face value that you want to get the best things done for everyone. That may well be the case or it may not be the case, but the point is people take that sincerity at face value.
The social astuteness is about being able to read the room in ways that others can’t, not being the quintessential bull in a China shop, and not necessarily always saying exactly what you think. Jeffrey Pfeffer at Stanford has some interesting thoughts about this. When I say to people that it’s social astuteness in knowing what to say and what not to say, they are like, “That’s not being authentic.”
Jeffrey Pfeffer says it well. He says, “Being authentic requires that you are authentic to what the situation requires, not to what you necessarily think or feel in that moment.” Often, you have got to transcend, particularly in a leadership position. You have got to transcend what you think or feel and say what the situation requires of you.
Often, in these conversations, and we can get into fat conversations when I have workshops and long sessions, a lot of this requires unlearning. People are very dogmatic about this. They are very clear on what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s authentic and what’s not authentic, and that authentic is good and not authentic is bad. Can we get a bit more pragmatic in between the dogmatism and understand right and effective are not always the same thing? If you are in a place that matters to you doing things that matter, focus on being effective rather than being right.Focus on being effective rather than being right. Click To Tweet
You talk about stakeholder analysis being an important part of the equation. You need to sort out in that bucket of interpersonal relationships, who’s a friend, an ally, a foe, and an adversary. You even talk about somebody who goes through this exercise once a month, which is a disciplined way of thinking about it. It’s certainly probably more than what most of us are doing. Talk a little bit about why that stakeholder piece is so important.
For a number of reasons, but as a colleague of mine says, it’s about quieting your cleverness. What I mean by that is so many of us can see ourselves, our roles, our answers, and our skills as the center of the universe. If you brought me to do this job and asked for the answer and I’m giving you the answer, that should be enough. Coming back and amplifying the point you and I made earlier, it happens in a context. It happens in the context of vested interests. It happens in the context of different perspectives.
Particularly when you are being brought in to change something, if you think that the right technical answer is going to be enough to make people throw up their hands and clutch their hearts in gratitude that you finally come along to give them the answer, then you are woefully naive. You have to understand what the world looks like from other people’s perspectives and what’s in it for them. Even when they have brought you in to change things, how many times I have seen, “We need to change, but not me, not in this way. It’s them in that way.”
Unless you have the humility and curiosity and take the time and put in the energy to understand what’s going on for other people, the people who have the power to block or support what you are doing, you are going to probably hit your head up against a whole bunch of brick walls and won’t understand why. I can certainly think of times in my career when I was clear and right, but I didn’t take into account what people were going to lose by doing what I said. Guess what? They had more power to block what I was saying than I had power to make it happen, so it went nowhere.
The right answer and the effective answer. We can all probably look back on situations in our lives and say, “I told you so. I knew I was right.” At the end of the day, the question is why didn’t it happen then? It can’t just be because of them that they wouldn’t listen. That’s a piece that a lot of people, particularly people early in their careers, don’t get. You do not have to come up with the idea. You have to influence other people that it is the best idea. You have to make sure it gets implemented. Coming up with the idea is a theoretical exercise in the scheme of things.
You are putting it perfectly. You should write a book on this.
I don’t know that I’m going to try and write a book on politics, but certainly.
This is what somebody said to me. They said, “You know what they say about writing books, don’t you?” I said, “I don’t know who they are and I don’t know what they say.” They were like, “You write the book that you were meant to read.” I’m like, “That is exactly true.”
I can see that, too. You talk about leverage and the leverage equation in terms of how you have to figure all this out. You might have leveraged reasons that the other person might have leveraged. This gets a little bit into the linkage between how politics play out and the negotiations that go on. It would be great if you could maybe provide a little bit of color on that leverage piece and how it fits in.
A nice way to do that is to recount a conversation I had with a woman a few months ago. She was a delegate in our workshop. She said, “Could we have a coffee?” I said, “Sure.” We had a conversation about the frustrations that she was experiencing at work and how she was trying to convince these managers of what was going on and they wouldn’t listen. She tried all manner of technical ways of engaging them and wasn’t getting anywhere.
I said to her, “Do you remember the section on leverage?” She said, “Vaguely.” I said, “That’s part of the problem here. There’s more leverage that you have in this situation than you realize and you are not using it to your advantage. Let me be clear. I’m not saying cry wolf and I’m not saying throw your toys out the cot. What I’m saying is they came to you about this job, so they want you, your skills, and your reputation. That gives you leverage. You want to be there, but they need you more than you need them because your skills are scarce.”
“Secondly, you are a woman. This is an industry that is dominated by men. They recognize that this is a challenge and they want to address it. You are a woman with scarce skills in an industry that needs those skills and needs more women to have those skills. Thirdly, you are an Indian woman in a country like South Africa where affirmative action and employment equity are not opt-in. It is an illegal requirement because of the history of this country. A group of male, White, very smart, and decent leaders who are realizing that something needs to shift or wanting to make that shift are bringing you in as the vanguard of that shift, not as a token of exercise.”
“You have highly sought-after skills. All of these things are giving you leverage to start to push the agenda a lot more strongly than you are. You are trying to get them to understand it in the nicest, most diplomatic way. There’s plenty of space for niceness and diplomacy, but it’s not getting you anywhere. You need to start playing a little bit more hardball using the sources of leverage that you have to get them to understand that this is now becoming a go-no-go decision for you in terms of staying or not staying.”
“You are not crying wolf around this. You are getting them to understand with the leverage you have at your disposal quite why your voice matters and why your voice is different from the voices they have heard before, but that’s why it matters. You are getting them to want to listen to it because it’s now becoming untenable for you.”
You are hitting on probably a particularly sensitive example. The counterargument is, “I don’t want to get the job, or I don’t want to play the woman card or the person of color card. I want to get the job or get whatever on the merits, not because of gender or skin color.” Your argument is, “You should still be taking it into account in terms of playing the hand that you are dealt.”
You got the job on merits. You know what you are doing and you are technically highly sought-after. That was an entry to the game though. Anybody would have gotten the job on those standards by those requirements. What you bring in is they need you because of the package that you bring demographically. To ignore that would be as unwise as overusing it and thinking it’s the only thing you bring or having it be the only thing you bring.
You describe some mistakes that people make in terms of practicing politics. We don’t have time to cover all of them, but maybe 1 or 2 that you want to highlight in particular.
We don’t have time to cover all of them. Einstein, when he was asked, “What’s the difference between genius and stupidity?” his answer ostensibly was, “Genius has its limits.” When it comes to doing spectacularly stupid things to your career, I get more data points every week. The first one is around leverage.
Underestimating your leverage will be an opportunity cost. All kinds of things, like salary, promotions, and other opportunities will pass you by if you don’t recognize you have leverage and you don’t use it to amplify your position or your ask. Overestimating your leverage can come back to bite you. You may have all manner of power and all manner of influence, but you may not have as much as you think. If you are counting on having as much as you think and it’s less than, that can blow up in your face.
The second one is one that I made. I was talking about it not long ago so it’s top of mind. It’s when you become one person’s person. I very firmly hitched my wagon to someone once. He was the most astonishing leader I have ever met in all manner of ways. I made a mistake once when I said to him when he was on exco, “I don’t have the energy, bandwidth, or stomach to deal with the politics of exco. Can you run interference for me? Can you give me that air cover, and can you deal with them so that I can get on with the work?”
It was a mistake of me to ask and it was a mistake of him to say yes. What I should have done was ask for his help in building those relationships with exco because things change in organizations. He was the flavor of the month, and then suddenly, he got moved laterally. Suddenly, I had no support at exco because I didn’t have him there giving me that air cover. Had I wanted to hitch my wagon to his career for the rest of my career, then I would have followed him wherever he went, but I didn’t. It wasn’t feasible. What I should have done was have far more broad networks and far more support rather than counting on his support and him doing that for me.
That section resonated with me. I have a different situation where I would certainly look back and say that I overly hitched my wagon to somebody. I feel like in the scheme of things, I probably was putting in the effort to have relationships otherwise, but when this person did not cross the line but fell out of favor with the most senior people in the company, everybody around that person was damaged goods. If you didn’t have a strong support network, you were going to be collateral damage.
How that situation played out is what happened to me. It certainly taught me a lesson of being not overly connected to one person and trying to maintain that broad network because there are lots of ways of them moving as one. In my case, this person was forced into retirement because the road ran out. For the rest of us, it meant scramble.
You are right. Collateral damage is exactly it.
I have one last question on politics and then I want to spend time we have left on your background. With netting it all out, what are your overall recommendations to the people that you have in your workshops and otherwise about how to develop their political strategy?
I take it two steps back. You are never going to develop a political strategy if you don’t have political will. Bust some of the myths around this. The myth that you can either be a good person or play politics, no. There are many ways to play many kinds of politics. The myth is that you are going to escape when one celestial music starts to play and you will be in a place where you don’t have to do this, you will never be in that place, so start to get smart about it. The myth that this stuff doesn’t make a difference to your career, it makes all the difference, and so on.
If you can develop political will, then political skill is the next part. How do you start to get intentional about this? It doesn’t matter that you are an introvert. It doesn’t matter that this stuff doesn’t come naturally. You may well start as unconsciously incompetent and then you move to consciously incompetent. You can get better at this stuff. You then start to think about your strategy. It’s not necessarily linear. These things can happen in all manner of ways. They can go backward and forward. You are not going to develop that strategy if you don’t understand and broaden your horizon of something that you may have a very narrow understanding of.
That’s a good point. Let’s switch gears and talk about your background. You started at Monitor where you did a few years in consulting, and then you became CEO of the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa. That was at a pretty young age. How did you land that role?
I was at a very young age. I wouldn’t have hired me. How they hired me is anybody’s guess. I loved consulting, but I thought, to the point you made earlier, it’s the technical answers on the slides. That’s great, but I have a sense that it’s much harder to do than come up with the analysis. The false snobbery and arrogance of consultants persist. Consultants tend to think that they are the smartest people in the room and the people who make things happen or they are knuckle-draggers. I was approached about that role. It was networks. I said in a lecture that I didn’t look for a job other than my first one at Monitor. After that, they all came to me. The BWA was looking for somebody who could give it a go. I was spoken of highly, so off we went.
That’s pretty impressive. You were still in your twenties at that point, right?
You then went on to become the CEO of NOAH, Nurturing Orphans of AIDS for Humanity. That was a completely different type of nonprofit role. It must have been emotionally demanding given the breadth of the AIDS crisis in Africa.
It was. We were one of the largest NGOs. We were taking care of 30,000 orphaned and vulnerable children a day. Excess government grants, food, and all manner of things help their caregivers in very rural remote areas of South Africa. This was happening even in the city. The estimate was we had about one million orphan and vulnerable children in South Africa. That was just South Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa was facing a crisis.
On the face of it, it was very different. I wasn’t going to the opening of parliament. I wasn’t going to the budget speech. I wasn’t in the business press. Deep down, it was the same. It was people who cared deeply about what they were doing and were doing everything in their power to make things better for those around them. It wasn’t in a business context. It was in a community context. It wasn’t women with their MBAs from Harvard and Warton. It was rural community workers who may not have completed high school, but the values were the same.
I’m forever grateful that I learned the quality and the criticality of tough empathy, which is something that was spoken about in an article by Goffee and Jones years ago. The article was called Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? It’s a hell of a question. I only got asked that question in my 40s after being in leadership positions most of my life. They speak about this idea of tough empathy. I referred to it earlier as the power and the love.
You work with grandmothers who are raising grandchildren and child-headed households. We had 14 and 15-year-olds raising siblings. You can’t have deep care and love, but if it’s only care and love, I didn’t have a sustainable organization that was going to get funding year after year. I’m forever grateful that I learned that both are possible, toughness and empathy and compassion and accountability.
It’s akin to the expression, tough love. There is a both-and in there. You spent some time in those two nonprofits and then went into the banking sector. It was first with the Reserve Bank and then with a private sector bank. How was that part of your career, and how did it build on your experience and skillset?
I’m still trying to figure that out myself. I took a year off after NOAH because I could feel I was this close to burning out. I thought, “If I fall off a cliff and burn out, it’s going to take a while to put the pieces together.” I did nothing except decimate savings and read for a year. After a year, my fingers are itching to start working again and I’m ready to.
It was networks. The governor of the Reserve Bank, which is our equivalent of the Federal Reserve, our central bank, had known me at the businesswomen’s association. She was looking for people who could come in and help the central bank after the global financial crisis. All central banks had to rethink their culture. She was looking for people who had no experience in central banking because most people had been there their whole career and then spoke to me. I said, “You want somebody with no understanding of or experience of central banking? I’m perfect because I have no clue how this stuff works.” I was immensely proud to be there. It’s a very impressive place. I had three different roles from strategy to learning.
Your time at Standard Bank must have been a contrast going from public sector to private sector and regulator to regulated.
Anybody who has worked at the Central Bank will get the attention of the commercial banks. I particularly wanted to do work that wasn’t just South African. I wanted to do African and global work. Standard Bank is the largest bank by assets in Africa. It has operations in China, the UK, and all through Africa. I wasn’t clear that I wanted to go to a bank or Standard Bank at all.
I had five things that I was looking for. One was a more global role. Two was working with people I liked and respected. Three was having a role that was enormous and that if it worked was going to change things. I forget the 4th one, but the 5th one was I wanted to be a little bit scared every day. I’m not sure that I was going to be able to do it.
I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” A colleague came to me from Standard Bank and said, “This is what we are looking for. Like all your roles, it’s a blank piece of paper. There is no job description. You’d be the first one to do it.” That sends some people screaming in the opposite direction, but I love that. Give me a blank piece of paper and I will figure it out.
I like those kinds of roles, too. I have certainly taken some of them over the years. We are running out of time. We haven’t even covered other things. You run your consulting group. You teach. You write. You are a reserve police officer. You still do nonprofit work. You have done so many things and continue to do so many things. How are you able to get so much done without burning yourself out?
The flippant and easy answer is that I don’t have children. That makes a profound difference in how much time you have. I look at friends and colleagues of mine precisely that because they have children, they are able to accomplish even more. The deeper answer though is I haven’t ever done anything that felt like I have got to. Everything that I do, I get to. I get to do a PhD because I want to. Friends of mine are like, “Why do you need to?” That’s the point. I don’t need to. I want to. I get to take on a nonprofit role because I was given that opportunity. I get to spend a year reading. I got to spend four years backpacking after high school and figure out myself in the world and how it works at seventeen.
When you are pulled to do things and there are things in life and work that you can’t do or conversely that you can’t believe you get to do, that gives you energy. I don’t feel like I was ever pushed by my parents like, “You have to study,” or pushed by a manager like, “You have to get a degree.” I chose to do these things.
I intersperse my work with all manner of other things that give me deep joy. I travel a lot. I read. I spend time with the people that I love. This is a lot easier to do when you are self-employed. It was precisely because I thought I wanted to never fill in a leave form again and I want to be working into my 80s on my terms that I decided a few years ago, “I’m going to back myself. I’m going to work for myself.”
None of the roles that I took on ever felt like I was sacrificing anything. They felt like immense privileges. Suddenly, a few years ago, I thought, “If I take on another role no matter how enormous the scope and enormous the opportunity and do it now, it feels like I’m going to be sacrificing autonomy and variety in a way that feels like I will be sacrificing oxygen. I can’t, so I don’t.”
It’s good that you have put yourself in a position where you are able to do that, being self-employed and creating that whole ecosystem of things you are doing that allows you to sustain yourself financially and keep you going intellectually and emotionally. Do you have any final career advice that you want to share with our audience?
There was a Gloria Vanderbilt quote that was sent to me a while ago. What it said was she never knew what she wanted to do, but she always knew the woman she wanted to be. It reminds me of some advice I gave to a good friend years ago who had a very particular idea of her life with the type of person she’d marry, the type of work that she’d do, the type of place that she’d live, and all these things. It was a beautiful picture. We have known each other since primary school, so it had been a longstanding picture.
I said to her, “In my life, the one thing I have realized is don’t get too attached to the picture. Think about what you want to feel, and then be open to whatever picture that feeling comes in.” That’s as true about relationships and where you live as it is about the work that you do. We can attach to the labels. We can attach to the trajectory. We can attach to our parents telling their friends with immense pride what we do. Those things may well correspond to what you want to feel and the impact that you want to have, but when they don’t, focus on the impact and what you want to wake up feeling every morning. The form it comes in and the form that it takes may well surprise you.Don't get too attached to the picture. Think about what you want to feel and then be open to whatever picture that feeling comes in. Click To Tweet
Those are some good words of wisdom to close on. We had a heavy dose of office politics we covered and a bit about your background as well so the time went very quickly. I appreciate you taking the time. Thank you again.
I appreciate all the homework you did. I didn’t have any idea that you’d know so much about me, so thank you.
I try to come in prepared. Have a good rest of your day.
Thanks. You too.
I want to thank Niven for joining me to dive into organizational politics and discuss her unique career journey and some of the things that she’s learned along the way. There is a lot of wisdom in there right at the end. If you are ready to take control of your career, visit PathWise.io. If you’d like more regular career insights, you can become a PathWise member. It’s free. You can also sign up on the website for the PathWise newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. Thanks and have a great day.
- Niven Postma
- If You Don’t Do Politics, Politics Will Do You…
- Snakes in Suits
- Why Should Anyone Be Led by You
- The Innovator’s Dilemma
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About Niven Postma
Niven Postma is a strategy, leadership and culture consultant who partners with clients in diverse industries around the world, to (re)ignite the discretionary energy of people and teams, build an enabling culture and develop meaningful strategies. Niven’s career has spanned multiple sectors and roles, including being CEO of the Businesswomen’s Association, CEO of Nurturing Ophans of AIDS for Humanity (NOAH), Head of the South African Reserve Bank Academy and Head of Leadership and Culture for the Standard Bank Group, the largest bank in Africa.
Niven is the author of the best-selling book, If You Don’t Do Politics, Politics Will Do You. She is a Harvard Business Review and Inc. contributor, a part time tutor at Cambridge University’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) and has been a guest lecturer at Stanford University. She is an expert facilitator on women’s leadership development programmes around the world and serves as the Chairman of the Board of Cotlands, an organization that does cutting edge work in the Early Childhood Development sector in South Africa and beyond.
Niven holds an Executive MBA in Systems Thinking, a Postgraduate Diploma in Future Studies, and a BA in English Political Science. Niven was awarded with the Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowship in 2007, and she is currently in the final stages of completing her PhD. She has served as Reserve Police Officer for 2 years and lives in Johannesburg with her partner.