Interview with Bonnie Marcus: On How Political Savvy is Key to Promotion at Work

bonnie-800Vera: Congratulations on your book, ‘’Politics of promotion’’. There are many angles on the challenges related to promotion. Why did you zero in on the ‘’politics’ angle?

Bonnie: I focused on politics because women’s avoidance of politics in the workplace puts them in a vulnerable position. According to the Center for Work Life Policy (CWLP), 77% of women believe that their performance alone will get them ahead. However, it takes both great performance and political savvy to be successful. When women ignore the politics, they don’t have the strong relationships that will help them build visibility and influence. They are clueless to how decisions are made and who has the power and influence over their career trajectory. Politics is critical because you cannot build a successful career in a vacuum. It’s important to understand the rules, the culture, and who has the power and influence so that you can navigate and position yourself effectively.

Vera: When one gets promoted how do they stay ahead especially if they don’t feel prepared?

Bonnie: When someone is promoted they need to understand their new responsibilities as well as the politics, especially if they have a new reporting structure or new team. Understand the dynamics. What’s important to your new boss? What are the goals? How can you align yourself with the goals and add value to your boss, the business and your new team? Building strong relationships across the organization will help you get the information you need to do your job better, get access to much needed resources, and find allies and champions.

Vera: You are big on political savvy. What are some of the practical things women especially who are politically deficient can do to put themselves in line for promotion? 

Bonnie: I identify five political tools in my book that women need to learn to use effectively. The first, is authentic self-promotion. Identifying and articulating your value proposition helps you and others understand how you can assist the business reach its objectives. Next, it’s critical to understand the workplace dynamics. In the book, I offer a list of things to look for regarding the rules and unwritten rules, who has power and influence, and the culture. Building a strategic network of people who are willing and able to speak for you is also essential. Your network provides information about the politics and people, access to resources, as well as people who can be your allies and champions. A sponsor is one of the most powerful relationships you can have because sponsors advocate for you and take action on your behalf to create visibility and opportunities. An executive coach will give you an advantage as well because a coach is your partner to achieving your desired career goal. Besides enhancing leadership skills, a coach gives you an objective point of view on the politics and how to best navigate.

Vera: How does one keep self promotion positive and avoid it becoming an ego trip?

Bonnie: Self-promotion does not have to be ego based. In fact, that is bragging and when women lead with their ego it often backfires. Understanding your value proposition, or how your work adds value to the business and removes the egocentric approach. You offer to help others achieve their goals (your boss, your team) and help the business be successful by positioning yourself as someone who adds value. This way you are positioning yourself as part of ongoing business solutions not promoting yourself based on past accomplishments. In doing so, you can gain credibility and visibility.

Vera: ‘’Power’’ is the other asset that women are uncomfortable wielding. How can women develop a healthy relationship with power?

Bonnie: Personal power comes from understanding your value proposition and how your work contributes to positive business outcomes. It gives you the confidence to offer your opinion, speak up, and volunteer for opportunities because you know how you can help. Power also comes from having a strong network of relationships where you have established trust. These relationships help you sell your ideas and build influence across the organization. When you have that credibility, trust and influence, you have power.

Vera: You speak of the glass grid (rather than the glass ceiling) as the reason ambitious women get stuck. What is the glass grid, how does it hold women back?

Bonnie: We used to talk about climbing the ladder to leadership as if each career move we make is a logical step up. In reality, that’s not a typical career path. We often make lateral moves and sometimes need to take a step back before we move forward. It looks more like a grid or maze that we must navigate through, where we need to negotiate and strategize our next move. For women, this maze is filled with potential barriers due to gender bias and often these barriers are not visible (hence the glass grid) until we hit them head on. The best way to navigate through the grid is to be politically savvy, understand the workplace dynamics and build strong relationships.

Vera: Generally, a tough job market means that people are managing their career job to job rather than more strategically. What can career women do to develop and execute a better career story?

Bonnie: It’s important for ambitious women to think more strategically about their careers and be proactive rather than reactive. Start with identifying a career goal. Then figure out the best path to reach that goal. Build a network of people who can help you reach your objective. When you have a goal, it is easier to evaluate opportunities that present themselves. Does the opportunity help you move close to your goal? If not, how does it benefit you? What will it take to get from where you are now to where you want to be? What do you need in terms of experience and skills? With a strategy in place, you can create a plan and then execute that plan. If you decide to change your goal, you build a new strategy for that objective.

Vera: What tips can you share of how you’ve advanced you own career outside of a corporate environment that others can learn from?

Bonnie: Get clear on what your business is. What are your products and services and who is your target audience? Create a business plan and marketing strategy and stay focused and execute that plan. Understand that starting your own business has tremendous benefits but it’s not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of hard work, long hours, and capital. Make sure you have saved enough money to help you transition and build the business.

Vera: Sometimes people consistently rise in their career and then make a move that takes them backwards. What would be your advice to someone who finds themselves in such a position?

Bonnie: My best advice is to look for the lessons from the experience and move on. The more we fall into a victim mentality, the more we become paralyzed to take our careers to the next level.

Vera: When you look ahead to the future of women’s careers, what would you like to see and what specific concerns should women specific support address?

Bonnie: I would like to see equality in the workplace and we have a long way to achieving that. There are a variety of company initiatives to support women’s advancement, but many of them are not successful. To impact the statistics favorably, it takes high level leadership and commitment to change. Organizations need to address gender bias at every level and put effective programs in place that not only develop leadership skills but help women navigate the politics. Create mentor programs with the specific goal of having the mentor help their mentee learn the rules of the game. Create opportunities for high potential women to get sponsorship as well as a forum to meet with senior leaders on a regular informal basis to get the visibility they often lack due to organizational structure and politics.

Bonnie’s profile

Bonnie Marcus M.Ed. is a certified executive coach, speaker and author. A former corporate executive, Bonnie founded her firm, Women’s Success Coaching, in 2007 with the mission to help professional women promote and position themselves for success. Her latest book, The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead, provides a road map for women to navigate the complexities of their workplace to get the promotion they deserve. A contributing writer for Forbes and Business Insider, Bonnie has also been published in Entrepreneur, Women in HR, Reader’s Digest, Diversity MBA, and CIO Magazine. She has been featured in Fast Company, Fortune, Wall Street Journal, Inc., and Huffington Post. Recently honored as one of World’s Top 30 Coaches by Global Gurus, Bonnie received a BA from Connecticut College and a M.Ed. from New York University.