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Office politics. It’s a concept so wrought with negative imagery that it causes many working adults, especially women, to cringe and turn away.

Bonnie Marcus, in her book The Politics of Promotion: How High-Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead, suggests that this reaction is based on an erroneous understanding of the concept.

According to Marcus, politics—the art of building and making effective use of relationships—exists inside and outside the workplace.

She argues that it is this ability to strategically network that marks the difference between a doer and a leader.

Many women, in particular, over-focus on the work, on doing a good job. Marcus notes the “usual” female practice to keep one’s head down and do a good job, expecting that people will come.

Sadly, as she amply demonstrates, the world really doesn’t function that way: “our work does not speak for itself.”

Marcus argues that women need to become politically savvy, understanding the environment in which they work and devising ways they can strategically network to raise their own value in an organization—in part by ensuring that key stakeholders are well aware of how they add value.

“Don’t leave [your success] up to chance.”

She advocates a two-pronged attack. Doing good work is, of course, essential. But additionally, a successful woman (or man, for that matter) needs a box of tools that will help with soft skills:

  • Self-awareness and ability to articulate her value proposition
  • Grasp of workplace dynamics, and where power and influence lie
  • Ability to cultivate ties to key interests and decision-makers
  • One or more sponsors to advocate on her behalf at crucial moments
  • Objective assistance to assemble the pieces

The central chapters of the book go in-depth to explain the tools and how to get them, often by building them ourselves. There are real-life examples of mistakes and success stories, often with all-too-familiar fact patterns.

To help readers get started, a “Political Skills Assessment” worksheet is provided.

Other helpful worksheets are sprinkled throughout the book, covering factors such as identifying power and influence around one and awareness of gaps in one’s attributes/skills/experience.

Interestingly, although this is, to some degree, a self-help book, one of Marcus’ key points is the importance of others to one’s success.

Not only do we need to get comfortable with quid-pro-quo networking and collaboration, we need sponsors to help us advance.

Additionally, we need what she calls GPS: an awareness of where we are and when we have gone off-course that is best provided by an executive coach.

She seems to be saying “you can’t possibly sort this out on your own; you need professional help.”

At the same time, Marcus’ uses of examples from her own career as an executive coach make this part of the book feel like an infomercial.

That notwithstanding, her practical points about knowing when to seek coaching, how to identify the type of coaching one needs, and how to identify the right coach, are all extremely helpful.

Although Marcus is particularly addressing typical career mistakes of women, much of the book’s content is applicable to both men and women as they develop their careers.

What’s more, many aspects of Marcus’ advice could be applied to operating successfully in any diverse workplace where one is not a member of its dominant culture, such as a non-Japanese in a Japanese workplace, or vice versa.

Vicki L. Beyer is a vice-chair of the Women in Business Committee of the ACCJ.
Marcus argues that women need to become politically savvy . . .