C-Suite Politics in the age of Zoom
Listen to Episode 183:
Episode 183 Transcript:
Pamela Harper: Like it or not, leading in the remote workplace has become part of the new normal. Find out how your C-suite politics can be impacted in the age of Zoom. Listen to episode 183 of Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper.
Chris Curran: This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated, enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of growth, on the web at Businessadvance.com. And now here’s Pam and Scott.
Pamela Harper: Thanks Chris. I’m Pam Harper, Founding Partner and CEO of Business Advancement Incorporated. And sitting right across from me, as always, is my business partner and husband Scott Harper. Hi Scott.
Scott Harper: Hi Pam. It’s great to join you again for another episode of Growth Igniters Radio. And, as always, our purpose is to spark new insights, inspiration, and immediately useful ideas for visionary leaders to accelerate themselves, and their companies, of course, to their next level of game-changing innovation, transformation and growth. Pam, we’re hearing from more CEOs and C-suite leaders these days that they intend to keep the remote workplace that has evolved during the pandemic in place. In fact, it could even be indefinite, in some form or other. The advantages are well-known, but there are real implications on how being indefinitely remote impacts business culture.
Pamela Harper: And this is particularly important in how it impacts C-suite politics. Of course, many C-suites have been spread out long before the pandemic. But the thing is, there were more opportunities to get together in person, both formally and casually, to develop these relationships. Now in the age of Zoom, those casual opportunities are less common, and quite honestly, largely nonexistent.
Scott Harper: And that comes with consequences.
Pamela Harper: That’s right. It’s a different game and yet it’s all too easy to navigate in familiar ways. So we need to stay aware of the critical differences in this dynamic. We also need to be aware of how this can impact our culture, our decisions and business results. To dig deeper into this with us is our guest today, Nancy Halpern, founder of Political IQ. She’s a nationally and internationally recognized leadership consultant and pioneer in the field of talent development who diagnoses political dysfunction in organizations. She leverages her thought leadership and intellectual capital from over 20 years of client engagements to help companies find solutions to the many challenges of office politics.
Pamela Harper: Her clients include the World Bank, Disney, Novartis, and many, many others. Nancy has been interviewed by a variety of media. And again, just a few, this includes the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Fast Company, National Public Radio and ABC and NBC News, and much more. You can find out all about this by going to Growthignitersradio.com, episode 183, and scroll down to Nancy’s bio.
Nancy, welcome to Growth Igniters Radio!
Nancy Halpern: Pam and Scott, I could not be happier than to be with you here today. Thank you.
Pamela Harper: This is quite an interesting topic. And it’s something that we talk about but a lot of people don’t want to talk about it. I imagine you have the same experience that comes up. What have you found to be the biggest cultural difference between the in-person C-suite politics and extended, distanced, indefinite C-suite politics, can’t say that, C-suite politics of today’s world?
Nancy Halpern: Well, I think the biggest cultural shift, or difference, that I’ve seen is actually a risk, and that risk is one of overconfidence in your leadership. It’s such a time of uncertainty and confusion. And when you’re in a time like that, leadership can often make the mistake of just relying on yourself and a contracted number of voices and input. So I think that, in some ways, although there’s been an expansion in our notion of work, there’s been a contraction simultaneously within cultures, forming these little pockets of cultures, which means there are a lot of blind spots. Being together is the glue that connects all those spots, and also the friction. But without that connection, you run a cultural risk of being even more siloed.
Pamela Harper: So when you say contraction, politics oftentimes has little factions and things like that. Is this more contracted than it usually is? Is that what you’re saying?
Nancy Halpern: I am. And I think it’s more contracted simply because you don’t have those exchanges. I think of it as a black market of information.
Pamela Harper: A black hole, maybe?
Nancy Halpern: Yeah. I guess it could be both, right? And I think that’s a really good point, Pam, because you have both. You have this black hole where information just gets sucked up and goes anywhere. And then when you’re all together, you have a black market where the real information. We always think of this in such, actually, dystopian terms. What’s the hidden agenda? As if there’s something evil.
Pamela Harper: Well, yeah. As a matter of fact, we, for a long time, and even when I wrote my book, I spoke about the formal culture, which is everything that’s official, everything out there, the speeches, the policy manuals.
Nancy Halpern: The procedures.
Pamela Harper: Exactly. All the formal things. And then there’s what really happens, which I was calling and still call the “informal culture.” And there’s a lot that goes into it. So what you’re talking about is the rise of the informal culture in some different ways, maybe.
Nancy Halpern: Yes. And yet I think that the informal culture has now become highly individualized, because if I’m working by myself, in my dining room, I now have this little microculture, don’t I, where there’s no division between work and life. There’s just me. And then I’m looking at your microculture. But as we know, that’s not really sustainable. That’s not how cultures exist. So the big question, politically, is, can you have a culture in the ether? What does that look like? Or how do you have culture when people aren’t interacting? And what happens to the energy and the zap in those interactions? Because that’s where the informal culture you’re talking about is built.
Scott Harper: So, what we’re saying is that in the absence of in-person, face-to-face, and as Pam said, C-suites, especially, have been dispersed for years. But there was always that in-person, the casual, especially the casual, interactions that allowed people to come together and create a greater cohesiveness. Hallway conversations are gone. Other unscheduled times are gone. And we have this fragmentation, often it’s unconscious, and there are real business impacts of this, right?
Nancy Halpern: Yes. Well, there’s a lot of business impacts. There are things like decision cycles. Can you still stick to the ones you had or the ones you were pushing for? There are business impacts in terms of missed opportunities, because if you believe there are blind spots when we can’t actually see each other, that means there are things that you’re going to miss that are on the horizon. The other one that occurs to me is going to be a very interesting business miss about expense control. Meaning, how are you going to figure out, navigating this politically, where you should cut costs if your business is threatened.
Pamela Harper: That’s an interesting point.
Nancy Halpern: Well, those decisions have a huge impact, not just on viability but on culture. And I’ve seen it play out, I’m sure you’ve seen it in a number of cases, where C-suites have come together to create strategy, and haven’t been able to really gel and be able to figure it out because everybody’s in their own little fiefdom. And it’s much harder. If you have the meetings or the in-person kinds of potential contacts, it’s worked out a lot easier. I think it takes longer in the age of Zoom, in some ways, to have those more considered strategic conversations.
Scott Harper: Well, it’s also easier to hide that conflict, or ignore that conflict, if you’re not together.
Pamela Harper: Right. Or have sidebar conversations with the rest of the team.
Nancy Halpern: Where’s the sidebar? Is it in the breakout room?
Scott Harper: The sidebar is in the phone conversation after you have the Zoom meeting.
Pamela Harper: Or before.
Nancy Halpern: Now in fairness, that’s always existed. But I think the challenge now is that everybody knew what was going on in the face-to-face world. You knew that Joe and Susan were cooking up a side deal. But now, how does that informal culture and information get shared within that C-suite community? You don’t know as much. And I think it’s that dearth of information. Scott, you made a really good point, or Pam, I don’t know which one of you. One of you, both of you, about, there have always been remote C-suites.
Pamela Harper: Right. Well, that’s our premise, C-suites are usually remote in many of the companies we’ve worked with.
Scott Harper: But they’re not necessarily remote from their part of the organization.
Pamela Harper: And they’ve also had the in-person opportunities so that, I know, and I’m sure you do too, I mean, we’re building relationships virtually based on maybe trust that was formed previously. It’s a different dynamic.
Nancy Halpern: It is. And I also think a lot of those remote, we used to call it remote, not virtual. And that’s revealing, because usually it was, that particular key talent did not live in the geography where the bulk of HQ was, let’s say. So they were worth it. There was something about that individual value. But that’s not what we’re talking about now.
Pamela Harper: No, it’s a different world. So I want to just sum up this segment and ask you, what is the most important principle, then, for successfully navigating the C suite politics of the Zoom age?
Nancy Halpern: I think it’s to be incredibly mindful and intentional about controlling misinformation. Most C-suite leaders think about controlling information. But now you have to control misinformation, fear, unfounded rumors, and the what, when and why you communicate. You have to have a laser-like focus on it.
Scott Harper: And building on that, the hidden information, the hidden stories that nobody’s talking about.
Nancy Halpern: It’s typically what you don’t know, and can’t see or hear, that can hurt you because you don’t know what you’re dealing with.
Pamela Harper: It’s living up in the cloud, isn’t it now. So we’re going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we’re going to speak more with Nancy Halpern about navigating the office politics in the C-suite, and especially, alliances. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: This is Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. We’re brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated. And as always, we focus on enabling visionary C-suite leaders to accelerate the momentum it takes to achieve game-changing innovation, transformation and growth.
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Pamela Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper — that’s me — and Scott Harper. Scott and I are talking today with Nancy Halpern, founder of Political IQ. Nancy, how can people find out more about you and your work?
Nancy Halpern: There are a couple of ways. They’re welcome to see me on LinkedIn, where I post regularly as Nancy Halpern. I tweet @NHalpern. And of course, there’s my website, Getpoliticaliq.com, where you can find links to my YouTube station.
Pamela Harper: Great. And you can also see more at Growthignitersradio.com, episode 183. We have links in resources as well.
So let’s go back to our conversation. This whole idea of the C-suite politics is, of course, filled with alliances. And now they’re virtual. So how do alliances change in the virtual C-suite?
Nancy Halpern: Well, of course, keep in mind that there’s very little data on this, since we’re living in a potentially not brave new world. But what I’ve seen happen, for my clients, is that they’re not really forming new alliances, nor are they necessarily investing in alliances that were a little more fragile. What they’re basically doing is staying with the ones they already have that are comfortable. And so before, as you were mentioning, you have a leadership team meeting, alliances can shift a little bit, even though they often seem like they can’t. But if you’re politically savvy, you’re intentionally figuring out where you need to invest a little bit, or make a transition. You’re not doing that now because you’re not getting all the information.
Nancy Halpern: The other thing that I’m seeing, however, is that there are these private conversations we were referencing before. And what can’t happen, typically, in that scenario is a three-way alliance. Alliances aren’t necessarily exclusively binary.
Pamela Harper: That’s true.
Nancy Halpern: There might be a subgroup that you really need, but you can’t really build that on Zoom, or on a three-way conference call. It’s much clunkier. It’s much clumsier.
Scott Harper: Is it possible to give an example without sharing the players?
Nancy Halpern: Sure. I was actually working with someone, not very long ago, who actually really needed an alliance. This is a European company. It has a primarily European leadership suite. But the emotional tension that is there right now for the C-suite, and I don’t think that can be discounted, though we haven’t touched it, there is this huge tension that goes on for them as well, was really fueling a conflict with an ally she really needed. So we had to come up with some ways to overcome that and build alliance, even though they had never had one before. And you can’t just go have a cup of coffee.
Pamela Harper: True.
Nancy Halpern: This may sound like auto fashioned advice. I’m hoping it’s a resurgence of the phone. You need to almost embrace a certain amount of planned spontaneity.
Pamela Harper: Aha. Planned spontaneity.
Scott Harper: And you can’t cause this with Slack, or with Zoom. And what we’re really talking about is all the stuff that happens that creates a feeling of trust and affinity and safety, because I’m not going to bear myself. I’m not going to share my thoughts, my private thoughts and my concerns, with someone I don’t really feel good about, or I’m not sure what’s happening on the other side of that Zoom call, or that Slack message, which is even worse.
Nancy Halpern: Right. I mean, no one drops into a Zoom call uninvited.
Pamela Harper: We hope not.
Scott Harper: Although there’s Zoom bombing. [laughter]
Pamela Harper: Yeah. I think Zoom tried to do something about that.
Nancy Halpern: It’s interesting. I’ve been picking up a buzz that this notion of vulnerability is actually going to be a key attribute for C-suite going forward.
Scott Harper: Oh, one hundred percent.
Nancy Halpern: But on the one hand, politically, you got to be really careful with that. Vulnerability doesn’t mean I’m going to display what my weakness is, but I still have to remain open. That’s a huge alliance building approach, vulnerability.
Scott Harper: And authenticity, yes.
Pamela Harper: Absolutely. And there’s more to it. For instance, you were talking about this idea of alliances and maybe more fragile and all. But when you could see each other at a meeting or at a retreat, and you had to do something with somebody else, you could at least begin to talk with them. And what I’m seeing is the door closes a lot harder in this age of Zoom, where somebody doesn’t want to talk with you, they make it impossible for you to get to them. And I’m seeing a situation right now where one executive is refusing to talk with another executive.
Scott Harper: “I’m busy. I’m busy.”
Pamela Harper: Right. “I’m too busy.” And the third executive is having to be the mediator. It’s a whole thing. And it’s something that I don’t think would be natural to see nearly as much in the in-person political environment.
Nancy Halpern: That’s a really interesting point. I think it’s always been there. That triangulation, of course, is not unusual politically. But it might have been, in a way, more accepted and less obvious. These kinds of political conversations are, I think, sadly, too often pegged on personality. Well, he’s just like that. But it’s not actually about personality. It’s about how people compete for limited resources. And it’s about how the organization is structured. Well, not to get too theoretical, but I think we’re redefining what it means to have an organization be organized. And nobody knows what the definitions are. So how could there not be politics in that situation? It’s just that we’re not quite sure what they’re all going to look like.
Pamela Harper: Well, there’s always politics. There’s always politics, it’s just whether you feel them or not. And especially when you’re at odds with somebody, or there’s some kind of power issue, that’s where you feel it. So, are there times, in the world of alliances, in this age of Zoom, when an alliance is no longer viable, is that what we’re saying, because face-to-face is not?
Nancy Halpern: Well, I think that… sorry, I’m pausing because I’m thinking which way do I really want to frame this? Look, no woman or man is an Island, even if we feel isolated. So you always need alliances, especially at that level because you have an initiative, or a program, or something, that you want to achieve. I don’t think assessing the viability of an alliance has actually changed much. In the great Venn diagram of life, what are the overlapping needs and wants? How can you provide something of value to the other? What do they have that you would benefit from? I think that the trick there, though, is gauging the other person’s influence in this new reality. An alliance you had may not be as viable, Pam, because that person has dropped out of the scene, or closed all their virtual doors. So actually, it’s probably a really good time to reassess the alliances you have versus the ones that you think you need right now.
Pamela Harper: Okay. Now we’re going to take another quick break. And then when we come back, we’ll speak more with Nancy Halpern, founder of Political IQ, taking what she just talked about and turning into immediately useful ideas for navigating C-suite politics in the age of Zoom. Stay with us…
Scott Harper: You are listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper, brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated, on the web at Businessadvance.com. Now, does this sound like you? You’re a visionary CEO, or C-suite leader, of an established company, and you want to leave a lasting legacy of good in the world. You also want your company to be the disruptor and not the disrupted, and you have a blazing need for speed. But in this constantly shifting business environment, there are so many new twists and turns you’ve never seen before. How can you and your organization take advantage of every opportunity faster?
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Pamela Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Over the last two segments, Scott and I have been talking with Nancy Halpern, founder of Political IQ, about C-suite politics in the age of Zoom. Nancy, remind us again, how people can find out more about you and all of your work.
Nancy Halpern: They can certainly follow me on LinkedIn as well as on Twitter, @nhalpern. And I would be thrilled if they went and took a look at my YouTube station on Political IQ. As well as the podcast, “Political IQ, wrestling politics to the ground,” is on iTunes, Stitcher, and Spotify.
Pamela Harper: You can also see more. Be sure to go to Growthignitersradio.com, episode 183.
So, this is the part of our podcast where we discuss the practical ways to bring the ideas we’ve been discussing to life. Why don’t we talk about the first immediately useful idea, and something maybe having to do with striking the right balance between being human and being business-focused, because that is a really hard thing for so many people.
Nancy Halpern: Yes. And I would say, for every C-suite leader, recognizing the definition of what it means to lead will be changing, because of the times we’re living in. So one thing to do, and to achieve that balance between human and revenue goals, let’s say, is to listen harder than you ever have before. And I would say, master the art of humble inquiry, meaning questions of curiosity versus questions of validation. Most American C-suite leaders tend to believe their role is to direct, to tell people what to do, that that’s what people look for leadership, or leaders, to emulate and be. And although that’s true, that has to be balanced with the fact that you should be chief learner right now, because no one has a crystal ball. Your job is to collect as much information as you can.
Scott Harper: So you’re not asking leading questions, you’re asking questions for which you don’t have answers. You’re not supplying answers.
Nancy Halpern: Yeah. And you know, Scott, why I think that’s really important, is you do want to strike that balance between I have positional authority and I’m confident, with it is okay, it’s psychologically safe in this leadership team for you not to know the answer, because right now no one does.
Scott Harper: Okay. Then we’ll work it out together. Co-creation creates a tremendous bond. Now, going with that, how can we deepen that trust, with colleagues at a distance, that it takes to do that co-creation?
Nancy Halpern: I think what makes a lot of sense now is, pick a colleague that you’re really not that close to. Just because perhaps you work functions aren’t in close alignment, or you see that person as an obstacle. And I would set some time with that person to chat, be it on the phone, be it via Zoom, to just talk about what’s going on. And I have found it is like, how can I put this? It’s like an ointment, or a balm, to start asking that person, how are you really? When people ask me now how am I? I actually say Corona fine, because it’s honest. I’m healthy, but I’m miserable. And so, I think, breaking this up, what are the big benefits of virtual politics right now in the C-suite? You can actually breakthrough that, whatever they call it, the fifth wall, the ice barrier, by starting with the human connection because every human being is going through something right now. And leading with that, actually, dials down defenses that might have felt like they were very strong for a very long time.
Scott Harper: So you have to be comfortable with finding out how somebody really is. And some people aren’t.
Nancy Halpern: No, even if you don’t want to know, I think you should start learning how to ask.
Pamela Harper: Well, that’s true. Now, would this also be true in your experience globally? I mean, different cultures have different ways of connecting. Although this is primarily US listeners, we do have listeners all over the world.
Nancy Halpern: Well, I think you have to always remember, as Peter Drucker said, that culture eats strategy for breakfast. And that’s as true of your national culture as it is of an organizational culture. For all your global listeners, they will know better than I ever could of any other culture, what works best in that culture to form that kind of relationship. For those working across cultures, who might be unsure, and we can certainly put this in the notes for the podcast, there is a great, great book called Leading Across Cultures. It’s the third edition, and it is like the size of a doorstop. But it’s all about how business is done in different cultures according to some set parameters, communication, meetings, relationship building, negotiation. It’s a Bible for me.
Pamela Harper: Wow. And it applies in the virtual world, in the virtual cultural kinds of things. We will definitely put a link to that as well. So we have a couple of immediately useful ideas, and it includes getting familiar with how to ask questions and be human. What’s a third thing that would C-Suite leaders more successfully navigate office politics in the age of Zoom?
Nancy Halpern: That’s a great question. Because of course, once again, the answer has been, I don’t know. So, it’s up to you to roll out within your organization, because you are still shaping culture. Culture is a living animal.
Scott Harper: Of course. Consciously or unconsciously.
Pamela Harper: That’s right. It always exists
Nancy Halpern: Like it or not, you’re going to have one.
Scott Harper: So, be intentional.
Nancy Halpern: Exactly right, Scott, otherwise it just happens. So, see if you can roll out a new normal of having small group meetings across functions, or across geographies. If you need two to get the ball rolling, have some questions you ask, or have some rookies in that group who are prepared to talk about something. Make it about, maybe, a new business initiative. Maybe it’s around a news announcement. Maybe it’s just checking on everyone’s wellness and mental health, if people are comfortable talking about that, or if not, how are their kids doing? Just dial down the performance pressure on it, and up the human connection, but in ways that people may not have always been making because of their otherwise functional or geographic differences. It also, frankly, not only builds a stronger culture through community, it gives you information that now you’re really not hearing.
Pamela Harper: That’s so important. I do think one of the things that’s important to add to this, maybe it’s an and, is if you are going to be communicating with people who are in all kinds of different places, make sure the technology can really connect to everybody. I’ve seen too many instances of people being frozen out of important C-suite meetings because their technology did not work. You have to allow for that.
Nancy Halpern: I think it’s a great, I was actually just speaking with someone, who does a lot of work for the World Economic Forum, about the future of work. And he was suggesting we all be enormously open to technology coming down the road. Not about our jobs being filled, but about technology enabling ease of work. And that what’s been happening is going to totally speed that up. So, I would say this is a time to, at the C-suite level, explore and invest no matter what you end up doing about commercial real estate. You want to look at how you can enable connections, not just productivity, but connections, because that will drive productivity.
Scott Harper: And going beyond technology back to the previous point. If someone is communicating with you remotely, with Zoom, Slack, whatever, if you take the time to express appreciation. That’s important for me to know. I really appreciate that. You’re going to get more of it. If you just take it in, you’re going to get less.
Nancy Halpern: True. I appreciate you…
Pamela Harper: Well, we appreciate you too. So, what are some final thoughts you can leave us with about C suite politics in the age of Zoom?
Nancy Halpern: I would keep in mind Thanksgiving. And what I mean by that is that you may not be with your family every day. Your family may be far-flung, but we all know when you sit around the Thanksgiving table, together, not virtually, there are always politics in families. And so, why would it be any different with work? Because those politics with your family are there, whether or not you’re together. So leverage what you know. At the C-suite, you know instinctively how you negotiate with siblings or parents or children. Bring some of that wisdom into the work you do on, off virtual, and truly in the organization because politics are not necessarily evil. Conquest can be evil, but politics are with us on the camera or off the camera. Accepting that, and making sure it helps the business grow, will have a major impact on success.
Pamela Harper: Nancy, thanks so much again for being our guest on Growth Igniters Radio.
Nancy Halpern: Thank you for having me.
Scott Harper: Thanks Nancy. And thanks to you out there for listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To check out resources related to today’s conversation, share on social media, read Nancy’s bio and the episode transcript, or open a conversation with us, go to Growthignitersradio.com, select episode 183.
Pamela Harper: Until next time, this is Pam Harper…
Scott Harper: And Scott Harper…
Pamela Harper: Wishing you continued success, and leaving you with this question to consider.
Scott Harper: How have our C suite politics evolved in the age of Zoom? What am I going to do to navigate those more consciously?