Social Capital and Corporate Politics


One of the challenges I face frequently in my role as an HR leader is rallying support and organizational buy-in for big HR change initiatives. At the beginning of this year, my company made a major change in our employee health benefits plan. The process of getting the buy-in to make that move was much more complex than simply creating a proposal and presenting it for approval. As anyone will tell you who’s gone through this kind of process, it’s always more complicated to get approvals for a change initiative than it would seem because people make decisions for a lot of different reasons and not all of those reasons are rational. To navigate through these processes successfully, the social capital you have available to you in the form of key relationships and trust is critical.
I’m going to propose the following categories of people who are key players in the politics of decision making within organizations. To be successful in driving change organizationally, it’s important to know who these people are in your organizations and establish a relationship with them. So, here are the players:
The Don. As in the mafia, there is generally one (maybe more) person who all decisions ultimately go through. They may not dictate any projects get approved, but they generally have no qualms about squashing one. In most cases, it’s the CEO but I can also be a CFO or another powerful executive. The challenge with the Don is that they may not overtly make decisions but generally everyone knows that nothing moves forward without their blessing. This relationship can be a tough one to establish, but once you have it, running concepts by this person early in the process can save you a lot of time and anguish.
The Inner Circle. These people are generally those who have positions of great power organizationally due to the nature of the business and the preferences of the CEO. If you are in an operationally driven organization, the senior person or people in Operations likely yield a lot of influence on what gets done because no one wants to upset the machine that produces all the revenue. Likewise, in a sales driven organization, it’s the sales leaders, etc. In many organizations, the CFO is of the inner circle because they are deemed to be the person in charge of pursestrings. They often wield a lot of power relative to what projects get resources and what projects don’t. In my experience, these people are fairly easy to identify because they are typically pretty visible and their departments get talked about a lot. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because an individual is a member of senior leadership that they are in the inner circle, because that is not always the case. As an HR leader, it is critical that you establish relationships with these people because nothing gets done without their support.
The Influencers. There are people throughout the organization who are very smart, capable leaders who get called on to provide opinions and insights by senior leaders. These people may not be around the executive table when a decision is being formally rendered, but they have likely played a key role in influencing what decision is being made. In my experience, these people have been the Director of Finance, VP Marketing, the sales person who manages the largest customers, etc. Pay attention in corporate meetings, these folks will be called upon for opinions and thoughts. Also, ask your peers who has the most influence on decisions and quickly a list emerge of the people you need to know.
The Loose Cannons. In every organization, there are also people who may not be established as influencers, but who have big enough leadership roles in the organization to have a voice with senior leadership. The Loose Canons among that group are those who want to have their voice heard in every situation, whether they have anything of value to say or not. While they are not likely to help you get approval for your project, if they don’t like the idea, they can get really noisy and defiant against it which might hurt your chances for approval. The key with the Loose Canon is to have a relationship so that you can keep them in the loop in the decision making process. If they feel like you are honoring them in your process, they are much less likely to stand in the way of your project.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of all the players in the internal politics of corporate decision making, but I think that if you identify these people and work to establish relationships with them, you will amass some powerful social capital to assist in making things happen as an HR leader.

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