Hey all! I'm hanging out in Chișinău, Moldova right now. My wife's family comes from the area, so we're visiting with extended relatives and friends. We came here from Portugal, where we'd spent a bit over a week with my parents, touring the southern part of the country. I'm fortunate to have the ability to spend so much time with my parents, particularly since we live pretty far away from them.

I hope you're all having a fantastic week!

Update - I'd felt that my tongue in cheek explanation of how to "win" at politics would be seen for what it was. An examination of how some people actually do advance their careers. It is a list of things which can help you succeed, by playing the game better than you co-workers. But it isn't a recommendation for how to behave. It's not something I'd advocate. And I hope you can see the difference :)

I have written more than a hundred articles in my newsletter so far. I've written on topics ranging from cognitive diversity, to the working backwards process, to career growth for engineers.

What's the most common negative feedback I receive on LinkedIn and my articles? That I'm not being realistic or honest about how leaders get ahead.

  • "This is an optimistic view of things. Companies don't work that way. People only optimize for politics."
  • "That's not how my organization in Amazon behaves. People just stab each other in the back."

Here's my perspective. People can get ahead in a variety of ways.

  1. You can honestly accomplish your projects, or you can focus your energy on making it look like your team is successful.
  2. You can honestly manage your team member's careers, or you can focus on keeping them happy while making sure your management thinks you're a good people manager.
  3. You can try to turn your work relationships into win/win scenarios, or you can figure out how to simply win at all costs.

While working for a corporation (mostly Amazon), I was personally motivated by doing what I felt was the right thing. If anything, I got a rush from doing something personally risky, knowing I could get into trouble for doing it, but doing it anyway because I felt it was morally right (breaking the rules).

Yet, I don't claim to have blinders on. Anyone competent can see how the internal games are played. You get ahead by being aware of those games, regardless of how much you actively participate in them. Although, I do feel that you'll have more success in the long run if your co-workers respect you. I found it hard to respect those who played too many games.

I thought that for once, instead of giving my personal optimistic view of how to grow your career (one in which you can be proud of yourself), that I'd give the other side of the story.

Read on to understand how managers get ahead by playing the political games. This isn't simply about Amazon (since people and corporations are similar everywhere), but that's where I spent the majority of my management career.

Keep your team busy.

Busy people look important. The first requirement for a leader is to look influential and involved in everything. Just like a busy restaurant looks like the place you want to eat, a busy leader is the leader you trust with more work.

As a leader, you look busy when your team is busy.

Busy organizations also need more headcount. If your team seems super busy, then you'll be able to justify growing your organization. You know that promotions come from growing your team size. You certainly can't do that if you can accomplish your projects with your existing team.

Therefore, your first order of business is to make sure your existing team is busy. Or at least looks busy. And you don't want them busy on easily cancellable tasks. How do you defend what they're currently working on?

The more line items, the better.

If you say that you have 7 people on Project A, it suggests to me that we could lower that to 6 people and keep making progress. It's far too easy to slim a large project.

If instead you had .25 people on a security review, .25 people on a workflow update, .25 people on load testing.. that's much harder to touch. As your manager, I can't decrease the size of those investments, since they're already tiny. And now I need to deal with deciding if each of those individual line items make sense. That's more work, and I'm more likely to give up.

Know what are defensible areas.

You need to recognize what areas are viewed as the top priority. These include the usual suspects of things like on-call, security, and (minimal) operations to keep the lights on. This also includes the top projects of the year.

As much as possible, ensure that you're always allocating the majority of your team to these defensible areas. If your organization has a list of 40 projects, and you have people allocated to projects lower on the list, do something about it! Decrease those investments as much as you can justify. In fact, it's probably useful to pretend to be proactive about decreasing your investments. Because if you're proactive, then you're less likely to be messed with.

"I know we had 2 people allocated to Project 39. However, our top-priority project is critical, and we ran into some unforeseen issues. I've proactively decreased our investment in Project 39 to allocate more people to that top-priority project. I think we can still hit our dates, but we're only allocating a bare minimum of half a person's time into the project."

See what you did? You increased your investment in the critical project, defending more of your team from re-allocation. You mentioned some unforeseen issues, justifying why you need more people on the critical project. You called your new investment in the low-priority project "bare minimum", and it's already small, so you're probably safe there.

Should you worry about what your people are actually doing? Not really. Keep them working on making sure your team doesn't miss any high visibility dates, and you'll most likely be fine. It's rare when anyone would check what people are actually doing, vs what they're doing on paper. The reports to your leadership team are what matters.

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