Can Politics Be *Positive*?

August 9, 2021

I was recently speaking to a frustrated member, Sarah, who had started a new job two months ago as Chief Product Officer and is now in the middle of a tough situation.

A peer on the management team, Bill, keeps trying to grab some of her organization. 

In fact, this began the very first week of the new job.

Sarah initially asked the CEO to delay this change until she could take some time with her teams and make a recommendation.

This group Bill wanted was a key part of her product organization (I’m not giving specifics to maintain confidentiality). So, not surprisingly, several weeks later Sarah decided to keep the team and explained her logic to the CEO.

The CEO agreed, but Bill has continued to lobby for moving the team under him.

Sarah doesn’t like politics and had basically decided to not play these games with Bill. 

But sticking her head in the sand is not working and she’s worried so she called me.

I have a version of this conversation frequently. 

There are many of you who think can opt out of the political game.

That’s a mistake. 

In human institutions, there will be politics. 

We humans are fundamentally a social species – and with that comes politics. So, if you think you are not playing, then you are being played. 

And that is exactly what’s happening to Sarah. 

So, I asked her four questions:

– Do you know what is motivating Bill? 
– Do you know whose opinion your boss really respects?
– Are there others on the management team that share your vision for the product organization?
– Are there Board members you can build relationships with for advice and counsel?

She, however, was still feeling reluctant to “be political.” 

I challenged her on that and asked if she’d be open to the idea of what I call “positive politics” – i.e., building allies and advocates not on behalf of a power grab or narcissistic goal, but on behalf of building great products for customers and moving the company forward. 

Sarah liked this idea and had never considered that politics could be positive.

Yes! Politics is not necessarily or always negative. 

So, I asked the four questions above again and we talked about them (see the conversation below my sig for more details).

All of you need to spend time playing positive politics.

Be open-hearted and non-judgmental. Really learn who people are and what they care about – including your boss and peers. 

Apply your customer research and discovery skills internally

Lead with curiosity. Ask questions. 

If someone does something idiotic, ask “why” without rancor. 

Ask for help always (of course!). 

Build allies and advocates. 

Emphasize “we” over “I.” 

Demonstrate a focus on customers and teams. 

Be loyal and decent, and play for the greater good. 

But do all of this with a deep sense of the political landscape, with allies who can help you, and with clarity and continued advocacy about what YOU want. 


P.S. I’m piloting a three session “Positive Politics” roundtable to help members learn how to play politics in a new way. If the pilot goes well, I’ll open this up to more CG Council members.

P.P.S. Here’s the optional appendix with more details. 

Appendix — More Details on Conversation with Sarah

Once Sarah understood that she could play politics in a positive way, I asked these four questions again and we talked about them.

– Do you know what is motivating Bill? 
– Do you know whose opinion your boss really respects?
– Are there others on the management team that share your vision for the product organization?
– Are there Board members you can build relationships with for advice and counsel?

We began by talking about Bill.

She admitted that did not know what was motivating Bill. 

I helped her see that she needed to get closer to him. 

I suggested she ask him more “whys” and not assume he’s just making a power grab (he could be – but more often than not, there’s a different reason behind this kind of behavior).

I shared with Sarah that just like gravity increases when two bodies get closer to each other (according to classical Newtonian physics), understanding, compassion, and kindness increases the closer you get to someone (unless they are truly evil).

Sarah liked that concept and agreed to stop judging Bill (at least for the moment) and see if she can understand him better. 

As to the second question, Sarah said that while she did know whose opinion her boss really respected – Samantha’s – she had not yet built a relationship with Samantha. So, she agreed to get going on that. 


Not enough of you do this. Find out who your boss really respects and build a relationship with them. Do this to do good. Hopefully, they will back-channel to your boss positive things about what you are attempting to do. 

For the third question, she said that there was a longtime senior leader in the company who had really lobbied to have her role created. Yet, she had not worked to cultivate that relationship.

Positive politics is about relationships and building allies and a “movement” if necessary to get good things done. So, see if you can turn this other senior leader into an ally.

Sarah also told me that one of the investors and Board members had also lobbied hard to hire an experienced Chief Product Officer like her so she realized she could do more to cultivate that relationship (but carefully – i.e., not to go behind the CEO’s back, but just to continue to build her allies and advocates).

I was a grassroots community organizer before I got into business and that taught me a lot about the power of positive politics, which I have used everyday ever since to build everything including this community!

Recent Talks and Activity Recordings

  • Clubhouse and the Audio Revolution (not recorded)
    Jonathan Ehrlich, Partner, Foundation Capital
    Talk Type: In the Moment 
    Audience/Roles: All Roles
     Two things to know about Jonathan Ehrlich:
    1) he co-led the seed round in Clubhouse and was thus the first venture capitalist to spot its potential;
    2) he’s a Councils alum with an interesting career arc.We held an informal conversation with Jonathan about Clubhouse, the future of audio, and Jonathan’s career journey from a mostly offline retailer in Canada to relocating to Silicon Valley and reinventing himself.—
    —Jonathan Ehrlich is a Partner at Foundation Capital who invests in early early-stage consumer, marketplace, commerce, and SaaS startups and technologies. He joined Foundation Capital in 2013 as a partner after spending nine months with the firm as an entrepreneur-in-residence. Before joining Foundation Capital, Jonathan spent 17 years as an operator during which he founded three companies, built a $100M+ revenue business, and ran marketing for Facebook. He is the first institutional investor in Clubhouse and currently sits on the board of Bulletin and Chord. His Foundation and personal investments include Shelf Engine, Mainstreet, Truepill, Hooked, WayUp, League, Front, and Flexport. When not working, he can be found on his bike or chasing his four kids around.
  • No Ego, Part 2 (not recorded)
    Cy Wakeman, Best-selling Author and CEO
    Talk Type: Leadership Development, Culture
    Audience/Roles: All Roles
     We had a follow-up session with Cy last Friday that was amazing. We did NOT record it due to confidentiality. We will be planning more.

    In the meantime, you can watch the spring keynote with Cy, which was a GREAT session. Members loved it. I collected live case studies from members, which I anonymously shared with Cy to get her reaction on what was to be done. You gotta watch to see her great answers.

    Cy Wakeman is a drama researcher, global thought-leader, and New York Times best-selling author who is recognized for cultivating a counter-intuitive, reality-based approach to leadership. Backed by over 20 years of unparalleled experience, Wakeman’s philosophy offers a new lens through which employees and executives alike, can shift their attention inward, sharpen their focus on personal accountability, and uncover their natural state of innovation simply by ditching the drama.

    Deemed “the secret weapon to restoring sanity to the workplace,” Wakeman has helped companies such as Google, Facebook, Viacom, Uber, NBC Universal, NASA, Pfizer, Johns Hopkins, Stanford Health Care, Keurig Dr. Pepper, AMC Theatres, White Castle, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and countless others learn to navigate our rapidly changing world using good mental processes to harness energy wasted in workplace drama and reinvest that effort into achieving profound business results.
  • Battle Buddies – A Way to Support Your Teams
    Craig Hopkins, CIO, City of San Antonio
    Talk Type: Leadership Development; Skill Builder/Practitioner
    Audience/Roles: All Roles

    We ran a short QnA-focused webinar with Craig to introduce an idea that has taken off in his org, the City of San Antonio, where he is the CIO.It’s called Battle Buddies. So, what is a Battle Buddy?Adapted from the US Army, a battle buddy is a partner assigned to an employee in an organization who is expected to assist his or her partner.Even though we are not in military combat, Craig says our corporate responsibilities can feel just as stressful and overwhelming at times.A battle buddy is not only intended for comradery and support, but also to help reduce stress, provide professional and leadership guidance, and at times, get into the trenches together to get things done. Since we will each be watching each other’s actions, we are all battle buddies to each other, as partners and as a leadership team, driven by our mission while adhering to our Core Values.Craig talked about how this has worked in his organization and how to set it up in yours.
  • JTBD in Large Distributed Environments
    Jay Haynes, Founder & CEO,
    Talk Type: Product; Skill Builder/Practitioner
    Audience/Roles: All Roles

    Jobs To Be Done has proven to be an effective methodology for building much better holistic end-to-end products and customer experiences.

    *But* CG Council member companies with large distributed environments are finding it difficult to apply JTBD in effective ways.

    Jay Haynes, CEO of thrv, and a global expert on JTBD will come and speak to the Councils community on this specific challenge of using the methodology in large, complex technology environments.
  • Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products
    Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin, co-Authors of Groundwork
    Talk Type: Product
    Audience/Roles: All Roles

    Product leaders are all too familiar with the one to two-year period it typically takes to train and coach PMs. Product leaders hire smart people and then work with them individually, guiding them through how to think about product management, and watching them develop. Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin wanted a much faster way to help cultivate efficient and effective product managers that consistently create products that delight customers, regardless of the industry, the environment, and the development methodology that the team employed. They took years of experience as product executives and working with hundreds of teams as product coaches to create a framework to Get Better at Making Better Products.

    The design philosophy and methodology behind Groundwork was created to help product leaders be confident that their teams were committed to solving the right customer problems, minimizing costly rework by using individualized needs, and leveraging actionable personas in big and small product decisions. Vidya and Heather want Groundwork to help product teams have a much higher chance of success in the market—and help every product manager shine.

    Join Vidya and Heather as they share the background, principles, and methodology behind the Groundwork to help you, and your team, get better at making better products. 
  • Making the Case for Empowering Your People
    Marty Cagan, Partner, Silicon Valley Product Group
    Talk Type: Product, Leadership Development, Culture
    Audience/Roles: All Roles

    From Marty: “I have long been interested in the difference between how the best companies work, and the rest. Working with both types of organizations for so many years, there are many differences ranging from culture to process to staffing to roles to techniques. But at its core, strong product companies empower their people, and most of the rest do not. My focus over the past few years has been tackling this issue head-on, which means the product leadership. In this talk, we’ll discuss why this model consistently yields better results, and what’s necessary to transform to work like the best.”

    Marty’s Bio: Marty Cagan is the founding partner of the Silicon Valley Product Group, which he created to pursue his interests in helping others create successful products through his writing, speaking, advising and coaching. Before starting SVPG, Marty served as an executive responsible for defining and building products for some of the most successful companies in the world, including Hewlett-Packard, Netscape Communications, and eBay.As part of his work with SVPG, Marty advises tech companies of all sizes and stages, stretching far beyond Silicon Valley. Marty is the author of the industry-leading book for product teams, INSPIRED: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love, and the upcoming book EMPOWERED: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products. Marty is an invited speaker at major conferences and top companies across the globe.
  • See talks from the last month and beyond here.​

About the Author

Phyl Terry

Phyl Terry, Founder and CEO of Collaborative Gain, Inc., launched the company’s flagship leadership program – The Councils – in 2002 with a fellow group of Internet pioneers from Amazon, Google, and others. Thousands of leaders from the Internet world have come together in the last 15 years to learn the art of asking for help and to support each other to build better, more customer-centric products, services, and companies.

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