Playing Positive Politics

March 16, 2022

The theme for our hybrid spring meetings (yay — finally back in-person!) is what I call Positive Politics. 

Below is a story I tell about Bitter BJ, a product leader who was cynical and bitter two years ago and nearly quit. 

But he decided to play Positive Politics and that changed everything.

Whether you are an individual contributor, a CEO, or a VP of Product like BJ, you can decide to play a different game.

Take a look at BJ’s story and let me know if you’d like to play (or already are playing) some Positive Politics.


Bitter BJ and the Big Tech Company

BJ, a senior leader in a Big Tech company, just last week got promoted to a major role. It was a major achievement that is going to help that company build much better products.

But, two years ago things looked very different. BJ was frustrated. 

His efforts to build a better product management culture – and the subsequent improvement in the products he was shepherding – had gone unnoticed.

Even worse, people with sharper elbows and worse products were moving ahead and getting promoted. 

This not only frustrated him, but demoralized the teams of people who worked for him. 

They thought he was a great leader – humble, focused, ambitious for the team, and customer-oriented.

But the company did not seem to value him which made them think, “If they don’t value BJ, then what future do I have here?”

BJ didn’t like playing politics, which is understandable, but it meant he kept getting played making him and his teams unhappy.

So, we started talking.

I told him that if he were willing to be patient and play some long-term Positive Politics, then he could probably make an impact.

He agreed to give it a try.

I asked him what change he wanted to bring to the company, customers, and his colleagues. 

This is important. 

Playing positive politics includes getting a promotion for yourself, but it needs to be anchored *not* on you, but on a bigger change you want to bring to the organization.

BJ answered that he wanted to complete the work of transforming their product culture. 

Good — we now had a campaign goal. 

With that, we moved to the political mapping exercise.

I asked him a series of questions about his boss, boss’ boss, peers, direct reports and over the next two years we had periodic meetings where we’d update the map and talk about the relationships and what he was doing to strengthen his allies and neutralize his blockers.

He had a narcissistic boss, but we learned how to work with that person – after all, if BJ got promoted it would make the boss look and feel good. 

He had a direct report who seemed to be playing negative politics so we found ways to work around that. 

There were many frustrating moments – especially a year ago when several more of his peers were promoted, and he wasn’t.

He nearly quit.

He could quit, I pointed out and I’d be happy to help him look, but I did not think his campaign was done.

So, he hung in there. 

Then about two months ago some signs started pointing to a big promotion.

For example, BJ was asked to meet with a Board member, which was a key step in getting promoted to that next level.

Interestingly, in preparation for that meeting, BJ told me he felt humiliated about his career at the company – that he should have been further along and that this Board member would see he was not worth promoting.

Yes, the old impostor syndrome was alive and well.

I helped him reframe his narrative about his career and, luckily, he heard me. 

BJ walked into that meeting humble and confident – and clear about what he and his teams had done.

Then about two weeks ago when it became clear that the promotion was going to happen, he became concerned that it would be too much about him and his team would be left out.

I reminded him that his promotion will be seen as a win for his team and all the people across the company who share his commitment to revamping their product management culture and process – that all the allies, mentors, mentees, and others would see this as a win for *all of them.* 

And that’s exactly what happened. 

When the official announcement was made *hundreds* of people from all over the company reached out with excitement about his promotion and their collective win. 

This is Positive Politics in action.

This is a fellow CG member who was cynical and frustrated finding a way to lead a campaign of positive customer-focused change. 

This was not easy and now BJ faces a new set of challenges as he learns to work with a new peer group and run a larger organization. 

So, we enter a new stage in his Positive Politics campaign, but now he has a strong cohort of allies and advocates, as well as a larger stage from which to play. 

And, perhaps, most importantly, Bitter BJ is no longer bitter.

P.S. Here’s a picture of me and my sister celebrating our mom’s birthday last week. Our mom died 10 years ago and longtime readers know it was Chic who taught me how to build Councils (she started the first one in 1960) and ask for help. 

Long live Chic!

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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