Regimes, Meritocracies, and Playing to Win
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” - Cersei Lannister to Eddard Stark, Game of Thrones, Season One
The seventh season of Game of Thrones premiered last night and one of the apparent themes is that it is time for women to take control. As regular GOT watchers know this is being driven by each woman’s story line, their rise to power, the incredible hardships they have endured and in part, by the fact that many of the male leaders have killed each other off. Who didn’t cheer Arya’s avenging of the Red Wedding, or Jon Snow actually inspiring gender equity by saying, “we cannot win the war with only half the people (i.e. men) engaged.” It’s worth noting that GOT haters point out that the series has portrayed too many women in roles as victims, prostitutes or as throwaway storylines. My goal is not to judge the moral character of the series but to use it to highlight a rarely discussed yet commonly demonstrated tactic in corporate America, which I will simply title as “The Regime Strategy”.
Regime - noun - the period during which a ruling system is in power. In Business - a particular way of operating or organizing a business; the regime in this office is hard work and more hard work.
The Regime Strategy
Simply put, corporate America is an on-going series of regime changes. We see this daily. A new CEO comes in and they are allowed to bring in their people. A company re-organization “re-sets” who is in what role, who do they report to and who gets promoted and who has to interview to keep their jobs.
For younger workers, it may be difficult to see the pattern. For corporate veterans, it is blatantly obvious. In most regimes, leaders pick their go-to-people and team members over time – this process starts early. Perhaps they worked together early in their careers, or on a stretch assignment, or were identified as a high potential employee, but make no mistake, the regime leader is mindful, calculating and has a plan. They have worked hard to build constituent groups in multiple areas and each time they have been given a new assignment they have pulled “their team” with them.
Looking for a regime in your company? Look at the people who were chosen for the past few big projects, maybe a merger and acquisition, opening a new office or leading a new brand launch. In sales and operations, note who is assigned to top ten customers and who is assigned to a declining channel?
The Regime Strategy and Women
Regimes are driven by a number of factors; however, two significant components are networks and sponsors. Why is this important to women? Research shows that women still aren’t making it to top leadership positions – despite the gains they have made in middle and senior management. While the factors will vary from company to company there are some consistent themes.
In her groundbreaking research, The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling, Sylvia Ann Hewlett found that the absence of male advocacy and the impact of sponsorship and most women’s failure to cultivate sponsorships hinder their rise into the highest levels leadership.
How can women overcome these obstacles?
· Reframe Meritocracy. Many women work hard and expect their boss (and associates) to realize and acknowledge their contributions. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Once you reach a certain level of the organization, performance is a given. Everyone’s results are outstanding and when performance is a given it is no longer a differentiator for promotion. Hard work alone is not enough to get you promoted if nobody knows and acknowledges your work.
· Rethink Networking. Women use their networks differently than men. While women have significantly broader networks than men they are hesitant to use them in a quid-pro-co way. Men are very mindful of building powerful alliances and they help to support each other in getting ahead. This is summed up in the Sponsor Effect Research:
- Women network to build relationships, men network to compete and win
Women need to rethink their aversion to getting ahead based on connections - it is not a “dirty tactic” that deflects from their hard work and talent but rather a demonstration of their leadership and recognition of their skills.
· Seek out Sponsors. Research has shown that to crack the C-Suite it is essential to have a senior-level champion who believes in your potential and is willing to advocate for you as you pursue that next raise or promotion. Men tend to garner more sponsors than women within their networks. It is incumbent on women to widen their networks and actively cultivate sponsors and for companies to encourage their senior leaders to actively sponsor women within the organization.
While there are a host of other factors that are important these three are of particular importance to women. To validate the regime strategy mindset I reached out to a female colleague who is a C-Level Executive with a Fortune 500 company for her thoughts.
JTH: Do regimes exist?
Yes. You might not recognize them early in your career, as you become more aware you begin to notice patterns; partners or managers having go-to people for interesting projects, premier clients, and challenging assignments. You might not label these patterns as regimes but perhaps as favoritism, politics or “the club.” These patterns exist and the relationships evolve over years and span career arcs.
JTH: What are watch points for women?
I encourage women (and anyone starting in their career) to be aware. Luck may give you a good starting point for gaining exposure to influential leaders. But being mindful and developing collegial relationships with senior leaders, co-workers, cross-functional liaisons, and rising stars will take you further. Your peer today could be the CXX of the future. Get to know them on a personal level, find common ground and continue to cultivate, authentic and purposeful relationships. In terms of effective networking and relationship development think quality over quantity, and it’s the trust and connections that will keep you on the radar.
How can women play to win?
Women need to be purposeful in building and expanding their networks. Nurture the relationships by being relatable and authentic. Combine that with brains/talent, and hard work and you will be positioned to effectively achieve your career goals.
Understanding regimes is critical for anyone who wishes to move ahead. While some may eschew this as “corporate politics” you need to know that this “Game of Thrones” is, in fact, being played by others in the company, and if you choose not to participate it will significantly impact your future and promotability. Those who do aspire to “The Iron Throne” in their companies are playing the game of business to win!
Jeffery Tobias Halter is a corporate gender strategist, the country’s leading expert on engaging men to advance women. Jeffery is the President of YWomen, a strategic consulting company and the author of two books, including WHY WOMEN: The Leadership Imperative to Advancing Women and Engaging Men.