Profits or Politics: Where’s Your Company’s Focus?

On paper, Bryce was a rock star.

In person, Bryce was a costly mistake.

When Bryce strolled through his company’s headquarters sipping his gourmet triple latte and waving to the little people (as he dubbed them), every front line employee noticed. They snickered at his confident strut leftover from his days fronting a band. They recognized his disdain for real work. And they were appalled by his self-serving power plays. Sure, Bryce flashed plenty of smiles. He slapped high fives and offered up empty promises like a candidate running for mayor. But poor follow-through was Bryce’s legacy. He seldom kept his word. In short, Bryce was a leadership disaster!

How does one spot an emerging “Bryce” before his decisions crater your company?

Here are five ways to detect a political player like Bryce in the making.

1. Political players fixate on the wrong numbers.

Take our buddy Bryce for instance. Bryce kept “real-time stats” on the total number of employees who reported into his organization. Bryce frequently boasted that a significant portion of the operation reported to him or one of his people. That’s how Bryce boosted his shaky self-esteem. He added people while he talked a great game and tried hard not to mess up in front of his boss. Bryce figured as long as he had an adequate number of people to throw under the bus at the opportune moment, he would be too big to fail. Bryce fixated on employee count, not profitability.

2. Political players recruit, hire and promote people like themselves.

It’s true. Birds of a feather flock together. Self-absorbed power junkies are obsessed with protecting their titles at all costs. Consequently they try to hire people who are singularly loyal to them. Often they find themselves at odds with an underling more loyal to the company. When they do, they will quickly take any measure imaginable to rid their team of those who are looking out for the good of the whole.

Fortunately, oil and water don’t mix. Employees and leaders who are truly concerned about the welfare of the whole are turned off by those who seek to play the system. Case in point. Bryce’s demise began when his peers became as disillusioned with him as his front line employees were. Bryce’s hiring and promoting of other politically minded employees initially went unchecked because his colleagues were immersed in their own immediate concerns.

3. Political players manage up and cover up.

After all, the Bryces of the world tend to perform for an audience of one. Their boss! Political players will often freely (and unnecessarily) sacrifice their team’s welfare for the sake of keeping the boss happy or shielded from the truth. This is not always a reflection on their boss. He or she may have been misled about the details two or three levels down. The political player likes vagueness and fuzzy business practice. Transparency is not typically part of their game plan. They operate in the shadows where almost no one has insight to their treatment of the people.

4. Political players encourage a zero sum mentality.

Some got to win, some got to lose. That’s the chorus to every song for a corporate politician. In their world, there is no such thing as a win-win outcome. And their department heads also propagate this win-lose mindset. The political player seldom takes the time to seriously evaluate a balanced option. They want to win at all cost.  And their politically-motivated direct reports know instinctively not to cross the boss. It wouldn’t be prudent. Political players win by short-changing the organization.

5. Political players come with plenty of hidden costs.

As I later met with the CEO’s management team, we inventoried the true cost of having Bryce in power. It became apparent that he had made dozens of unnecessarily costly decisions. Bryce built a division that could never reach profitability. He pushed technology that he preferred versus exploring for new IT solutions that would best serve the company. Bryce delegated all authority to managers who were either asleep at the switch or pandered for his favor. As a result, the company was paying extraordinary sums for expensive logistics initiatives that delivered a poor customer experience. Bryce’s salary and benefits were only a tiny fraction of his real cost to the company.

Sooner or later the results speak for themselves. The results of Bryce’s self aggrandizing moves were draining the company’s balance sheet and delaying success. Once realized, Bryce was given a fair severance package and hustled out the door.

Avoid the heartache, headache and howling that political players bring to their companies. Ask yourself these five questions about each member of your management team:

  1. Does _____ fixate on the wrong numbers?
  2. Does _____ overlook or ignore loyal company employees who do good work?
  3. Does _____ recruit, hire and promote individuals who pander to them?
  4. Does _____ quickly adopt the easy solution that best serves their self-interest?
  5. Does _____ make costly decisions because s/he is self-absorbed?

If any of your leaders (or employees for that matter) cause you to answer “yes” to three or more statements, you have an opportunity to lower your operating cost substantially. Consider replacing that person with a competent leader who really cares about your company. If you must, look outside your company. Remember… hire for character and train for skills.

Ironically, Bryce’s follow-up gig gave him the spotlight to swagger like an actual rock star. You can catch Bryce and his new band playing weekends on the Jersey Shore. At least now the only cost for watching Bryce perform is the cover charge.

Don’t let a political player on your payroll. Today is the day to shine the spotlight on each of your leaders and objectively evaluate their performance.

Keith Martino has a passion for helping engineering executives achieve stellar results. Martino authored the book Expect Leadership in Engineering. In addition, the team at Keith Martino has designed and launched Leadership Institutes at multiple engineering firms across the US. Martino is quoted in Young Upstarts, Entrepreneur Magazine, NewsMax Financial, the FedEx Worldwide Manager’s Pak, and several metropolitan business and industry trade journals. For more information visit keithmartino.com.

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