Politics has become such a dirty word in our society. And I can’t deny that when I first hear the word, my guttural reaction is also negative. And if I were being honest (and dramatic), “Game of Thrones” comes to mind.
But if we take a step back and simply start with the definition, the word itself is actually neutral: “the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status.”
With that definition, it is inevitable that every organization — whether government, nonprofit, law firm, or company — has internal politics, and in my humble opinion, the sooner you resign yourself to this fact and do your best to understand the politics of your organization, the easier it is to navigate successfully, if and as you need.
In my experience, law firm politics was clearer — probably because it was mostly hierarchical and tied to how large someone’s book of business was — or, in other words, how much actual or potential monetary value they brought to the law firm’s bottom line. And in that environment, if you wanted to figure out the politics of the firm, you’d simply look to those individuals with the biggest books of business and who or what influenced them. And as a baby lawyer, you’d want to intentionally work for those individuals to be successful.
In contrast, while politics will certainly differ in-house, depending on the size of the company and company culture, I have personally found it less clear and more difficult to navigate. While there may be some semblance of a hierarchy (the C-suite), larger organizations tend to be flatter, the power more widely distributed, and it is harder to tell who has influence.
I suspect that some of you may want to push back on the idea that there are politics at your workplace — and I get that urge. There is something unsettling about realizing that workplaces are not necessarily meritocracies — and that relationships are not only important but can be critical — and the idea that one has to “play politics” to get ahead seems fundamentally wrong. At the same time, I don’t think that’s the only conclusion.
Rather, I think that the more you know about your company’s politics, the more prepared you are to avoid pitfalls — and keep doing what you want to do in alignment with your career goals and personal priorities. For me, it’s less about navigation to get to some destination (or level) and more about being trusted and having the space to work on what I find most meaningful and impactful to the organization, which is what is important to me. (You may have a different goal in-house). In other words, knowing your company’s and legal department’s politics is just a part of learning the business to better achieve company goals, and having data by which you can use to make informed decisions about your current role and future with the company.
Beyond the what and why, the next question is probably how — how do you go about learning the politics of your company? First, start with listening and observing during the countless business meetings — whose names get dropped by the name-droppers? Who are the stakeholders everyone wants to please? Who is driving the decision? Second, seek a mentor who has been with the organization much longer than you — perhaps one in and out of the legal department. Finally, invest in organic, authentic relationships across the company and across all levels. It still comes down to relationship-building and trust, as only then is candid information freely shared.
May the odds be ever in your favor.
Meyling “Mey” Ly Ortiz is in-house at Toyota Motor North America. Her passions include mentoring, championing belonging, and a personal blog: TheMeybe.com. At home, you can find her doing her best to be a “fun” mom to a toddler and preschooler and chasing her best self on her Peloton. You can follow her on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/meybe/). And you knew this was coming: her opinions are hers alone.