As a CEO, one of your goals is to foster a unified company pursuing a common, large mission. Especially if you are running a start-up, you need everyone working together to beat the big guys.
One insidious killer of companies is politics. It is common in all organizations (even tiny ones) and can be a slow killer of the company when it pits employees against each other. Internal politics even killed France’s hopes at the World Cup. Getting everyone on the same team will increase communication, output, and success.
Be your own clique
Politics comes from cliques. Cliques form from people with similar backgrounds, world-views, or missions. Cliques are impossible to avoid because humans are tribal and they want to belong to a subgroup. But you can work to eliminate cliques within your company by making the entire company one big clique.
By creating your own clique –Googlers, Rapleafers, etc. – you unite everyone in your company together. It is “us” against those other guys.
One way to do this is creating corporate uniforms. Uniforms unite people. This is why so many companies give out schwag (T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, etc.) to their employees. If you can have a huge sign outside your office, do it.
Internally, celebrate the distinct piece of your culture by displaying it everywhere. If you are a photo-sharing company, you might want to decorate your walls with great photos your users took. Siebel built a company around serving their customers – so they had pictures of their customers around their office. Rapleaf focuses on celebrating our employees – so we have pictures of our employees everywhere.
Some companies focus on having an enemy. If you are Mozilla and you are working to create the world’s best browser, you might hate Microsoft. You’ll need a good reason (“they are closed, we are open”) and a large and powerful enemy that will unite the company together to take on a hard challenge.
Hire the non-political person
The best way to not introduce politics in your organization is to try not to hire political people in the first place. That’s really hard to do but here are some ideas that you might want to incorporate into your hiring process.
One way you can eliminate cliques is by focusing on diversity. People from similar backgrounds tend to form a clique and others will feel excluded just by the fact that they are not from that background. If the first seven people at your company are all of the same race, you’ve got problems. And if they are all from the same college, you might institute an unintended bias. One other good rule is to try to recruit and hire female engineers. Gender diversity is important to break down cliques and that’s something all tech companies (including my own) could do a better job at.
Try not to hire people that dislike their former managers or employees. Focus on people that generally talk well of others and see the positive in others. Mean people tend to think of others as pawns – so look to hire considerate employees.
Do your due diligence on any exec you are hiring from a big company. It is very hard to advance in a large company without being really good at office politics. So be wary of hiring someone who has been very successful at a large organization as they might not understand that your company is different.
Only hire A-players. A-players are, by definition, doers, and they are more likely to hire A-Players themselves. If you are not sure if someone is an A-Player, don’t take the chance. Pass on them and focus on recruiting someone who is smart, nice, and gets things done. Look for people that, by nature, share the credit and get their job satisfaction by doing, achieving, and solving hard problems.
When you do hire people, make sure you clearly convey your corporate values to them. One of my favorite corporate values at Rapleaf is that “Rapleafers do not value our own ideas more than those ideas generated by our teammates.” I love that. I was once at a meeting where one of our engineers was strongly advocating for a particular architecture and against another idea … and then I noticed that he was arguing against his OWN idea and did not even realize it. It was awesome.
It is important that you don’t play any politics. That seems obvious but some of the CEOs who complain about politics in their organization practice things like pitting executives against each other and hoarding information.
Water flows downhill and culture spreads much faster from the top. Try to ensure that your top execs are really team players – and make sure their actions mirror their words.
Create transparency and open communication
Great political players often win by hoarding information. You can stop them by making the information flow at the company as open as possible.
Tell your employees what is going on and make sure there is transparency throughout the organization. This becomes more and more difficult as the company grows but it is extremely important to keep information moving quickly. Do everything possible to stop information bottlenecks in the organization and try to create multiple redundancies.
Promote based on merit
As a CEO, you’ll always want to ensure the very best people get promoted and get more responsibility and more recognition within the company. While it is obvious who the best people are when the company is tiny, it becomes harder to know that as the company grows. As CEO, your goal should be to meet with people at the lowest levels of the company and get their thoughts about the business, how they are doing, and who else they love working with.
It is incredibly important that you promote the very best people. If only average people are being promoted, everyone else will assume it is for a political reason and the rational response will be for them to start playing politics to ensure their success in the organization. Conversely, if you fire or discipline people that play politics, you will be sending the right message to everyone.
Summation: very few people actually want to work for an organization that has politics. Most people (especially the doers that you want) abhor politics and will be drawn to an organization that focuses on developing great talent, solving hard problems, and getting things done.
(special thanks to Simi Chaudhry for her help and edits)