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  • Phil Venables

Organizational Politics

At every stage in your career and in every part of your role you are going to have to deal with organizational politics. By this, I don’t mean what might conventionally be viewed as chicanery and dishonest manipulation. If you’re in an organization that is genuinely rife with such toxic elements then, if you can, get out as quickly as possible. No, by organizational politics I mean the day to day practices of achieving an outcome through influence and by working the organization’s “machinery” however that might be structured - implicitly or explicitly.

Politics is a rich term, as you can see in the full Merriam-Webster definition below. In this context we should focus on the definition that is: “the total complex of relations between people living in society”, and here think of society as the organization and its ecosystem.

If you think all organizational politics are bad, pointless or that you have decided to simply opt out of any of it then I’m sorry to say you’ll find that rather limiting. Any time there is more than 2 people involved in something, maybe even with 2 people, you have to think about the application of influence, power and persuasion to achieve your outcome. This is whether it’s something small, like a particular component design choice or the selection of a vendor, all the way up to the massive multi-year transformational bets we’ve talked about here. In any organization there are finite resources, complex objectives and many competing factions to apply those resources to their objectives. This is the stuff of organizational politics.

I first became a CISO in my mid to late 20’s without much prior management experience having spent my time up until then developing software and doing systems integration across a range of industries. This was a baptism of fire and I spent my first few years learning by trial and error what was necessary to establish, build and operate complex security programs. At the time, in the mid to late 1990’s, there really wasn’t much of a body of knowledge of how to do this. Even more experienced leaders were also kind of making it up as they went along.

My first lesson in being ambushed by organizational politics was immensely formative. This was a long time ago and I won’t name the particular company, and to be clear this isn’t actually a dig at them anyway, it’s a dig at my naïveté. I had inherited a flawed security program whose main approach was to essentially issue policies and hope for the best, although it was a bit more dressed up than that. I was asked by executive management and the Board, to put together a more comprehensive security program - the full package, so to speak. This I dutifully did and it carried a pretty impressive price tag. This was presented to the Board who were delighted and approved the whole thing. I was very happy and pretty pleased with myself, this was how things were supposed to go I thought. Then reality kicked in. It turns out that the way this particular organization worked was the Board approved things “in principle” but then the actual funding to carry out their wishes needed to be provided directly by the business Divisions of the company. Ok, no problem, so I then proceed to go to each Division (10 of them) quite sure that I could just turn up with my “Board approved” mandate and the money would be showered upon me. You all know what happened next. Pretty much each Division essentially went: "Your Board mandate is very nice but we’ve got multiple objectives, cost constraints and other issues that mean we can’t fund this". So, I went back to the Board Chair and they basically said, “But we’ve sanctioned you to do this, so get on with it.” Now to my credit, I suppose, I then proceeded to do the work I should have done in the first place by going to each Division and making a case on its own merit in their context for what the right risk reduction priorities should be over a longer time span. This grind of several months ended up getting us to workable operating budget and plan to execute on the most important parts of the Board endorsed program, albeit over a longer (and actually more practical) time frame.

All was good, I learnt the lesson of how to appropriately get buy-in, help the line of business executives, build influence and manage the overall business and Board political climate. In other words, I was actually figuring out what I probably should have known by asking more questions in the first place about Board / Executive mechanics.

But, there was one final lesson, and that was a peer organization (in another related risk area) seeing the success we were having in working with the Divisions and in securing funding, decided to go to the Board without my involvement and have them endorse some additional priorities on top of the original program I’d proposed. These were mostly unnecessary and in some cases counterproductive requirements. Unfortunately, the Board approved it and it landed on me to execute and, again, go get the funding for it. This time I couldn’t sell it, I didn’t believe it myself in any case, and so I was in an intractable position of having a Board directive and no ability to execute on it and for various reasons no political will to amend the Board decision. This took a long time to unwind and was a drag on the program.

The final lesson here was, build a solid relationship with the power structures (Board or otherwise) that mandate outcomes so you are flagged when things are approaching them, before it gets there, that are related to any of your work. Yes, you might say, but in reality organizations should do this better and more openly. Yes, I agree, and most times they do but sometimes they don’t and you need to be on your guard for that.

Anyway, this began the next 25 years of good honest CISO, Chief Risk Officer and Board work and plenty of other lessons in organizational politics and influence on the way. Here are some of those major lessons:

Decisions are not made in Committees

Most formal meetings, committees, councils or otherwise are ostensibly convened to make decisions. But in most cases they are explicitly ceremonial to confirm a decision that has already been made by a consensus of members. Or, it is implicitly so and the decisions are pre-ordained by the work done in advance of the meeting to influence the outcome, get people on side, confirm support and ensure the resources to support the decision are in place. If you’re going into a meeting or committee and you don’t already feel confident on the outcome then you’ve missed the point and will have likely not done the work to line up support for the outcome you want. Remember, committees are roots of power structures not the structure themselves. Use the existence of committees and the fact a decision is being brought to, or potentially brought to, such a group as a means of working that decision outside that committee. The committee is a tool to use.

My favorite example of this is from the TV show, The West Wing.

Map and Partake in Decision Making Flows

In most organizations there are a myriad of management and operational processes where decisions are made constantly. Embedding your organization's processes and objectives into these is important. This can be challenging as often there are multiple overlapping and ambiguous processes across budgeting, business operations, product development, sales, marketing, people development, resource allocation, bug fix prioritization and so on. It is also important to be synchronized with the natural cadence of those processes - if you’re not ready to introduce your fully formed idea into, say, a business product development agenda then you might want to introduce some minimum viable idea or placeholder to get something into the process. Otherwise you have to wait until the next cycle which might be the following year. This will feel messy, but keep some sanity by thinking of your macro objectives as a sequence of campaigns where each campaign for a specific outcome spins-off multiple different tactical objectives to be embedded throughout the organization.

Slip Stream Constantly

Look for ways to integrate your objectives into the organization's practices, processes, budget priorities, and business products and projects. This has the benefit of not only having significant leverage for your objectives but is generally the right thing to do anyway: secure products not security products. The additional 5-10% cost and effort to do a particular product well from a security, controls, resilience and compliance perspective is easier to justify than the +1000% needed to get that resource at an enterprise level and then allocate it across all the products and projects that need it. Again, it can feel a bit messy, but you can retain an overall set of strategic goals while being mercilessly tactical in execution. In doing this you, or rather your team, will be more deeply connected to the work of the organization and will also be able to observe and counter any potential drift of existing controls and security practices.

Don’t Let a Crisis Go to Waste

Run toward problems. Not just because they need to be fixed but because the closer you are to them then the more opportunities you have to shape the resolution. You can drive the lessons learned and future mitigating actions in more strategic ways that align to the objectives of the security program. Such problems don’t need to be security problems. For example, I've seen some transformational upgrades to software security processes as an additional improvement after some major risk events caused by critical bugs, capacity issues, stalled agility and architectural constraints. If you’re constraining your lens to be focused on security alone then you’re likely missing 10X of your opportunities.

Build a Base of Support

The security role is tough. You’re constantly being called upon to walk the tightrope between too much and too little security. You shouldn’t do this on your own. Asking others for advise, getting input on risk appetite and being engaged is key. This is one way to build support among peers, business unit leaders and other key stakeholders. The other way is to be extraordinarily helpful and thus be perceived as valuable beyond the immediate parameters of the security role.

Being helpful takes work, it means fighting the feeling of “this is not my job” and being helpful anyway. This builds up your credibility and political capital over time. One day you’ll need to spend that capital either by calling in support explicitly or, as is sometimes the case, by having supporters in the room you're not in when a key decision is being made that affects your security program. A corollary of all of this is to not depend on your immediate boss too much. I’ve seen this happen to other people and organizations so much it’s almost a cliche. That is, you only get things done because of your own positional role power (not other influence) or the role power of your boss (this is why I’m often so perturbed when people talk about CISO reporting lines as the key to getting things done - it helps in the short term but is toxic in the long term). It’s obvious why you shouldn’t be dependent on your boss too much. They have a habit of leaving or moving and the new boss might want to make changes - perhaps some negative ones. If you have a broad base of wider leadership support it’s much easier for the new leadership to want to leverage you as they settle into their new role. This base of support helps assure the tenure you will need to make a long term difference.

As an aside, if you are developing your career and working your way up the organization don’t overly fixate on building relationships with executive or other senior leadership. By the time you get to be more senior they’ll likely be gone. Rather, work with the people in business units who are also rising up the ranks in their world, and be amazingly useful and helpful to them. One of them might be CEO one day. This happens and works a lot, I know a former financial services CEO who built his career patiently by building relationships with customer’s business unit finance chiefs, the treasurers and accounting officers and helped them relentlessly - often with no apparent results or business for a few years. He did this across dozens of major organizations. Then in a short space of time many of those people became the CFOs or CEOs of those organizations. At that point, who did they call? That’s right, they called him and lots of business came. This, among many other reasons, propelled him to be CEO as well.

So, build your base of support by being broadly helpful at all levels of the organization - not just to the people who are currently in positions of authority and influence to help you. You're building capital.

Leverage Others

The key to much of the success of the security program is, of course, the ability to leverage the work of everyone in the organization. Doing this is to align with their objectives, to be collaborative and, well, be nice. Or if you can’t be nice then at least don’t be a-hole. Even if your organization needs significant security improvements it is likely that it is in that state for a variety of complex reasons, and it likely drifted into that state through no fault of one person or even group of people. It will likely not be the fault of the people you most need to turn the situation around. So getting on your high horse and pontificating that people don’t care about security and being judgmental about the causes is not going to get you any ability to work with people to improve the situation. Show some empathy and put yourself in other people’s shoes.

A big part of this is finding your organization’s natural constituents. In other words, what is the group of people who are inherently highly regarded, almost like the heart of the organization. If you get these people on board then they’re going to lead the way with you, or maybe even for you. This is different in every organization. In a product company if you get the core cadre of lead engineers on side with your objectives, or in a bank if you win over the bankers and/or traders, or the doctors and scientists in the medical or pharmaceutical field then you get other management onside as a result. You can do this by being useful to them and also aligning the importance of security with the core of their mission - in their words. There are many other natural allies to leverage as well, for example working with (rather than in conflict) the internal and external auditors is useful, as it is with other risk and compliance functions. The accounting and finance teams are natural allies to embed security into their world-view of key controls. Customer marketing and even investor relations teams are also worth working with to make security a key part of their message which in turn encourages a wider base of support: if the people of your organization see it being talked about by the organization itself then they'll be generally supportive.

Finally, one of the best approaches to keep the right relationships is to show people the results of their support. We often forget to do this. For example, if there’s an incident at a competitor that you haven’t been exposed to because of your security controls then send a note of thanks to the relevant leadership in your organization to say not, “we’re good, we avoided this” which looks like you want a pat on the back, rather, say, “thanks to your foresight and support for our security program we didn’t have this exposure”. It’s also worth doing the same for all constituents - imagine how powerful it would be to go on to the floor of the call center every month and give an award for not just the best customer service but the best response in avoiding fraud or supporting a customer through a fraudulent situation.

Deal with Reality

The biggest source of unhappiness and anxiety for any leader or team is to constantly compare the current situation to “how it is supposed to be”. I don't mean the idealized end state of security objectives, you need that as a goal to work toward, but rather how it is supposed to be in terms of implicit support, explicit funding and all the other things you might wish were automatically there. This is a source of unhappiness because “how it is supposed to be” is some fictional construct of the idea based either in your imagination or something fed to you by some research organization or vendor that no-one in reality is achieving perfectly. Remember, when you compare yourself you are comparing your worst to their presented best.

In every situation if you can confront the reality of that situation and then course correct to best handle that then you are likely to be happier as well as more successful in achieving some portion of your intended outcomes. For example, no-one gets all the budget you need or want. When you don’t then you can either think, “the organization doesn’t care, I can’t get anything done, what’s the point”, or you can think, “great I have more than I did before to now get more done and make a difference, I’m going to think of efficiencies, show I am a great custodian of those resources and then later ask for more on a basis of being a place where money can be spent wisely to great effect.”

You also have to recognize that in all your internal dealings with people you are also dealing with emotions rather than cold-hard analysis. Despite all our theories for risk management the best equation I’ve ever come across that describes reality is Risk = Hazard + Outrage. This is not only a practical statement of reconciling how people think but it is also useful in purely economic terms as well. For example, according to Hazard you might decide not to mitigate some issue in some product for some period of time because the risk is actually very low. This might be correct analysis, but to the outside world it might seem intuitively wrong and so you then spend large amounts of time and energy explaining this to your customer base, auditors, or other stakeholders. At some threshold, considering all that effort, it might just be easier and cheaper to fix the issue irrespective or the Hazard because the Outrage is driving you there anyway.

Align Responsibility and Accountability

You will likely all appreciate the crucial need to align responsibility and accountability - in other words align the ability to drive change with those who will feel the most consequences for not doing that. This isn’t an abstract concept. It’s something you have to enact every day in small moments.

I remember once, in a past organization during a risk committee meeting I was presenting at, being turned to by the Chief Risk Officer who asked why a particular business unit was under performing vs. certain goals. I knew why, I could have responded with a lot of detail but the right approach in that moment was to redirect the question to the head of that business unit who was in the meeting as well - this cemented the clear direction from then on that people should be prepared to talk about this risk alongside their other important business risks. Now, it’s a little bit more subtle than that, lest you are in the habit of publicly throwing people under buses so to speak, what I really did was say, “Actually, there’s a lot of issues that are turning out to be harder than we expected and we’ve been getting great support from [name of person] but why don’t we ask [name of person] to give us their perspective on that.” The reality was we weren’t actually getting as much support as was truly needed, but after that meeting we surely did.

Influence the Influencers

Every, I repeat every, single person has a network of people they turn to for advise on something. So, when you’re working to influence a decision maker on something you’re not just working on that with them, you are also working - whether you realize it or not - with that network of people. Sometimes this is very clear, it might be a deputy, their chief architect, a senior technical lead, or their local risk or compliance officer. But, in my experience, often it is someone they used to work with who is now in a distant part of the organization that they still routinely consult with. Understanding this hidden network of influence is vital. I remember, a few jobs ago, when I was pushing a difficult and expensive implementation of a unified authentication/SSO system for an enterprise, I was trying to get one particular business unit CIO on side. She was uncomfortable with the decision for various reasons, so I knew she was going to seek counsel from her senior team, who we’d already got support from. But, someone had tipped me off that she also always turned for technical advise to a person who was in her team 3 roles back who was now chief technical architect in a totally different business unit, in fact in a different part of the world. We spent some time with him, briefed him and he was to be engaged anyway on the project for his own organization. As predicted, she called him, and he was immediately supportive. In case you think this is duplicitous we even told him to tell her we’d done this as we knew getting such broad scrutiny was useful. She actually gave us even more kudos and support for showing this extra level of commitment to her decision making process.

Remember, published organization charts almost never actually represent the true organization structure in terms of influence. That has to be discovered and modeled by you.

Use Convening and Connecting Power

If you have some authority either by position, role power, tenure or other built up credibility you have the convening power to call together groups to discuss and work on things, and to generally set an agenda for some goal. Use it well. Also, if you’re in such a position you are likely to be part of many distinct groups, committees, programs of work, internal and external associations. This puts you in a position of being able to connect people and activities and these will likely not just be security related - you should embrace that anyway as it will help you build your base of support. There are not many roles in an organization that are as well connected and plugged-in as the security role. It’s a waste not to use it. For example, in a prior role, a risk committee meeting for an Asia Pacific business were realizing a particular opportunity, and the next week I was in an unrelated project meeting for a US business unit that could use the same new technology. I connected the teams together to realize some significant acceleration of the work that yielded significant market advantage. It was nothing to do with security, but I was the only common connector between those two situations. This is why you should pay attention in all meetings on all topics, not just your topics.

Knowledge Mastery and Confidence

To be able to function in an organization with any degree of success you need to have a degree of knowledge mastery and confidence in that ability. That might not mean, in fact it almost never will, mean you are the expert in many things. If you have a reasonable span of control then you likely can no longer be a true expert at a lot of things, but you have the ability to master how to work across your and other team’s experts to get to an outcome. That is another example of the use of leverage. Your unique perspective is valuable. Be a force for optimism and work hard with your team on instilling that the goal is progress not perfection.

Develop Influencing Skills

Organizational politics is really just the study and application of influence skills over the peculiar machinery and culture of your organization. So, what are the most essential influencing skills:

  1. Be very clear on the outcome you want. Write it down in a clear way. If you cannot clearly state what it is you want then you’ve no chance of influencing others - except in a bad way.

  2. Understand the current situation: data, motivations, people, and environment. Do some research to find out as much as you can about the “system” you’re seeking to change. Often, what you want to do will have been tried before in various ways that you can learn from. One of the anti-patterns of influence are people new to an organization who can’t believe everyone is so "dumb" as to not fix something without finding out people have been working like crazy to do just that - but there’s a whole iceberg of issues under the surface.

  3. Understand the “forces” that keep a situation current. Don't be frustrated at something not changing. Instead, be amazed - in a complex world - that a situation is not already changing. Develop a better understand of the forces and counter-forces that keep it that way. Sometimes, if you want to change something, the best thing is not to add more force, but rather remove a head-wind. There’s a great part of Kurt Lewin’s work in social science called Force Field Analysis that is worth studying.

  4. Use thinking tools to find the core of an issue - increasing the depth of your insight shows your commitment to the goal and also educates and improves those around you. They’ll remember you for that. Look for power laws (where 80% of outcome can come from 20% of work).

  5. Communicate - in person and in various internal media. Appeal to people’s motivation and objectives. Find ways such that what you want will also help provide adjacent benefits or satisfy the commercial goals of the people whose help you need. Incidentally, in my experience, even if your case for adjacent benefits is not totally compelling the other person will still appreciate you trying anyway and be more likely to help. Use behavioral science techniques in how you communicate (e.g. social proof, story telling, branding).

  6. Present the message clearly and effectively - be precise and capture people’s imagination. Be as simple as possible (but not dumbed down). Be persistent - some problems are not ready to be solved - so be ready to re-present when the time or circumstance is ready. Refine/practice your pitches. There’s nothing so frustrating for a senior decision maker (or anyone for that matter) to see people who have obviously spent zero time preparing.

  7. Execute on your commitments. Establish credibility that people can trust you to get things done, on time, in budget and with care and attention for being a good team member. This is a force multiplier for you to influence in the future - you’re a good bet.

Bottom line: every organization has politics. Thankfully, it’s rarely toxic, but people who don’t understand influence and the need to apply influence often misconstrue the need to be aware of organizational politics as inherently toxic. This is a misguided view. You need to know how to work this in a positive way for the benefit of your program. This is mostly about influence in the context of your organization's particular culture. Observe others who work it well and learn from them. Put a professional face on your organization.

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