After my AMA I promised to write down some thoughts on office politics, since that was probably the topic that got the most interest from the WSO community. But then I realized that, although I consider myself fairly decent at surviving the IB/PE political environment, I didn't have an actual framework in mind. In other words, when you present me with a situation it's fairly obvious to me what the next step should be, but coming up with a general set of rules is much more challenging. So I've spent a lot of time drinking and thinking about this topic over the last few months. These are my preliminary conclusions, and they will probably come over the course of multiple posts over the next few months. I hope someone on here finds them somewhat useful.
With that, let's jump into it. I will try to keep this as short as possible, and can elaborate in the comments section.
The Formula for Success: Work Ethic and Political Moments
Why do office politics matter? Simply put, we all know someone who got a promotion without deserving it, and we all know someone who "deserved it" and got screwed. When we talk about "merit" in finance, what we really mean is "work ethic" - i.e. showing up on time and doing all of the things that are expected of you, and then some. This includes everything from attention to detail to dressing the part to presenting your analysis in a well thought out way.
However, work ethic is not enough to get you to the top. Work ethic is something you develop in school through years of hard work and practice, then refine and improve early on in your career. It is a continuous process - like a long movie, it is the totality of the frames that matter, and you cannot point to a single moment of "hard work" as being especially meaningful. In other words, the grind is constant, it never ends, and it's either a part of you or it's not (in which case stop reading and go fix that before you go any further).
Politics is a different beast, because it happens in "moments", not movies. Office politics is like the movie poster or trailer advertising the full feature film - arguably much less important than the substance of your work, but mess it up and no one will show up to watch the film. So after a month-long project with many all-nighters and a fantastic work product to show for it, you will likely end up sending it off or presenting it to someone. The way you go about doing this will color how people see your work - these moments of human interaction can and will either create or destroy your political capital / goodwill in the office.
So, work ethic is crucial, but mess up the politics hard enough and your hard work is worth nothing. Politics alone won't get you there either. Which brings me to my formula for success:
Success = Work Ethic * Political Capital
Yes, it's oversimplified but think about it. How are reviews done in banking? The MD's and VP's hold a conference call and go through all the names. If a senior likes someone, they will "go to bat" for them. If a person is not well liked, no one will want to spend their own political capital to help that person out. Of course, this only matters if the person's work ethic was actually decent. But since we are conditioned from day 1 that work ethic is all that matters, too many of us tend to screw up the political capital side of the equation, which turns out to be just as important.
So if you think you are smart and good at your job, but things are not going your way, then chances are you need to work on your political game. How exactly to do that will be the subject of future posts, but for now I will leave you with what I believe are the various characteristics of work ethic and political capital. We need to understand how these concepts work before we identify where our shortcomings are and how to fix them.
Work Ethic is:
* Objective (you got it or you don't)
* A constant grind
* Difficult to change
Political Capital is:
* Subjective (you know it when you see it)
* Made up of "moments"
* Very fluid (a political situation can change quickly)
In essence, work ethic and political capital are like Yin and Yang - inseparable and contradictory opposites. So to better understand political capital, let's break explore what the opposite of work ethic would be. We value work ethic in banking because it is supposed to be "fair" - i.e., it's about how hard you work and how good your work is, and not about whose ass you've kissed or whose son you are or who happens to like you.
You see? We like work ethic because it's about your work, not about who likes you.
Political capital is all about who likes you
And that's my biggest secret, my biggest piece of advice to any young monkey who struggles with this concept. If you already do good work, spend your energy not to learn how to build a slightly better model, but on how to make your co-workers and superiors like you more. This can feel like a soul-crushing task, because as I will explain in the next post, this can involve a lot of pretending to be someone you're not. Pretending to like a certain person, pretending to enjoy football, acting like you really want to be at the company Christmas party, acting like a Wall Street frat bro just to fit into your group's culture, etc. Yes, it's soul crushing - but we always knew that. The job itself is soul crushing. We just tend to think of the hours as the soul crushing part, but I suspect for most people it's actually the political side of the equation that causes the most heartburn. The sooner you start thinking about how all of this fits into the context of your own career, the sooner your heartburn will start to fade.
To be continued...
Mod Note (Andy): top 50 posts of 2017, this one ranks #26 (based on # of silver bananas)