In-Depth

Caught in the Crossfire of Internal Politics

Fed up with your client's in-house turf wars? This advice from the trenches will help you survive even the toughest of battles.

Some years ago, Kevin Fream was hired to set up an inventory system in a client company's warehouse. The job went smoothly from the initial planning phase through installation. Top managers met with Fream and signed off on the system design, the hardware and the software.

Then came the day of implementation, when Fream learned that the company's warehouse workers knew nothing about the new system and were clearly unhappy about the change. Old tensions between the warehouse division and the central office surfaced, making Fream's job more difficult.

"The top officers spent a lot of time putting the system in and never told the employees anything," recalls Fream, now the president of Matrixforce Corp., a Tulsa, Okla., management services consulting firm and a Gold Certified Partner. "The employees got their backs up over the new steps they had to do. They were resentful of the management and saw this as more work."

Fream learned from that experience. These days, Matrixforce has a manual that provides step-by-step procedures intended to ensure that key people on every level of a client's organizational chart are informed about and aligned with a new project before the first server is bought or the first line of code is written.

"Right after the project is signed off by management, we have a copy of an announcement about the project sitting on everyone's desk," Fream says. "Our average contact list has most of the employees, not just the top people. It helps tremendously."

Understanding and navigating a client company's tricky political and organizational topography can be one of the biggest challenges faced by consultant and vendor firms.

Within your customer's hierarchy there often lurks a dangerous minefield of personality and power struggles. The manager of the sales division who brought you in might be enthusiastic about your plans; the head of security might be opposed. The CIO and CFO may turn your proposal into a corporate civil war, leaving you in the middle of no man's land. Such organization quarrels can lead to delays, often with the costs borne by you. Worse yet, you can find yourself out of a contract after spending time and money on the project simply because you were aligned with the wrong side.

Such problems are made even worse in these days of mergers and acquisitions, when growing companies often have offices and divisions located all over the map.
"It's a challenge for all of us," says Judy Thomas, COO of The TM Group Inc., a Farmington Hills, Mich., Gold Certified Partner focusing on the Dynamics line. "There's usually a political structure you have to figure out. There may be a motivation for one team in a company to purchase something, but there may be a counter-motivation from another team to keep them down and not to let them have it or spend the money."

Playing Corporate Twister
Bob Hood's undergraduate days were spent studying sociology. His favorite courses in business school were on organizational analysis. Both experiences have served him well when it comes to working with his clients as president of the Hood Consulting Group, a Chicago-based Registered Member and Small Business Specialist.
Hood says an important step in taking on a new client is to approach the organization as if it were an exotic tribe or culture that you've just discovered.

"Margaret Mead is alive and well in the corporation," he says, referring to the famous anthropologist. "To be a thorough business consultant, you have to understand the [client's] organization -- who does what with whom. Without that understanding, you're just a plumber."

Echoing the sentiments of other Microsoft partners, Hood says it's imperative to get the lay of the land before launching any project. Rivalries, both personal and professional, must be charted before you proceed. "You want to make sure you're not grinding an axe that one person wants to swing," he says.

The cultural conflicts that you're likely to encounter include personality clashes, departmental feuds and struggles over spending and budgets. Self-aggrandizing managers can get in the way. So can technology "cults" -- groups of employees who are fanatically loyal to a particular vendor or approach.

"You may be talking to one guy, but he might be of a different political structure than the people who are going to be using your system," says Thomas. "You don't always know what the end game is because they don't share their motivations."

Tom Kemp, CEO of Centrify Corp., a Mountain View, Calif., Gold Certified Partner, recalls the days when it was hard to get the Unix and Microsoft people to agree on anything. Mix those technological loyalties with different department agendas and you can find yourself in the middle of a corporate game of Twister. Kemp, whose company develops identity and access-management software, often finds himself swimming in the midst of these tricky currents.

"When you sell a complex piece of software, there are various groups it could interface with," he says. "Windows people focus on the server. The operations people, along with the Unix team, have other issues. Then there's the director of development and finally the chief security officer" -- all with their own concerns and agendas.
Partner-company executives differ over whether internal political problems are related to a client company's size. Some, like Hood, believe that larger organizations actually may be easier to navigate.

"As a business gets larger, it has to put structures in place that define these issues," he says. "It's the smaller business that needs to address that need for structure."

Others, such as Kemp, find that a small company is less likely to get mired in internal politics. "One person can make the decision," he says. "In larger companies, there are different fiefdoms and ideologies." In addition, getting everyone on the same page can be more challenging if company managers are scattered from coast to coast -- or even around the globe.

There's some truth in both arguments. But, as always, it all comes down to each client's idiosyncrasies.

Navigating the Org Chart
You can use a variety of approaches for mapping out all these intraoffice intrigues.

Thomas tries to get acquainted with as many managers as possible at each client company. To do a thorough job, she enlists her own staff in the intelligence operation. "You need to get as many of your people to know as many of their people," she says.

Fream, of Matrixforce, holds regular meetings where his employees can debrief each other about the political maneuverings within a client company.

"Internal politics fall out as part of the process of discussing a client," he says. "In talking with each other, you learn that Kathy over in this office doesn't like the technology people and that she really doesn't like the CIO. You find out this firm has a new widget coming out and the plant manager really likes it. All this helps you get to know the players and what's happening across the organization."

Fream's firm even uses a customer-relationship management system, similar to the one it offers customers, to track and document personalities and intrigues. "This is a case of us eating our own dog food," he says. "Everyone is plugged into the same account, so you can glean a lot from the different people working with different customers."

Asking the Right Questions
Of course, you don't necessarily need a high-tech solution to map a customer company's interior landscape. In many cases, asking simple, straightforward questions will get the job done. For instance, Hood often asks right up front who has the authority to spend the money, then requests to speak directly to the people who will ultimately green-light his project. And he tries to determine whether the CEO and board of directors support the effort: "I want to make sure this isn't a pet project of the controller and once we're in there we'll have to fight tooth and nail to get [top executives] on board."

Hood and others say you shouldn't be shy about inquiring about a client's organizational chart, even if you risk offending the person who was your initial contact.
Kemp says he sometimes adopts the "Columbo" style of interrogation, asking question after probing question in the style of the television detective until he gets an answer that makes sense.

"I'll say, 'If you were to buy this, who would approve it?' If they say 'Bob,' then I'll ask if they could introduce me to Bob," Kemp says. "You try to be diplomatic about it, but at the end of the day, that's the risk you run. You can always take the philosophy that it doesn't hurt to ask."

The Eighth Installment in Our Series on Management Best Practices

Read the rest of the series:

Best Practices: Innovation

Mergers & Acquisitions: A Survival Guide

Best Practices: Learning to Love the Deal

Virtual Projects, Real Results

Never Let Them Go

Hire Power: Top Recruiting Tips

Customer Contact: How Much Is Too Much?

In some cases, you may find yourself questioning the decisions that a middle manager or another client-company contact is making about your project. Hood says that although it can be tricky politically to take an end run around someone you've been working with, it's usually the right thing to do.

"Your ultimate obligation is to the health of the organization, rather than to a specific individual," he says. "If they are doing things that are detrimental, it's my responsibility to bring it to the attention of those in charge." For instance, at the nonprofit institutions he serves, "if the controller is doing something that doesn't make sense, I go to the executive director."

If you're faced with the unpleasant task of going over the heads of your immediate contacts, the word from the wise is simple: Make sure you can prove your point.
"I can't say it long enough or loud enough: Document, document, document," says Thomas. "We had a case where we documented evidence that we were being asked to implement the software in a way that was not right. When the whole thing blew up we showed that we had tried to talk to the manager." The result? "We are still with the company and the manager is gone."

Establishing Rules of Engagement
Because the vagaries of institutional infighting vary widely from place to place, veterans of these political wars suggest you take a page from the military and develop your own "rules of engagement" manual to ensure that your company draws from past experiences and approaches the problem in a unified way.

"It has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but nowadays I can chart it out and see when something is going to happen," says Thomas, whose company has a rulebook for interacting with customers. "If [our] consultants feel uncomfortable, they have to come and talk to me."

Matrixforce's manual lays out a sequence of steps from the sales cycle through consulting and implementation. It emphasizes the importance of constantly reiterating a clear message to the client: It's up to all your different managers to sign off on a plan before we proceed.

"You have to have a very rigorous methodology and make the client make the decisions," Fream says. "You have to make it clear that this is a matter of time and money. You've got to make them understand that they've got to approve this technical plan or this design plan or [you're] not going to be able to implement or order the software on time. If you're not strong on this and there're multiple parties involved, you could wind up eating all the iterations they come up with after the fact."

It's particularly important that your sales force understand those rigorous rules. Kemp acknowledges that it's sometimes tough for inexperienced salespeople to probe the political structure of a potential customer company. However, it is key to your success that they do so.

"Some salespeople don't ask the hard business questions," he says. "It's easier for them to talk about the features of your product. But they have to know it's better to find out potential problems ahead of time than to promise your boss that this deal is going to come through tomorrow -- and then find out you have to run it by the client's security team."

7 Tips for Triumphing Over Internal Politics

When it comes to dealing with a client's internal intrigues, you might well find a tome on sociology or social anthropology more useful than a business book. Humans are by nature political animals and nowhere is that more evident than in the business world's offices and boardrooms. But before you go for a Ph.D. in anthropology, try these steps:

  1. Remember that surveillance starts with sales. Your first scouts into a new client's culture should be your salespeople. Sure, they're eager to close their deals, but before doing so, they should find out as much as possible about each client's hierarchy, determining who's got the authority to sign contracts and -- more importantly -- who signs the checks.
  2. Know the client's organizational chart. The person who brings you into a new customer business may not be the one you will be dealing with as the project progresses. You not only need to know all the players involved with your project, you must understand their roles and where they rank in terms of power.
  3. Steer clear of trouble. Finding out where feuds are raging can help you avoid getting embroiled in them. Use your own personnel to scope out the rivalries and the alliances. Debrief often and share that information with your staff.
  4. Meet regularly with different factions. The more client contacts you know -- and the more who know you -- the more likely you are to avoid ugly surprises late in the game. Chatting up a few folks can help you understand, for instance, how long-standing tension between two key players might affect your project.
  5. Develop and disseminate project procedures. Do this for clients as well as your own staff. This is particularly essential in environments where departmental jealousies can slow projects down or halt them entirely. Your life will be much easier if you can get everyone at a client company to understand what you need to proceed.
  6. Keep records of all communications. The problems that surface when you're dealing with a variety of departments and personalities can generate a lot of intramural finger pointing. Having records of who said what when can quickly settle such debates -- and save valuable time.
  7. Put the client's welfare above all else. Interdepartmental fights often involve egos and grudges that have little to do with the bigger picture. You can't go wrong if you avoid taking sides and focus on finding the best course for the whole company, not just the individuals you're working with.

Saying "So Long"
Sometimes, despite all your efforts, you may find that a client's organization is so dysfunctional that it threatens your own company. In those cases, unless you can make big changes fast, it may be time to cut your losses and move on.

After repeatedly dealing with one particularly unpleasant client, Thomas's company decided it had had enough. "We kept on getting yelled at," she says. "They were frustrated with their jobs and their lives and were taking it out on our consultant. We finally said, 'We are leaving until we get a client that isn't going to abuse us.'"

Hood says that as many small and midsized partner companies enjoy steady growth, their management teams can afford to get choosier about their clients. In cases where it's clear that internal politics will never go away, he suggests "firing" the client. Ultimately, he says, "you have to decide how much time and mental and psychic energy [you're willing] to pour in."