Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Rainforest CEO and Co-Founder JJ Chai on LinkedIn and republished here with his permission.
Recently, The Economist published an article about the most popular modules at Stanford GSB. A quote from the article:
…a module called “Paths to Power”. Students like to quip that it is designed for the budding Machiavellian. The opening line of the course syllabus laments that “insufficient sensitivity to, and skill in, coping with power dynamics” have cost many talented people promotions and even their jobs. The objective of the course, writes Jeffrey Pfeffer, the instructor, is to make sure “you never have to leave a position involuntarily”.
One way to maintain power, students are taught, is to avoid grooming successors. mbas are quick to draw parallels with contemporary events. After a recent lecture a student observed that Donald Trump naively “created his own competition” when he endorsed Ron DeSantis for governor of Florida in 2018. How to guard against scheming rivals? One way is to hold “multiple overlapping roles” within an organisation, as an assigned reading recommends: it is harder to be defenestrated if multiple teams report to you.
Startup founders already have a ton of problems to juggle. Worrying about executives or team members playing power games and entrenching themselves is last thing a founder would want to be dealing with. Yet, execs are specifically skilling up on these dark arts. It’s not just MBAs by the way, there’s a whole slew of books and professional course on this topic. After all, an organisation is inherently a political structure. Founders need to actively manage and minimise this in a startup. Here are some thoughts about defending against the dark arts of politics in a startup.
Shared Values and Mission:
Alignment of values, mission, and vision is particularly helpful in minimising politics at a startup. Customer-centric or belief-based mission statements that are easier to describe than quantify are ideal. They help filter out and self-select certain employee profiles, and it’s easier to tell who is working towards the mission versus individual gains. You can easily guess which of these two slogans would attract more of these dark arts practitioners: “Creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere” vs “Deliver top decline cash-on-cash returns”!
Narrower and flatter organisation:
The startup with zero politics is… a solo entrepreneur. Each additional team member from that point increases the amount of politicking. It isn’t a linear relationship though, a flatter organisational structure with fewer layers of management can reduce power struggles and increase collaboration. At the same time, fewer functional sub-teams also reduce the number of exec leaders, and make it easier to form a strong top-team that sees each other as their first-team.
Information and decision-making transparency:
Transparent decision-making processes, policies, and procedures help build trust and dispel perceptions of hidden agendas, blunting the usefulness of politicking. This can be challenging, especially in times when some decisions are driven by bad news. Founders, myself included, naturally prefer amplifying good news rather than communicating hard truths. Over the longer run though, by sharing openly (good or bad) and allowing employees to understand the rationale behind decisions, a more trusting and cooperative environment can be built.
Clarity of Roles and Responsibilities:
Startups often encounter issues with this, as roles evolve quickly and often, responsibilities for some team members would have drifted far from their original job descriptions. It’s a significant investment of time and resources, but keeping the org chart, team charters and individual JDs up to date can help prevent misunderstandings and conflicts related to power and control. This clarity, combined with high-quality OKRs, also helps employees understand how they fit within the organisation and contribute to its overall success.
Growth, the wonder drug:
Like everything within startups, growth helps minimise politicking. It’s both hard and futile to hoard power when the company is in hypergrowth. In this situation, there are many more opportunities created than there are to be captured by individuals. The problem is that growth is harder to come by these days with less funding and a strong emphasis on the bottom line. Hence the increased need for founders to be vigilant these days.
Finally, as a founder, being a student of the dark arts is useful to help one notice signs of politicking and power games within the organisation, and then be able to address these issues promptly and firmly. You don’t have to take up a “Paths to Power” module at a business school, just read up the classics like “48 Laws of Power“, and “Influence“, or fire up ChatGPT to discuss it with you!