Gartner Research

How to Depoliticize Executive Relationships During a Crisis

Published: 12 February 2021


Virtual work threatens traditional power and status. Accessing senior executives has become more direct for some, more challenging for others. At the same time, social and economic equality challenges executives’ relationships with one another, their personnel and stakeholders.

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Accessing the next level of potential executive leadership often happened through, “Let’s do lunch,” or “Let’s have a drink,” and the classic, “Let’s play a round of golf.” Due to the pandemic, though, this was not possible in the same way, distressing executive leaders and the droves of middle managers who strategize to gain access to them and the associated professional rewards.

Employees of global enterprises or with large numbers of remote workers before the pandemic have always had the struggle of competing with employees seated in headquarters offices or otherwise in close proximity to executives.

Figure 1. Depoliticize Executive Relationships

Relationships are critical to how enterprises run. However, when relationships become more important than individual or group performance, the enterprise has become politicized. This compromises morale and performance at every level of the enterprise. Pandemic practices and disruption offer executive leaders a unique opportunity to step back and reflect on their professional relationships to determine if they are encouraging performance or politics.

This is becoming increasingly important, given the global pressure around social and economic equality. Executives must ensure they look more holistically at their relationships in the enterprise and whom they surround themselves with and promote.

Analyze How Time and Attention Are Distributed

Review your calendar and contacts to determine whom you are spending time with and why, and how productive that time is to the enterprise. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • In the course of a week, who are the individual employees with whom you are spending time?

  • How long have you had a relationship with each person, and how comfortable is the relationship?

  • Did each person seek you out, or did you reach out to the person for a clear business reason?

  • What is the gender, racial, age and tenure diversity of the individuals with whom you spend time?

  • How many hours a week do you spend with employees with whom you have never spoken before?

  • How often do you proactively identify and reach out to high performers to expand your knowledge of what works in your enterprise and to find opportunities to develop them further?

Action item:

  • Depoliticize by ensuring your relationships are both proactive and reactive. Reach out to a diverse set of high-performing employees, rather than disproportionately spending time with those who seek you out. Doing this systematically and deliberately will become critical, as remote work and virtual relationships increase in frequency and duration.

Review the Value of Executive Relationships

The old cliche says, “It’s not personal — it’s business.” This is rarely true in executive relationships. While executives must focus on leading the enterprise, it is also understandable that they surround themselves with colleagues whose company they enjoy. This period of extended disruption offers executive leaders the opportunity to reassess the proportion of personal and business factors in each of their relationships. In essence, executive leaders must ask themselves, “If our relationship no longer involves golf and lunch, what is left?”

Consider the following questions to evaluate the potential political nature of your relationships:

  • What proportion of our time together is spent in social discussions, rather than addressing business challenges and opportunities?

  • If we did not have a personal connection, would I hire this person again?

  • Is this individual delivering on business outcome targets, and if not, what am I doing about it?

  • Am I making excuses for someone who is close to me, because I am concerned about our relationship or their reaction?

  • Have others pointed out challenges with any individual, and do I find I am regularly defending them?

  • Are there others in the enterprise who are delivering, whom I am not considering for opportunities or promotions, because I do not feel a positive connection with them?

Action item:

  • Objectively review the value of the individuals with whom you spend time at work. Consider whether they are delivering on appropriate objectives, and you are holding them accountable if they are not. Consider if there are other employees who you are refraining from engaging with due to a lack of connection or familiarity, and find ways to give them opportunities.

Create Expanded Succession Plans

During periods of extended disruption, succession planning takes on more urgency and requires executive leaders to create a deeper bench. But if that bench is simply a small rotation of “safe” candidates, with high familiarity to the executive team but little diversity, then it is likely the succession plan has become politicized, which places the enterprise at risk.

There are two types of political succession risk during a period of extended disruption:

  • Risk of senior leaders not leaving in the interests of personal and enterprise stability, and limiting the types of new thinking needed for the enterprise to manage through the disruption

  • Risk of senior leaders leaving, but replaced by a small number of successors who are familiar, but place the enterprise at long-term disadvantage as the competitive landscape evolves

Action items:

  • Make a deeper commitment to executive and leadership succession planning, and to creating a deeper bench with more diversity.

  • Focus on two categories of successors — short-term, emergency interim successors, and longer-term development of successors to be ready for extended disruption.

  • Create successors for more critical roles than previously planned, to give more high-performing employees opportunities for development and exposure to the executive leadership team.

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