I interviewed a candidate for a chief of staff role at a large healthcare system recently. One of the questions I asked her was “what advice would you give on how to best navigate a bureaucracy?”
“First,” she said, “I always try to be helpful to the people who are in these functional roles. I want them to know and like me, so they are ready to help when I need them. Second, I try not to make last minute requests. I understand there is an unending list of people who need their help, and I want to give them as much advance notice as possible to not stress them out. Finally, I try not to go above their head and escalate an issue, although sometimes you have to.”
She paused for a moment in thought. “It’s really all about the relationships,” she declared.
She was spot on. I thought back to the many battles I had lost early in my career with HR, IT, purchasing and accounting. Battles in which I had lost my composure, threatened escalation or ended the conversation when it was clear I was going to lose. Similarly, I recalled a long string of unnecessary conflicts with airline reps, front-desk workers and customer service folks that ended with me being unsatisfied.
I didn’t learn how to finesse when I was growing up. My dad was a logical, driven guy with a strong self-righteous streak. He believed if a company or a service didn’t hold up its end of a bargain, it was in the wrong and he was in the right. And he had a temper. I will forever remember a family trip when I was 10 years old and something went wrong with a reservation.
As the argument escalated, my dad got angrier and more indignant, finally declaring in a loud and exasperated voice: “If this was America I’d come behind that counter and punch you in the nose.”
Needless to say, it took me a long time — and a fair amount of therapy — before I learned that intimidation and escalation were not always the best tools for success. Before this enlightenment, my weapon of choice in dealing with bureaucratic screw-ups was to humiliate the unfortunate soul who was assigned to help me. I’d say witty things such as, “Oh, so I guess your company policy is find your most loyal and high spending customers and abuse them.” It made me feel good to say such things, but it wasn’t particularly helpful in getting what I needed, or in winning over the one person who had the power to help me.
I started my career in the agency business, before the advent of big holding companies with thousands of employees, so I didn’t really learn how to navigate a bureaucracy. That changed with my first corporate job at Nissan. During my second week there, a man came into my office with a two-wheel dolly and began removing the big beautiful plant in my office.
“Why are you taking my plant?” I asked.
“Because it’s a VP’s plant, and you’re only a director,” he replied.
I laughed, until I realized he was serious.
“But this is a VP’s office, and it’s the only space available to me,” I countered.
“Yes,” he said, as he backed out of the office with my plant, “but you’re not a VP.”
My anger and indignation got me nowhere. And when I appealed to his supervisor, I was turned down.
Thus began my valuable lesson in the power of being kind, over the power of being right.