A report published today by the Chartered Management Institute shatters the myth that 'to get ahead, you have to play dirty'. Called Leading with Political Awareness, it shows UK business leaders are increasingly rejecting 'turf wars' and the pursuit of petty personal advantage, in favour of partnership and alliance building. The report also provides the first national picture of levels of 'political skill' across the UK and highlights what senior executives will need to succeed in the future.
The report, published with Warwick Business School, shows that only 31 per cent of the 1,495 respondents view politics as 'protecting their turf'. Fewer still believe that it is about 'pursuing personal advantage' (21 per cent). More common is the belief that good political skills are about 'alliance building' (59 per cent), followed by 'interaction with government' (40 per cent) and 'reconciling differences' (39 per cent).
Asked why they give high ratings to the political skills that help build partnerships, senior managers focused on the value external relationships bring to business. 92 per cent identified 'the impact of public opinion' as a key factor behind relationship building. 88 per cent suggested it was a way to 'scan the competition' and 73 per cent claimed partnerships can 'influence trade agreements'.
However, despite recognising the value of political skills, UK business leaders admit there is significant room for improvement. Only 58 per cent claim they are 'good'. Nearly 1 in 5 (18 per cent) admit to being 'average' and only 1 per cent judge their skills as 'excellent'. On a 5-point scale, the highest self-rated skill is 'creating honest, open communications' (4.61). The lowest is a strategic ability, 'analysing external uncertainty about the organisation' (3.61).
Given the low ratings, the research also explored how important these influencing skills will become. Respondents suggest that by 2012, partnership working is expected to become a priority for UK business leaders (63 per cent, up 6 points from today), followed by the need to influence regulators or government (53 per cent, up 10 points) and secure external funding (35 per cent, up 3 points).
Many senior executives also believe that, in 5 years time, their current internal activities will no longer take priority. For example, in today's business environment 43 per cent focus on competing for internal resources, but only 34 per cent think this will be valuable in 2012. Perhaps surprisingly, overcoming internal tensions and influencing internal decision-makers both drop by 18 per cent (to 21 and 28 per cent respectively).
Mary Chapman, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, says: "In a dynamic business environment, where globalisation is opening new doors on a daily basis, the shift to external partnership-building is good news for UK business.
"It shows leaders accept that success can be achieved by the way they work with individuals. They recognise the need to talk, and relate to, people on a personal level. Of course, internal relationships will continue to be important, but there is now a clear understanding that results will be achieved through wider collaboration. Increasingly, how good an individual is at using their political skills, with employees and external audiences, will determine personal, and business, success."
The report shows that the majority of business leaders have developed their political skills through bitter experience. 88 per cent say that 'learning from mistakes' has been key and 85 per cent say that the 'experience of managing crises' has been valuable. Two-thirds (67 per cent) also suggest that 'learning from role models' has been useful.
A key outcome of the research programme has been the development of a 5 dimensional framework. Covering the core areas of personal and interpersonal skills, the ability to read people and situations, building alliances and providing strategic direction, it will form the basis of a tool to measure the political skills of UK business leaders.
Professor Jean Hartley, of Warwick Business School, says: "No individual or organisation exists in a vacuum and the impact of their actions can be felt across a diverse set of stakeholders. This means that political skills are not the 'dark art' that so many associate with them. Rather they are fast becoming a mainstream element of leadership needed across all business sectors."
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