#AAYP 2013: Surviving, and navigating, your firm’s politics

ACCOUNTANCY FIRMS are complex systems of egos, constituencies, issues and rivalries. If you are going to advance your career to partnership, then you need to know how to play the game.

Identify the movers and shakers in your firm. Who are the highly influential people in your firm? They may not be a partner or have an imposing job title. Who are the gatekeepers who control the flow of resources, information and decisions?

Who are the guides and the helpers? If you don’t already know, find out who they and get to know them. Be aware of anyone in the firm who has a reputation for throwing their toys out of the pram if they are not consulted or involved. Remember that everyone has a mixed bag of behaviours, and to keep any labels you have for people in your firm to yourself.

Senior management are notorious for being incredibly time-poor. They often appreciate being informed face-to-face. Be prepared with what you want to say to them and don’t waste their time; if they have given you ten minutes then keep to time or, better still, finish ahead of time.

Very often these partners have large egos and can be very sensitive. As a consequence, there is a lot of room for making statements or acting in ways that could be seen as showing poor political judgement. There isn’t usually a second chance to make a good first impression with these people in your firm.

Frequently your time together may be cut short or postponed because a client requires their input. Have a contingency plan if this happens, and be prepared to summarise your key points and conclusions and send a written follow-up.

Exercise self-control before saying what is on your mind. People can get themselves into political trouble by being too candid and annoying influential people. Conversely, there may be too little candour, which is seen as holding back due to fearfulness or lacking guts. You need to weigh up each situation on the candour scale. Are the right people here? Is this really the best time to speak my mind? Should I let someone else start before I pitch-in? Did the speaker who asked for candour really mean it, or could this be a career-limiting conversation?

Avoid gossiping or supplying information to the firm’s grapevine. In a firm, people quickly find out what you have said about them, and that includes gossip. It can be very easy to get burned by sharing private views with others in the wrong setting and with the wrong people. If you choose to gossip and pass on stories, it may limit your career. If you choose not to gossip, it won’t limit your career.

Treat everyone as individuals, and with respect. The magic and complexity of life is that people are different. Everyone, particularly partners, requires special consideration and treatment. What may work with one person, may annoy another, so you need to learn to read people. Relationships which work in a firm are ones where there is mutual respect – both for each other and particularly in a professional partnership, for what each other has achieved.

Very often the first sign of trouble will be seen in someone’s body language, rather than what they are actually saying. When you are in meetings or talking with people, tune into their body language as well as what they are actually saying.

Be cautious about initial or rigid assessment of people. You may do a reasonable job trying to read a person and form an initial judgement, but it may be wrong or it could change over time.

Every firm has its own ways of doing things and when it comes to getting things done there are a multitude of ways you can do it. For example, you could try the direct approach, or you could speak to your mentor and get them to test the water on your behalf. Some of these tactics are more effective and acceptable than others. Some people get into trouble because they treat all situations as the same. Do your research about the most effective ways to get things done appropriately.

Being too black and white often leaves you very little room to manoeuvre and extreme views can very often switch other people off. These may be the very people you need to influence or befriend. To avoid being seen this way, where possible, make the business case first. Be more tentative than you actually want to be, so others have room to get comfortable and negotiate and bargain.

Heather Townsend is a business network specialist, and along with Jo Larbie recently published How to Make Partner and Still Have a Life

Related reading