Political capital is often thought of as a currency of influence and trust that can be deployed or lost in order to achieve a given goal. We use political capital in various aspects of our lives. Let’s focus on how we accumulate and deploy political capital internally at a startup in this article.
Why Political Capital
Many founders think once we hire people, they just do what we want. We sometimes get frustrated that the people we worked so hard to bring on end up with their own thoughts of how to do their jobs. Free will can be pretty annoying that way. Our teams also need to be inspired here and there.
Many of us learned early in our careers that we could ride our horse in front of our troops and get them fired up any old time we want to. We think of this as the Braveheart method of getting what we need out of teams.
The first time we put on that makeup and bang our shield we can get our team to do pretty much anything we want. We’re sharing our passion with others. The second time, it becomes a little less effective on its own. The third, a little less than that. And so it goes. Especially as we have more people to distribute little parts of our passion to.
Inspiration is great and we can use it to authentically drive performance. But it’s often used alone when it needs to be coupled with something that benefits both the inspirer and those being inspired. This is not just quid pro quo. It’s driving behaviors by letting our teams know what we expect out of them and what, beyond a regular old paycheck, they can then expect from us in return. Paychecks are easy to come by for the skills most valued by startups, inspiration and the passion derived from that inspiration are not.
To be authentic, we define our mission, values, goals, and compensate our coworkers appropriately. That kind of clarity allows us to find who share our ideals and sometimes our path for making the world a better place. It’s the kind of political capital that lasts.
When we are clear with our teams, they trust us and believe in our mission. And that trust becomes a currency. If we choose build more than we deploy, our culture is better. As we trust our teams more, we have to deploy capital rather than issue orders. Just a few of the thousands of ways to build political capital in a startup:
Talk through issues and listen and respect the opinions of others
Promote the accomplishments our team members over our own
Issue feedback, including the hard feedback, consistently and in a timely fashion
Win sales with customers
Get great PR for the organization
Do all of these just sound like good ways to run a company? They are. Turns out that solid fundamentals is the best and most scalable ways to inspire our teams and get them to do what we suggest or need. But notice that none of this directly benefits the founder. We could say get great PR for the founder rather than the company - but we didn’t. And often times PR is doled out to individuals rather than companies. But saying “we” instead of “I” in quotes goes a long way.
In a smaller organization, political capital can be as much about inspiration as it is about wielding power.
How Political Capital Changes As We Grow
As we grow, political capital takes on another form. It becomes more about influencing other parts of our organization. There is certainly still a need for inspiration but the larger any organization becomes the more politics play a part. Especially if we are successful.
Here, we find that doing a favor for another team increases our political capital. This isn’t to say we should ever do things we don’t agree with. We still want to listen and talk through issues. But sometimes we have to realize we don’t have all the answers and give space for others. We might choose to allow a new headcount to go to another team or to give a responsibility up.
Political capital becomes what allows us to get stuff done. Some will treat this as a game. Heads are often buried in the sand as though it isn’t necessary. But while it rarely appears as a value or part of a culture, there is always some form of political capital to be aware of. And the more on the surface the easier to understand.
Eventually political capital ends the tenure of many a great founder in a successful company. But it doesn’t have to. We may end up deciding we don't want to play that game. And it's not like the game showed up overnight. It was there the whole time. But when politics becomes a large portion of the job, the right to make the decision to play the game and so the ability to control our destiny is part of the reward of success.