Political awareness: a critical skill for HR professionals, not just politicians
As HR professionals, we are in the business of people. We’re important advisory partners for our organisations and we need to be equipped with the right skills – like political awareness. While political awareness has little to do with politicians themselves, it has everything to do with people.
We spoke to Clare Gunning, Deputy Commissioner at the Australian Taxation Office to get her view on why political awareness matters, especially when you’re in the game of HR.
Clare brings a unique perspective to this skill, having spent years working in the public sector before taking a role at the Business Council of Australia, where for more than two years she was head of Government Relations and Partnerships. This role challenged Clare to build her political awareness, which she says is essentially an ability to influence – a crucial skill when you’re in an advisory role.
Why political awareness is so valuable to HR professionals
Your political awareness is critical to understanding the relationships that underpin an organisation – how things get done, who has the power to make decisions and who acts on them. It enables you to navigate these power structures and get things done.
This skill encompasses a deep knowledge and understanding of key stakeholders, their priorities and business goals, and their concerns; but more than that, HR professionals can utilise this skill to effectively position themselves as a trusted advisor.
‘A quote I’ve always loved goes along the lines of: “At work you want to be selling Panadol, not vitamins. Vitamins are nice to have, but if you have a headache, you will do what it takes to get Panadol.” So if you’re trying to get something through a manager or business partner, ask what their headache is and come up with a plan to help take the pain away,’ Clare explains.
Practical tips to develop political awareness
The way to master political awareness, according to Clare, is by ‘being really curious about who you’re trying to influence, the various parties, their priorities, and what’s happening beneath the surface. Also trying to think a few steps ahead, what’s around the corner, and what you can see coming down the line.’
Clare’s provided practical tips for HR professionals to help us strengthen our political awareness.
1. Know your objective. It can be easy to get lost in the details and lose sight of your end goal. ‘Political awareness requires clarity of goals. Get clear on what you’re trying to achieve, what problem are you trying to solve? Having that clear direction can go a long way when you’re in advisory positions like HR – it’s always easier to steer yourself back on the right path when you can see your destination,’ Clare explains.
2. Take time to analyse and strategise. Clare shared some insights into how she approaches this, ‘I do believe in preparing before you meet people, so if I’m meeting an important stakeholder, I always take time beforehand to consider what’s going on for them, and what I can do to help them with that issue. I’ll ask people directly as well, what’s on your mind, tell me about your problems, and then I’ll go away and come up with ideas to help.’
3. Don’t just find opportunities, be proactive in identifying risks. Interestingly, Clare says one of the best ways to demonstrate your value is to prepare for risks, rather than focus on opportunities. ‘People value protecting against emerging issues because the benefit of doing so is clear. Where I’ve had the most success with political awareness, are those instances where I can demonstrate to a stakeholder how I can manage a risk for them.’
A great example of this is discussed in this edition’s Case Study: How HR became trusted business partners. We talk to Merle about how she proactively identified a risk in her organisation’s recruitment process, and in championing change and ultimately redesigning the entire recruitment process – Merle completely overhauled the business’ opinion of HR’s value add.
4. Check in with your stakeholders. Clare recommends having a list of key stakeholders, including your manager, and making regular contact with them. ‘I’ve got a list of key stakeholders that I reach out to at least every week. Sometimes it’s just to touch base, to see if there’s something they need from me or if they’re getting everything they want or need from our area.’
‘I'm quite deliberate about the way I manage relationships,’ Clare explains. ‘My mantra is that I take 100% responsibility for managing relationships. I never expect someone to call me or follow me up – I always follow other people up and call them and book in time with them. I’m massively proactive and that pays off because people notice.’
Clare acknowledges this isn’t always easy – especially for introverts – but it’s absolutely critical. ‘Sometimes I don't know what's really going on in a stakeholder’s mind. I wish I did, that would make me feel more confident when I pick up that phone. But I think – just do it anyway! Honestly nothing bad ever comes from just checking in with people. Like “Hey I'm just checking in, just want to make sure you got everything you need from me. Is there anything I can help you with today?” You'll be amazed at how often they say “Oh thank God you called! I just want to talk to someone about X…”. Keep reaching out, and in six months’ time you’ll look at that stakeholder list and you'll know exactly what's happening with every single person and what they need from you.’
5. The best place to start practising political awareness is with your boss. Clare says, ‘Your manager is someone who has to back you when things need to be escalated. So, think about what is happening for your manager, what’s on their mind and how can you help them. If you take the time to understand your boss’s priorities, you’ll have a better idea of how you can add value and earn their confidence’.
6. Reflect. Clare recommends being aware of what’s happening in the moment around you and taking the time to reflect on it later. She explains, ‘Sometimes you'll find you're really good with certain stakeholders or in certain situations, but then you're not so great in others. Try to unpack that in your own mind. When I know I’m working really well with a client, I reflect and start paying attention. What questions have I been asking? How have I got to that place? Because then you can try to replicate it when you are in a situation that isn’t going as well.’
Political awareness = your ability to influence your way to good outcomes
Ultimately, as HR professionals, we help lead our organisation every day. We are in an advisory role, providing essential support to staff and stakeholders, to enable them to perform their roles effectively. Our capacity to influence is a critical skill. Having political awareness will help you provide persuasive advice and guidance that ultimately achieves good outcomes for your people and your organisation.