Many of us are change agents in our jobs in some ways – whether we’re project leaders, supply chain professionals, product managers or work in some other functional area. You don’t have to be leading a defined change management programme or business improvement project to be a change agent.

If you’re pushing the boundaries of the norm, looking for better ways to get work done, making efforts to refine things in little ways or implementing more significant improvements in your area of work, you’re a change agent.

Many change agents share a common emotion: frustration. It often comes from contending with the organisational politics and personal agendas of senior managers and executives, a significant issue that is commonly among the top factors affecting change success.

Yet all organisations are political to some degree.

The frustration is understandable. Change agents’ jobs are often demanding enough as it is; dealing with the politics and skulduggery amongst senior managers is extra hassle most change agents could do without.

The challenge of winning friends and supporters at the top table and power circles of the organisation is familiar to seasoned professionals. It’s one of the reasons we recognize the importance of stakeholder management in our work. And it’s also why shrewd change agents proactively foster rapport and affinity across their stakeholder communities and especially at senior levels.

The best change agents know that building and maintaining a network of fans and cheerleaders amongst bigwig stakeholders is priceless. Whereas average change agents, though technically sound, routinely face all manner of organisational hassles with progressing their work agendas.

The best change agents don’t become political animals themselves; rather, they recognize that the political landscape is an inherent facet of the organisational terrain. They know from experience that to ignore workplace politics is to put your project or work progress at peril. So they stay attuned to the organisational dynamics and political intrigues, imbibing these factors to their stakeholder management approach in healthy and ethical ways.

Our conventional knowledge and toolkit for managing stakeholders – stakeholder mapping, engagement planning, and so on – are valuable to all change agents. But they’re often inadequate to effectively handle the politics and power plays that, ultimately, determine our level of work success and the nature of our organisational life. If we’re organisationally savvy, life can be sweet – for us as change agents and for our teams: we sustain a burgeoning fan club at the top table, our people are happy at work, our personal brand is credible, and our work progresses with less organisational problems. If we’re not clued up to the organisational dynamics, life can be frustrating indeed: our work progress is often thwarted or hamstrung, stakeholder alignment seems unattainable, and securing investment funding or project gateway approvals can seem like climbing Everest.

Being organisationally savvy means we often we have to go deeper than conventional stakeholder management approaches; we’ve got to grasp the dynamics of politics, power and human idiosyncrasies at play in any organisation.

As I explain in Sweet Stakeholder Love, we should always remember that stakeholders are not static beings; they’re human beings. And humans are not like computers or light switches that one can simply turn on and turn off. We’re not wholly rational nor behave in reasonable ways; we’re complex beings, with behaviours that can sometimes be idiosyncratic, induced by a blend of personal, psychological and environmental influences.

The personal factors that sometimes impel our behaviours are things like age, gender, marital status, education and religious beliefs. The psychological influences include personality types, attitudes and values. And the environmental factors are things like political orientations, financial or economic circumstances and social and cultural norms.

With this composite soup of influences, it’s no surprise that dealing with some humans can sometimes feel like handling jelly.

On top of that, we’re also driven by so many visible and invisible forces – like our personal motivations, the problems and struggles we’re living through, or the emotions coursing through our spirit at any point in life. For instance, a stakeholder going through a bitter divorce may not be the most agreeable person to work with at the time. Nor would a stakeholder facing severe health problems or contending with some other traumatic circumstances, perhaps.

And even more frustrating to deal with might be a stakeholder who is adept at employing Machiavellian tactics for his/her own personal agenda and self-interests – typically to expand or maintain influence, power, status or leverage, or other ego-boosting motives.

Most, if not all, organisations have a few such individuals.

And some organisations are awash with them.

Moreover, it’s usually more common higher up, closer and right up to the top table – the domains of the organisation where the big fish stakeholders dwell. Sometimes, dealing with the myriad of manoeuvres and seemingly irrational behaviours amongst these folks can feel like swimming through shark-infested waters; brown-nosing, narcissism and chicanery abound, and cover-your-back moves may be standard operating procedure for some.

These are some of the hidden reasons change agents sometimes struggle to gain traction and win in their work – whether that’s getting project buy-in, recruitment authorisation, budgetary or business case approval, or achieving internal integration and alignment, for example.

Winning requires understanding and addressing the motivational drives and behaviours of senior-level stakeholders – some of whom are the biggest and baddest sharks. It’s how the best change agents go about their business, delivering success with finesse and flair.

In these organisational dimensions, formal job title and functional responsibility may mean little; it’s the real organisational structure that counts. The formal organisational chart – the one shown to you at your induction or plastered on the corporate intranet – may only ever tell you a little of how things are really “organised”, so basing your stakeholder management approach on it may not always yield progress.

The real organisational structure, often created and controlled by the sharks and other big fish, is an informal web of motives, relationships and bonds that dictates how things really progress, or don’t.

It’s an ecosystem that can be rife with so many unspoken forces and minefields. For example, Shark A and Shark B who are sworn enemies, or may head competing fiefdoms, and consequently are always on the lookout to profit from opportunities for power grabs; Big Fish X who is a sponsor and protector of Stakeholder Z, and will thus block anything that threatens the position or advancement of her protégé; Stakeholders A, B and C who are entangled in a ménage à trois that is as gripping and addictive as nothing you can imagine, and is so all-consuming as to blot out any modicum of common sense they may have had before their sexual entanglement; Big Fish D and Shark C who are tight buddies outside work, play soccer together and will always guard each other’s interests come rain or shine; Stakeholder X who has the hots for Stakeholder Y, and as a result will go along with anything Stakeholder Y supports no matter how stupid it is; or Big Fish C who is a virtuoso at stealing credit for other people’s work, and will always seek avenues to practise his dirty craft in order to further his status in the organisation.

If you think these sorts of forces and other similar dynamics aren’t at play in your own organisation and impacting your work progress to some degree, you may be grossly mistaken.

The real organisational structure is an important factor that strongly influences how sharks and other stakeholders respond to you and your work agenda.

And within that structure, more often than not, some of the most fruitful nodes of influence that can be easily neglected are the gatekeepers: the secretaries, personal assistants and executive assistants who act as aides, guardians and protectors. They usually have more sway in the ecosystem than many people realize, particularly because of their roles working so intimately with the sharks and other big fish. They tend to be in the know – sometimes more than anyone else – and can frequently affect the perceptions and perspectives of their protectee.

Keeping the gatekeeper sweet, and perhaps even asking for their help or advice outright, can often reap lucrative rewards.

Being a change agent in any functional area is rewarding work in itself. We make the work even more rewarding and fulfilling for ourselves through our successes – the results we accomplish for our functions or projects, our people, and the organisations we serve. And we can amplify those successes tremendously by becoming more organisationally savvy, just like the best amongst us.

Adapted excerpt from Sweet Stakeholder Love by Sigi Osagie © EPG Solutions Limited 2021

Adapted versions published as “The Best Supply Chain Managers Are Organisationally Savvy” in Supply Chain Management Review, 9 February 2022 and “The Best Project Managers Never Ignore Organisational Politics” in Project Manager Today, 18 February 2022