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Who is better at office politics, men or women?

The answer seems to be men. A survey of senior executives by the North Carolina leadership consulting firm Flynn Heath Holt found that women were more than four times as likely to say men were better, while men were nearly twice as likely to agree men were better.

That's critical because even if office politics has a bad rap – both women and men dislike it, according to the survey – it's a skill that is associated with rising to higher levels in an organization. It's therefore a skill women have to become better at.

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And they can, if they redefine it in more favourable terms – not as a manipulative, inauthentic or competitive activity, but as gaining influence through managing relationships. "If you care about something, how do you influence things so you can be successful?" Kathryn Heath asks in an interview. She's a founding partner at the firm and co-author of The Influence Effect with colleagues Jill Flynn, Mary Davis Holt, and Diana Faison.

Women prefer a relationship-based approach to work, so focusing on gaining influence for ideas and projects fits their leadership style. And there are certain skills that can be learned to achieve success in this vein.

It starts by constructing solid scaffolding. Ms. Heath points out how in construction, scaffolding is put around the new building to support the people working on it. Similarly, women (and men – the ideas apply for either gender) need to cultivate sponsors and supporters to guide them in gaining influence for their proposals. The problem is many women are limited by beliefs that they only need one sponsor, that they should just work hard and wait for their turn to be rewarded and that they should not ask for help.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, insist the authors.

Instead, constantly work on building allies. Beyond mentors, you want agents, people who are constantly supportive of you to others; truth tellers, who will give you the unvarnished truth; and a personal board of directors, who are available to give advice on your career. Beyond that, they recommend five strategies:

  • Leverage the power of the informal: Women often ignore the power of casual activities and social networks, believing they lack time for those functions, nothing happens at those gatherings, or they won’t get invited. But Ms. Heath says it’s vital for you to make time for networking, as it offers a chance to advance your ideas in a low-key way. In fact, a lot happens at casual gatherings in your office, so don’t exclude yourself. And if you don’t play golf, you can still join folks on Friday afternoon at Starbucks. “There are lots of opportunities besides golf to build your informal network,” she says in the interview.
  • Make relationships strategic: Understand what you want to achieve and then construct a “relationship map” that outlines who you need to reach to get the desired result. Who are the supporters who can help you? Who might oppose you? Who has the budget control? How will you handle these relationships to achieve the desired end? Write it down – the people, and your action plan – to emphasize its importance.
  • Create possibilities: Developing plans also means considering the multiple alternatives ahead, not just clear-cut victory for your idea but also imaginative solutions that provide progress in a different fashion. Ms. Heath recalls failing to do that in a previous post, taking a well-thought-out proposal to an executive team that was resolutely opposed. “I had no flexibility as I had no Plan B,” she says. After she went back to the drawing board, she developed a suggestion that won approval. Learn from her, and think ahead.
  • Develop influence loops: Begin building your coalition by nurturing trust before you need it. Identify key stakeholders and reach out to them in advance of any meeting to decide on your idea. Find out where they agree and disagree, and what tweaks can bring them on board. The idea is to walk into the decisive session knowing where key players are coming from and how to address their needs. This plays to the relationship-building strength of women, as long as they ditch their belief that only the final meeting counts – that a good proposal will win – and their desire to avoid bargaining.
  • Manage the physics of momentum: Generate a series of small wins that build to a tipping point in your favour. Managing the momentum means overcoming the reluctance to brag. You want people to understand why your idea works.

Yes, it's political. But political in a good way, playing to the relationship-building strengths that studies show women generally bring to the table (and that many men, of course, share).

The importance of your cover letter

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Don't ignore a cover letter with your résumé. And don't send a boilerplate one, without special focus on the specific job you're applying for.

That's not new advice from Halifax recruiter Gerald Walsh. But it gains added significance from a recent job search he helped with, for a human resource generalist at Feed Nova Scotia, an organization that collects and distributes food to food banks, shelters and meal programs in that province. Applicants were asked to write a cover letter explaining how they could contribute to the organization, and to attach a résumé.

Of the 73 applications, nearly a third – 22 – had no cover letter. None were invited for an interview. Forty applicants, 55 per cent of respondents, attached a templated cover letter that seemed generic. The letters were often undated, unsigned, poorly laid out, and contained spelling and grammar mistakes. Not one mentioned the name Feed Nova Scotia in the letter. Only 11 applicants, 15 per cent of respondents, customized their cover letter to the organization's needs and many addressed its mission and why they would be a good fit with passion.

"It's easy to see which candidates were selected for interviews," he writes on his blog. And he says that applies more widely than you believe: "Some people say that hiring managers don't read cover letters, so you don't need to write one. But that advice is wrong. Many hiring managers won't even read your résumé if you haven't attached a cover letter."

Message received?

The most annoying phrases used at work

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Speaking of messages received, some are best not given. Here are nine of the most annoying phrases we use at work, according to a survey by Workfront, an enterprise work management provider:

  • Think outside the box
  • Synergy
  • Bandwidth
  • Circle back
  • At a higher level
  • Table this conversation
  • Run it up the flagpole
  • Move the needle
  • Pow wow

But you never use them, right?

Quick hits

  • A lot of the advice at the turn of the year was to set small, specific, do-able goals for the year. But consultant Wally Bock recommends an audacious objective that he likes to call a Mount Shasta Goal, after a mountain in Northern California. Pick something large, in the distance, that you are always aware of, and each week identify one step to take you closer to Mount Shasta.
  • Here’s a simple way to keep a to-do list: Author Robin Benway puts the items in a draft Gmail, which she can access at any time from various devices to check and update. Another tip, this one for travel: Three keys to good health are diet, exercise and sleep; she tries to maintain two of those when out of town.
  • Confused about artificial intelligence? Tiff Macklem, dean of the Rotman School of Management, says its power is that it dramatically reduces the cost of prediction; witness Netflix understanding your movie interests and Amazon knowing your book proclivities.
  • Leave your job on good terms: Help your colleagues and boss by searching for and recommending your replacement, advises consultant Corina Manea.
  • Your iPhone will delete unused apps for you: Tap Settings, choose iPhone Storage, and then enable the Offload Unused Apps option. If it goofs, you can always reinstall one, says tech writer David Nield.
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