In many organizations, even flat ones, a puzzling phenomenon seems to take place. Some people rise time and time again, not because of superior intellect, expertise, technical skills, work ethic or value delivered, but because of something else. They often enjoy better opportunities, more leniency and a higher level of respect. Why? Because they excel at relationships and social politics.
Now, don’t run away just yet. If you aren’t one to play politics, you’re delegating control of your own destiny. When you choose not to engage, you allow others to define your future for you. Crystal Richards, Principal and Owner of Mosaic Resource Group, has been navigating murky social waters for over 15 years, first as a project manager in the private sector, then in government. Now a trainer and facilitator, she joins us to talk about what social politics are, why they matter and how you can use them to your own advantage.
Eager to learn success strategies so you're not screaming into your pillow at night? Join Crystal and other industry leaders at the Digital PM Summit.
Carl Smith: Hey everybody, thanks for tuning in today to the Bureau Briefing. Stopping by today we have got the principal and owner of Mosaic Resource Group, where she helps project management professionals become the best they can at their craft. It is Crystal Richards. How are you doing, Crystal?
Crystal Richards: I'm doing well Carl, thanks so much for the awesome introduction.
Carl Smith: Well, you're welcome, and thank you, you're going to be one of our speakers at the Digital PM Summit this September in Memphis, and I am super excited to hear you talk about dealing with social politics at work. Now for everybody who's listening, give a little bit of background on yourself.
Crystal Richards: Sure. Well, I'm excited, number one, because I love talking about this topic. It's something that really gets the crowd going. I seem to always have the room filled up, and just have great conversations. And two, Memphis is kind of my hometown. I'm an Army brat, and that's where my father grew up, and I recently moved there four years ago, and I thought I was there to stay, and then made some adjustments in my life, i.e. I got married. And I moved to the DC area, so my family's still there, I'm excited to see my folks when I take a visit, but Memphis is always my down home hometown.
Carl Smith: I bet you miss that barbecue, huh?
Crystal Richards: I do. Actually I miss my dad's barbecue more than anything, but they do have some ... Memphis is definitely famous for the barbecue.
Carl Smith: Yeah. Well so, let's talk a little bit about your background. Served 15 years of doing project management, and I know you were in the healthcare space, right?
Crystal Richards: That's correct.
Carl Smith: So what were you doing? How did you get into project management?
Crystal Richards: You know, it's a funny story. I would say I got into project management like a lot of us. I was an accidental project manager. I worked in consulting, and the title give us is engagement manager, or engagement leader.
Carl Smith: Right.
Crystal Richards: And you work with your stakeholders. For the particular projects I worked in healthcare were specific to improving the hospital billing and registration, so we call it revenue cycle, overall. And there was a lot of moving pieces, as you can imagine, from the patient walking in the door, to the front desk clerk, to the processing of the paperwork, and every step of the way for getting the patient set up for having an appropriate bill going out the door to both their insurance company, as well as to, perhaps, the patient. And that ... right, and that took a lot of management of expectations. Management of all of the moving pieces of paperwork, and improving that overall.
And as I went from the private sector side into the federal side, there was a lot more emphasis, right, of being called a project manager, having more of the clearcut skills in managing projects, where everything else was kind of flexible. We weren't quite ... you know, when I look back it was project management, but at the time it wasn't a project manager, and so when you move in the federal space then there's definitely an emphasis that there are certified project managers doing the work. And when I sat through a course on getting my PMP certification, I'm like, "Huh, so I've been doing all this, just calling it something different."
Carl Smith: Well now, I can truly appreciate your topic with social politics. Having done digital projects for healthcare, and forget HIPAA and forget all the compliance stuff, just some of the sandboxes that are in a hospital-
Crystal Richards: Oh yeah.
Carl Smith: Or that are in that healthcare type thing. So, how did you navigate that when you're trying to ... especially with something like billing. You must have a lot of people that as you're going through it wouldn't even return your call or have a meeting with you.
Crystal Richards: Oh, absolutely. That's where developing the relationships is key. Yes, I was given the task because I had this skillset of managing the work, but I could not ignore the fact that people have different opinions about things. They don't always see that just because they get an email from me, they should open it. So it was really about building the rapport with the different types. And that's the other key thing, the different types of groups, just as you said, the sandbox of the clinicians, and even still they have their own little subset. There were the doctors, and then there were the nurses. There was the RAD techs, and then dealing with the hospital administration group, and even breaking that down you have your executives, C suite, to the frontline managers, to the front level desk associates who had different perspectives. And trying to understand where they were coming from. And we always talk about the voice of the customer, what was going to make them happy in each one of their sandboxes?
Carl Smith: Right. Because each one of them has ... well, I know you had mentioned this at one point, either something I read, but about people have their own agendas. But sometimes it even goes beyond that, right? They've got their own comfort level. So they may be worried you're going to expose something, and they don't even know it's there, right?
Crystal Richards: Right, exactly. So it's always ... building that relationship and always showing them how it could benefit them. You know, this is for the greater good of our patient population. And when you put it at least in that framework, people ... what I found was that regardless of what position you were in the organization, everybody was mission focused in the healthcare organization. You just had to find it the right way. And that takes some skill.
Carl Smith: Yeah.
Crystal Richards: You know, yes, it may have been an edict from the CEO, but sometimes that just wasn't enough. You really had to frame it in how this was going to benefit our patient population. And that takes knowing the kind of customer base, knowing what their struggles are, and then being able to kind of bridge that gap, and sharing that concern back up to the chain, and being able to share it diplomatically, and not as to call anyone out. And that definitely takes some massaging and social politicking there.
Carl Smith: I can imagine it takes a few screaming into your pillows at night as well.
Crystal Richards: How did you know, Carl? How did you know?
Carl Smith: Humans. Humans, it always boils down to humans. So you take all of this experience from healthcare, and then you go into the federal sector. So what similarities and differences did you find?
Crystal Richards: The biggest thing, I find that in the private sector, it's a little bit more flexible in terms of chain of command. You can ... some of your executives are more open door policy, or more ... if you see them in the hallway, you can have a conversation with them. It's definitely a chain of command perspective, if you will, in healthcare, especially the agency that I worked for, which is known to be much more chain of command, a lot of folks that have the military background, so that's just their structure that they believe in. So you don't ... in a nice way, jump over heads to talk to somebody, you have to go through protocol. And that definitely adds to the time, it definitely ... you build patience in that environment.
Carl Smith: It sounds like a voice of experience, like you may have had a little bit of pain when you first moved into that federal sector?
Crystal Richards: Yes. If you aren't used to that, it definitely can be a rude awakening. I can ... I think the biggest difference in the private sector, it probably would take me weeks to a couple of months to effectively build the relationship. Because of the chain of command that you have to go through in the federal sector, it probably took me a good 12 months, if not a little bit longer. Even though I was in the meetings, and I was showing that you know, I'm there, boots on the ground as they like to say, it was always a, "Well, what does your boss say about the idea?" And I'm like, "But I'm here. Like I'm here with you every day."
So I would say, "Well, my boss agrees with me, let's bring him on the phone." So it definitely takes time.
Carl Smith: So you go through, you work in the private sector, you work in the government, and then you decide to launch your own company. So talk about that. What was the catalyst for you going, "All right, I'm going to launch Mosaic Resource Group?"
Crystal Richards: I wanted more autonomy in the work that I did. I wanted the kind of creative freedom in the work I did and what I sell. Funny story to this if anyone who is thinking about going rogue, as I lovingly say, the trajectory of a lot of consulting firms is that you sell to move up, so you sell more work. And I really was focused on, my idea of going into consulting for myself was I just want to focus on doing the work. I love it, I want to go out there and do the work.
So when I set up shop and opened my doors, and my doors are open, but nobody was calling, right? And I realized oh, I have to go sell my work. So it is one of the best investments I made starting out my business, was getting a sales coach. And you know-
Carl Smith: Oh.
Crystal Richards: Talking through the process, having the full funnel, you can't just stop at one client. I can think back to, it was probably about three months ago, I literally had five potential clients in the hopper. I'm like, "Oh my gosh, what am I going to do if all this work comes in at the same time?" And for a variety of reasons, they dropped off, just one by one. Except for one, who thankfully, it paid out literally and figuratively.
But that's one of my key takeaways for anyone who's interested in going into business for themselves. Always have a full funnel of people, because they can just drop like that, and depending on the industry that you work in, and the type of work you do, you could certainly have these lulls in the year-
Carl Smith: Yeah.
Crystal Richards: Like think about holidays, definitely the month of August, everyone's on vacation, so you need to be planning well ahead in advance, and that's where even with the conversation that we're talking about with small business ownership, this is where the social politics also comes in play as well, because when you build ... it's not just being in your organization, even I have to deal with social politics as soon as they sign my contract. Politics was a reason for me coming into that organization, because either someone didn't have the skillset, someone of authority said, "Hey, I want to bring Crystal in." And there's probably someone in there who was not happy about that decision, and I may have to work directly with them, and that means that I have to start right at the beginning of building the rapport, or having negotiations with them, and understanding the dynamics of the power structure in the organization.
Carl Smith: So what are most of the organizations that you're working with like? Who's hiring you?
Crystal Richards: You know, it is a variety of ... I have individuals, or I do individual coaching, I have a mentoring program called PM Talent. So I have individuals in different organizations, either I've met through networking, or at conferences. And then as far as the actual organizations, I'm focused still within healthcare, around the life sciences. So here in the Washington DC area, which is where I'm located, we have huge life sciences representation, everywhere from pharmaceuticals to biotechnology.
And even though my first love is the hospital side, I also have to recognize the sale cycle is a little bit slower versus maybe some of the other organizations. So it's kind of nonprofit organizations that deal in the biotechnology or public health, in that terrain, who need some help with their project management skillset. So either learning the technical skills, or they want foundational, just, "Give me the throw up list of like everything I need to be thinking about with project management." To even just developing the folks that they do have as project managers, or their position is bonafide project managers but they've been hitting some stumbling blocks.
And when I kind of dig deep, I'm finding that a lot of times it's the soft skills. A lot of them have been promoted from their technical, they've been a great researcher, a great lab tech, and now they're promoted as the lab research manager, or the scientific project manager. And the whole soft skills thing just is elusive to them. They're like, "What do you mean I have to be nice to you? We used to work together. I don't understand." And it's like, no, you ... it is so different. Now that you are the manager, it's lonely at the top. And you have to understand they're looking to you for leadership guidance, but also say it nicely. Say it softly. Before we can kid with each other as peers, it's just a different set of skillsets you have to use now.
Carl Smith: That's right, if you want people to hear you, you have got to show up in a vulnerable state, and explain to them mistakes you have made, and then explain to them what you need.
Crystal Richards: Exactly.
Carl Smith: Right? So, I'm curious, as you go into this, so we've seen at some of our events, we've had people do informal polls and ask, "When's the last time you fired somebody for a technical skill?" And hardly any hands go up, and then you say, "The last time somebody was fired for a soft skill?" And all the hands go up. Right? And it's like, "Well, he was a jerk." Or, "She just refused to talk nicely to people." Or whatever it might be, and obviously it's deeper than that, but what do you find are some of those core soft skills that just aren't in place?
Crystal Richards: You know, I think the biggest one really is the emotional intelligence. I know it's been popular, it's kind of squishy, but when they're ... there's a quote that I have in the presentation. No matter how smart you are, how brainy, how high of an IQ you have, if you come off abrasive to people, no one's going to want to stick around to figure out how smart you are. No one's going to want to give you those stretch assignments if you are a jerk at work.
And then when you see people who are elevated above you and you don't understand why, you have to kind of look within yourself, if you've heard time and time again. Now there's a catch 22 of people don't tell you directly, that's a disservice to you. But I think for the most part, people know. And if you know that there's something wrong, stop and ask, "Hey, I noticed this person keeps getting promoted, and we have the same skill level, we've been here the same number of years, can you give me some feedback as to how I can do that?" And then if you're vulnerable enough to open to that, someone hopefully who you ask is going to be candid enough to say, "Well, people have a hard time getting to know you."
Just like what I've learned as a consultant, people want to do work with me, or want to do work with someone they know, like, and trust. It's no different as a full time employee. I want to groom you, promote you, give you mentorship if I know, like, and trust you. And if you put up this wall, if you're abrasive to people, it's hard for people to do that. So if you don't have, going to the emotional intelligence, if you don't have self awareness and self management, those two key skills of emotional intelligence, those are going to get in the way of you developing relationships with others, and you're so fixated on yourself that you're not even aware of how people kind of react, or get uncomfortable, or literally every time you walk into the room, they walk out. Those are all the elements that I'm describing of emotional intelligence.
And I think there's hope for everybody, if you recognize it, and you're willing to change it, you can definitely develop those skillsets.
Carl Smith: This is so funny, but you were also describing my mother-in-law. Because when she walks into a room, people leave. But it was one of those things, when I was dating my wife, and I remember my mother-in-law walked in, my soon to be mother-in-law walked in, and the son-in-laws left. And I looked at her and I said, "Wow, you must be really mean." She goes, "No, but everybody thinks I am." And we just had this great conversation.
Crystal Richards: Oh, that is so funny. Kudos to you for saying something.
Carl Smith: Well, I was just like I've got no stake in this game right now. I just ... I really like your daughter, but I'm not going to walk out of the room because you walk in. I mean, what is that?
Crystal Richards: I can still say that now.
Carl Smith: But it's funny. But right, but it's funny, because now sometimes when you're working in a certain organization, and I'm sure with federal you saw this, do you ever go in and you've been asked to coach, and you find that the organization itself just kind of disregards soft skills, or even looks down at them?
Crystal Richards: Oh, sure. This is where ... to each his own. This is where you have to figure out can you thrive in that, and still be true to yourself? Or do you need to liberate yourself and go to organization that will accept the soft skills, if that's what you're looking for. Some people love it, where, "Hey, we're just here about technical skills, we don't care about soft skills." And some people will thrive in it, I will say though that you still run the risk of having a high attrition rate. So, this is where you have to, even the organization has to look within.
I think if the organization itself is willing to look at, there's hope. If it's an individual who asks me for advice in a situation, and they still go to a stumbling block-
Carl Smith: Right.
Crystal Richards: That's just where you have to ... is it a variety of reasons, is it enough for you to still stay there? Does the organization uphold your values? Does it still give you the work, life balance that you seek? But if you're miserable, you feel unappreciated, you're working on the weekends, your stress level is high, all around it's not a good situation and you may very well need to make the decision to go to an organization that appreciates developing leaders and not robots. Is my short answer on that one.
Carl Smith: Well, I have to say, I'm so excited to hear your talk, because you're not only going to talk about the social politics, but you're going to help people understand how to put together a strategy and a plan-
Crystal Richards: Absolutely.
Carl Smith: To move forward. So do you find that that's kind of the most difficult part for people, is figuring out how to go about implementing a good plan?
Crystal Richards: I do. Yeah. I think one of the things that I really try to focus on in my talks is that I don't want to just kind of talk about it, I want to be about it, as I say. And I want to give you salient points to take back and practice, it definitely takes practice, and patience, and the right timing. So a lot of the tips that I'm providing, I just don't have off the top of my head, but it works better when you build the relationships. So when we talk about how to negotiate, even saying no, you can't say no to everybody, right? But if you have that relationship with somebody, I want to give you my honest answer of, "Here's why I'm saying no." We've built that relationship. And if they still say, "I don't care if it's no, we're doing it anyway," at least they heard me. And I think a lot of times we feel like we can't say no, we just say yes to everything and then when it doesn't work, we're like, "Well, I thought you said you could do it?" And I think that gets us in trouble as well.
So, I do believe that it's always about ... know who you're talking to, know who the stakeholders are. And we do this all the time, so that's why it's kind of funny, better practice of project managers is stakeholder engagement. So and you're supposed to know who-
Carl Smith: Right.
Crystal Richards: Is high power, who is low interest, etc. etc. We're doing this anyway. It's just ... but we always call it like, "I don't want to get into all of the politics of the organization." But if you want to know who's going to be your advocate, you should. You are doing it.
Carl Smith: If you want to stop working on the weekends, you need to figure out who's in the organization.
Crystal Richards: Exactly.
Carl Smith: Well crystal, thank you so much for your time today, I really appreciate it, and I'm sure everybody listening does as well.
Crystal Richards: Oh, it was my pleasure to be here, thank you so much, Carl, for this opportunity and kind of do a little preview of the conversations we're going to have.
Carl Smith: You got it, and I look forward to seeing you back in Memphis.
Crystal Richards: That's right.
Carl Smith: Your pseudo hometown. Yeah, we've got to get you back over there. For everybody listening, thank you so much and we'll see you next week.