The Secret Handshake: Summary & Review

the-secret-handshake book cover

“The Secret Handshake” is a book on career advancement and career strategies.
Author Kathleen Kelley Reardon states that there are non-written rules that the people at the top of each organization all follow and obey, and if you want to join that upper circle, you need to learn those rules.
Kelley Reardon sets out to teach readers what those rules are, so they can join the people at the top.

Bullet Summary

  • The “secret handshake” is the ensemble of non-written rules and behavior that allow you -or stop you- from joining those at the top
  • Different people differ in their propensity to play corporate politics, but political awareness is a skill you can develop
  • It’s best for you to work in an organization that matches your “political appetite”


About the Author: Kathleen Kelley Reardon is a professor of management at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, and she earned her Ph. D. with summa cum laude and distinction at the University of Massachusetts. 
Kathleen also works as a management consultant on topics such as company culture, and effective communication, and she enjoys writing on her blog on female empowerment.

The Higher You Go, The More Subtle The Game

The higher you go, the more professionalism matter.
And more professionalism means that people there strive to look above pettiness and “games”. 

But they’re not really.
It’s just that the game becomes more hidden and stealthy. 
And if you want to make it into that club, you need to learn to play that game.

What’s Politics

Kathleen defines politics as “politics is an illegitimate means of getting things done”, and every successful manager has done.

And she righteously says that being good at politics is not a trait you’re born with, but it’s a skill that you can learn.

Says the author:

The word “politics” has fallen into some disrepute, not because of what it means, but because of how it has been used. (…) Like it or not, the way things get done in most organizations. And it’s high time we started to train people in how it works.

Also read:

7 Steps to Master Office Politics: A Field Guide

Learning Politics Is Learning to Read Meaning Beyond Words

Says the author:

Cues that provide information extras are rarely missed by the more politically savvy. You can’t reach the inner circles of business by missing or misreading cues on a regular basis. It’s important to become a sophisticated interpreter of meaning, observant of both content and relational levels of conversation

I agree with that. 
People who fail to read nonverbal cues not only do poorly at work, but at life in general.

Fast and Loose Players

These guys like to keep their options open. 
They will make you believe you got a deal, but until you sign the contract, they will keep all their options open, and if something better comes along, they will quickly jump ship.

The way you play with a player is by being a bit of a player yourself.
Say the author:

You should never be completely open and honest with a conniving type

Amen to that.

Also read:

9 Types of Office Politics Players (W/ Examples)

When You Acquiesce to Poor Behavior, You Reinforce Your Weaker Position

Imagine for example that someone says something patronizing.

If you accept it, then you reinforce the perception that the person has power over you.
Even if you just made a comment that his words were patronizing instead opens up his frame to discussion, and the power relationship is also open to discussion.

Power is negotiable, says the author, and you should always be ready to renegotiate it.

Work In a Politically Suited Environment

Kathleen Kelley Reardon says that to be successful, people should find an organization that suits their styles.

Organizations differ in their level of politicking. 
And people differ in their level of political savvy and “political enjoyment”, such as how much they enjoy playing politics, and how good at it they are.

Not everyone is naturally good at politics, and not everyone enjoys playing it.
Thus, it follows that people will be most effective if they find an organization where the amount of politics matches the amount of politics they can stomach -or the amount they can thrive in-.

table matchin organizational political levels with people's political styles
Table largely based on Kathleen Kelly Reardon work (with some minor edits)

A politically skilled player can actually do well in a very politicized environment because he can play by his strengths.

And, on average, keep this in mind: the more political the organization is, the more you need to be able to read between the lines.

The Political Savvy of The Balancing Act

The balancing act is how politically savvy players balance their own needs, with the needs of the projects or task, plus the needs of the people that matter.

For example, people who are politically savvy don’t just promote their ideas based on what sounds good to them, but they also wonder what it will mean for senior management, who looks good if it’s adopted, and who looks poor.

Taking sides and competing with those who have more power than you results in an obvious loss for you.
Says the author that “if you go the mat, you better be the one with the decision power”.
If you don’t, it’s much better to find ways to present your thoughts, decisions, and actions, in a way that’s palatable to those who have more power than you have.

Give Positive Recommendations

Positive recommendations make you friends.

Negative ones can make you enemies.

As you progress in your career, it might eventually happen that someone asks you for an informal review of someone’s work.
If you make good use of the self-promotion article here, it might also happen that it’s a high-caliber player asking you to review someone who’s actually senior to you.

That’s what happened to me when the head of internal management consultants asked me for a feedback on Julien, one of the guys on his team.
The acute observer of people I thought I was, I gave detailed feedback on how sometimes Julien rubbed people the wrong with a badly concealed haughty attitude.
When I saw Julien again it took me one second to realize from his face that he knew something he shouldn’t have known.
I said hello to him, and he didn’t reply. And that’s when I knew 100% I had made an enemy I didn’t need to make.

Theoretically, your feedback should be anonymous.
But it will not always be. Hopefully, the receiver is honest enough not to share your name. But it might slip out of him, or some details might surface and the subject of your review might be able to put two and two together.
Yes, reviewing someone is a chance for self-promotion. But it’s also a politically delicate situation.

My advice is to be honest, to also use the occasion to showcase your emotional and social intelligence, but to be very careful with negative feedback.
In case you need to provide harsher reviews, consider delivering them verbally. Once you send an email, you also lose control over it, and you never know where your email might end up.

Also read:

12 Political Landmines You Need to Know

Learn to Read Your Boss

As Daniel Goleman correctly points out in his “Working With Emotional Intelligence“, it’s reports that need to be emotionally intelligent towards their bosses, not the other way around.

That means that you must learn to read your boss’s nonverbal cues.
With very indirect bosses, you must learn what he is actually meaning behind his words.

If you notice for example that he often high praises but only mild praises to you, that might be the sign he’s not yet happy with you, and that you must change something.

Some other indirect bosses show displeasure by avoiding you, or by interacting with you less.
For example, if you’re speaking at a meeting and the boss is not looking at you in the eyes, that possibly means you have offended him recently.

And by the way, if your boss is acting like that with someone else in your team, you should avoid engaging with that person as well, lest you send the message that you’re siding against your boss.

Some other bosses will not tell you when they have little time, but you will see them fidgeting, or looking at their computer screen, or talking more rapidly. That’s the sign you should say “OK boss, I don’t want to disturb right now, maybe I come back later”.

To Make it To The Top, You Need to Lead

People who make it to the top want to lead and influence.

Yes, there are some followers who hang onto a winner -check out “power aligners“-, but they tend to fail over time because depending on a single person for personal success is an invariably risky and vulnerable strategy.

Confident, Yes, But Don’t Overdo It

This passage hit me home hard as I committed the same mistake at the beginning of my career:

Confidence is an aspect of personal power. Yet there’s always the risk of overdoing it or even the appearance of overdoing it. One of the CEOs interviewed for this book told me he overstepped his confidence quotient one time. By word of mouth it got back to him after he’d missed a promotion that one of the senior executives had said at the promotion meeting, “I don’t like that guy. He’s a peacock strutting around.” And, this CEO told me, “The guy was probably right.” 

Pretty much the same feedback that prevented me from getting a reward international assignment at the end of my talent graduate programme.

My own mentor said at the performance review that I was too cocky. 

Adapting to Male & Female Style

While a male boss might find it irritating that a woman doesn’t move quickly to greet him and show deference, a female boss might find it irritating that men to self-promote and, as the author call it, engage in “male posturing“.

The best way to handle your boss then is to become aware of what he prefers. And to learn the typical differences between men and women. 
Also see:

The Businesswoman Guide to Win in Male Organizations

At The Top, It’s All About People’s Skills

Says the author:

As you move closer to the top, people skills dominate over technical skills

That much is true.
Technical skills help you the most when you’re starting out. But to get to the top, it’s all about people skills.

Also read:


On technical competence VS general competence, including political savvy:

Surely competence is critical to success; in fact, its very foundation. But technical competence is rarely sufficient.

On power:

The interesting thing about power is that it is often both a means to get ahead and the reward for getting there.

On “concealing your intentions“, as Robert Greene would put it:

The time to tell your boss that you’re leaving is when you are leaving, not when you’re thinking about it.

On power, potential, and attracting support by doing a great job:

The worst way to seek assistance is to be desperate. You’re not going to rescue the boss’s daughter from the railroad tracks. To get noticed you have to do important things well.

On developing relationships before you need them:

If you don’t have friends in high places, there’s no time like the present to begin cultivating them.

On politically smart hard work:

Being dedicated doesn’t necessarily mean putting in long hours or being constantly available. To the contrary, it’s important to put in long hours and be available when it matters to those in a position to notice your dedication.

On the importance of being like those who lead:

This preference for one’s own kind is exactly why organizational diversity is so difficult to achieve. If the people running your organization aren’t like you in fundamental ways, you’ll have difficulty achieving the secret handshake.

Competition above teamwork:

Despite all the talk about teams in business circles today, competition is rewarded more than cooperation, and so conflict is the inevitable result.

Real-Life Advice

  • Never say you will leave as soon as you can: yes, you might be angry, but telling someone you will leave before you have any offer is plain silly
  • Meet people with “chance encounters”: master politicians do their homework before attending network events and then “accidentally” meet the people they wanted to meet
  • You ower your mentor: even if he never said so. Keep that in mind and show you understand the basic rules of social exchange and “WIIFT
  • Watch out for “fake self-disclosers: these are people who feign giving you good information to get good information in exchange, but they’re really just embellishing useless info to get real intelligence
  • Don’t hog the spotlight with self-promotion: self-promotion is a politically sensitive activity. Yes, you need self-promotion, but it’s tacky if you overdo it and you 
  • When deciding whether or not to pick a battle, you must assess both the likelihood of winning, and the potential damage to the relationship


  • Sometimes I wished for concrete examples

Talking about the modus operandi of a “maneuverer”:

“I set fires and put them out. Then I was a hero. I’d create a problem and solve it. I’ve gotten promoted every one and a half years this way. The way I see it, if you don’t leverage yourself, you’re lost.”

Interesting, but I’d wish the author had asked some precise example of what “setting fires” meant, and how he’d fix it.
I run this website based on concrete examples because I believe it helps people learn better.

In my real life, I always ask people for real-life examples to better understand what they’re talking about.

  • Sometimes some weird-sounding sentence structure

For example:

He or she is not at all inhibited about using politics to advance personal objectives and favored team objectives, but prefers to do so in deniable ways.

  • Some “OK” content mixed with the genius

Some parts of the book are “OK”, but they also feel a bit like space fillers. It’s a pity, because there is enough gold here that the filler around it was truly unneeded.


  • The concept of a secret handshake

Albeit the idea of a “secret handshake” might sound silly to some, it’s totally true.

The “secret handshake”, in the end, is nothing but an ensemble of non-written rules and signals that communicate whether you are ready for the big boys’ table, or not.

Every single group has its own code that you must respect to join, and the most exclusive groups have even more stringent codes.

It’s the same for the executive club.
Read more in executive skills (ie: the rules of the handshake).

  • Top advice on frames

I learned a lot here on frame control techniques and even used this wisdom for Power University.


“The Secret Handshake” is a gem with an incredible amount of genius content.
I took away lots of lessons learned and even used it to improve this website’s course.

The central idea of a “secret handshake” is one of the most important unwritten rules of success and is one of the major beliefs of this website: act the part, learn how to behave high-value, or you’ll never make it to the top.

I think it could have been even better if it cut out on some filler and “just OK” content.
But I’m very happy I read it.

Check the best career books, best business books for women, or get the book on Amazon

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