I was recently speaking with a friend about personalities in the workplace and he asked me “Do you think you nice guys can get ahead? “ He went on to qualify the question by sharing his observation that most people who get the corner office tend to be ‘strong’ personalities…loud, cut-throat, selfish, and demanding (a few of his words). He fell short of saying unethical.
As we move on in this discussion, let’s remember that an executive must be a leader. They are making decisions and statements that often effect the directions, morale, and confidence of hundreds or thousands of people across an organization. That sort of influence requires that someone be confident and ‘direct’ in their actions, speech, and decisions. With that said, I do not believe only the ‘bold’ (jerks) can possess such skills.
It isn’t a loud persona that gets these folks to the top, it is their risk tolerance. Many of the folks in this category will stop at nothing to ensure a deadline is hit or forecast achieved. They often require late nights and working lunches of their teams, as they beg-borrow-steal (a few will resort to the latter). However, at the end of the day the shareholders and current execs don’t have to work with these rising stars…the bottom line, results are what they see and ultimately reward. If you watched any of the congressional questioning of the BP CEO, you would have noticed he had no idea what was going on at that specific oil well.
On the flip side of this, we have the more reserved ‘professional’ persona. This person values loyalty to the company (i.e. – 20 years at 1 firm) and believes that hard work will pay off in the end. Unfortunately, the days of pensions and working for one company throughout your career are a rare situation in today’s workforce. Consultants come and go, innovation shifts markets like never before, and professional development has become a more personal responsibility. Unfortunately, this environment does not play well for the patient, hard working professional. The window to impress and make an impact is smaller than ever before.
Take Risk! The biggest difference I see between the office jerk and office pushover is risk taking. You can be a quiet, hard working, team player and still make a push for that corner office. At the end of the day, what most execs are looking for are results. If there isn’t a turnover issue or ethics issues, then most execs aren’t getting into the management style…results, results, results.
Here are a few things to think about…
- Risk does not mean unethical. Don’t say you are going to reduce cost by X% when you know it would require using unqualified partners. If the organization is asking for 5% reduction in costs and after some homework you feel you can achieve 7% with some focus, efficiencies, etc…then call that out! Don’t ride the 5% and just meet expectations, take a risk and stretch yourself/your team. Folks in Sales pad their forecast all the time. They call out $5 million in sales when they know they have a $4 million prospect that has verbally committed. For a project manager, this might equate to challenging your team to deliver an additional piece of functionality or come in under the budget. Takeaway – Don’t lie, but don’t strive for MEETING the target/goal.
- Risk requires focus – often the nice guy doesn’t say no and people know that. They come to you with every little project and task. If it doesn’t support your mission and the risk you are signing up for…it is okay to say no. Remain focused on the goal.
- Risk requires support – If you are going to stretch your business or team, you should speak with them first. Don’t sign a check you (or they) can’t cash. Explain to your team or top ‘lieutenants’ what you are trying to accomplish and how it creates opportunity for the whole team. Pre-wired support will help when it comes time to deliver.
- Risk draws attention, be prepared – If your risk is stretching the team and not throwing them under the bus, most execs will give a little latitude but will watch you closely. As the leader or voice of this risk, you better remain prepared at all times. One too many ‘let me check on that’ and the exec support will go out the window. You need to be ready to speak about the progress and status of your initiative…why are you calling for X% growth when colleagues are 2 points behind? What can they do to help? How do you propose achieving the extra efficiency? It is amazing how a Project Managers is asked for an Executive Update and they scramble for 2-3 days trying to ‘pull together’ the data….what are doing Monday-Friday anyway? Know your stuff.
I think we will all agree that most of us can work for a ‘jerk’ for a short period of time, as long as we are on a great project and it maintains a moral compass. Also, no one wants to work in the department that is referred to as ‘the graveyard’ of the firm…where careers go to die. The ‘players coach’ or nice guy who is respected in the organization is a much more sustainable scenario for all of us. Working on a great project for a leader that shares credit, rolls up the sleeves, and creates an atmosphere of give and take is so much fun to be a part of.
Nice guys/gals don’t have to finish last, but conservative ones often will. Take calculated risk!