Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!

  • In my experience, the fastest path to getting ahead is to learn the secrets of the group we don’t like to talk about: the Incompetent Executives—the average and below-average managers who make it big: your idiot boss, the useless marketing VP, your half-witted neighbor, the strategic alliances guy. You know these people as well as I do. “Teflon Executives,” a friend of mine calls them. No matter what happens, they always end up on top and yet they seemingly do nothing at all. How are these people getting ahead, and what do they know that you don’t?

  • Many of the qualities I cherished as my strong points were, in actual fact, the very attributes holding me back. It turns out the qualities I believed were important are not nearly as important as I thought. In some cases, they are counterproductive, and in other cases, they are downright suicidal. The so-called Incompetent Executive may lack subject matter expertise, work ethic, and professional poise, but he makes up for it in another set of skills architected to advance his career.

  • The biggest reason talented managers don’t advance as quickly as they should is that they don’t fully understand the playing field. We make false assumptions about corporate dynamics, causing us to build suboptimal strategies for our advancement. A good starting point is some clarity on how corporations really operate and what really drives decision-making in a company. We all want to believe companies act with logic and fairness. We want to believe they identify and reward hard work, talent, and passion with career advancement. We build our career strategies based upon these assumptions. Unfortunately, that is not how corporations work in reality.

  • We speak about companies with a certain assumed respect for operational integrity and logic. The media reports on corporate strategy and execution as though they’re mechanical and well-conceived. But it doesn’t take more than about six months working in middle management inside a typical corporation to realize that all companies are badly flawed from top to bottom. On the inside we see just how bad things really are. Companies I’ve worked with almost universally operate with no logic or memory whatsoever.

  • Corporations, after all, are comprised of people, and people care about personal security over everything else—just ask Maslow. People are also not logical by nature; they’re instinctive. They opt for self-preservation over and above any notion of corporate allegiance. This is why companies execute completely in spite of themselves. They make bad decision after bad decision at a micro level, and then launch big changes and programs to simultaneously excuse and correct them. Although this reality can be disturbing, it has major implications on your strategy for career success.

  • We all have examples of half-witted executives who reap all the trimmings of success with seemingly no perceivable talent or passion. We tell ourselves it’s unfair or that it’s an aberration, or that one day our hard work will pay off. But that’s the wrong way to look at the phenomenon. Instead of dismissing the Incompetent Executive, and blindly continuing with the same formula that got us to where we are, we need to look a little deeper at their behaviors. We need to steal their secrets for our own career playbooks.

  • When your company first started, it probably wasn’t full of Incompetent Executives. More than likely, it was started by a few very smart, savvy, and energetic professionals with a great vision. So then, why now, when you look around, do you see so many executives who seem to have magically risen to the top without much in the way of expertise or enthusiasm? It starts with the way companies hire and manage people through the corporate hierarchy. After all, if companies didn’t hire and promote Incompetent Executives, this phenomenon wouldn’t exist. At the risk of oversimplifying, the basic human need for self-preservation is the catalyst for a set of illogical human resource practices that create an entry point and incubator for Incompetent Executives. Let me walk you through a few of our most important and flawed hiring principles. “Fit With the Team” When it comes to hiring, “fit” is a farcical rationale that benefits Incompetent Executives at the expense of Smart-but-Stationary Managers. If you see an Incompetent Executive in your company, it’s highly likely they were hired or promoted because they were a good fit. This is a common line of misguided thinking we use to make hiring people we like on a personal level seem like sound business logic. Every day, we see companies hire and fire for fit. We read stories about Google and Facebook, and half pipes and graffiti artists, and we use these images of cultural harmony to justify suboptimal hiring choices.

  • When we hire, we instinctively want to avoid people who are smarter than we are and who could threaten our success. That is a very human aspect of human resources we too often ignore. We gravitate toward people who will make us happier and make our existence more enriching. So we hire people like us. The result is companies make bad hiring decisions over and over again, applying the same flawed logic. Making matters worse, this so-called logic also assumes “fit with our culture” is actually a good thing. That philosophy is based on the farfetched assumption that the current culture is actually positive and one we want to reproduce. As it happens, I’ve worked at two truly toxic companies that spouted the principle of “maintaining our culture” like a religion, even though it was obvious that the culture being fought so hard to preserve was inherently dysfunctional.

  • Consensus hiring can kill a company, but it’s great if you’re an Incompetent Executive. I don’t know exactly when it began, but these days you can’t bring anyone on board without four or five additional people interviewing the candidate and ultimately signing off. It is always easy to find a reason why one more person should have input into a hiring decision. Some companies, who oversubscribe to dotcom human resources best practices, go to extremes in support of consensus hiring. A friend of mine recently had to interview in front of a 25-person panel to get a check-in job at WestJet Airlines. This is the epitome of misguided consensus hiring. What are the chances 25 people could ever agree on a truly transformative candidate? In practice, large group hiring always favors the most likeable candidate or the candidate least likely to create discomfort or change. Somewhere along the way, we’ve distorted much of the great thinking by Patrick Lencioni and other organizational behavior leaders who espouse the value of maintaining controls over who comes into the company. We tell ourselves that having more people comfortable with a candidate means they are more likely to be a positive addition to the culture. But this is flawed logic. In practice, hiring by consensus accomplishes precisely the opposite of what it’s attempting to emulate.

  • If five people interview a group of candidates you’re going to see conformity in action. You will get a decision that is the least disruptive to the current team and the most serving to the interests of the voters’ own careers. With consensus hiring you’ll rarely get a candidate who will push the team to the next level or cause healthy conflict. You will rarely get what’s best for the company. All we accomplish through consensus hiring is to multiply the human self-preservation dynamic—favoring the Incompetent Executive once again.

  • Experience is a word we too often misuse to justify hiring weak talent to protect us when they inevitably fail. We fall back on experience because identifying real talent in people is too hard. In practice, however, the most experienced candidate is almost never the best candidate. In fact, one of the most common characteristics I see in Incompetent Executives is over-qualification. Too much experience should be a hiring red flag, but in most cases it serves as a trap for hiring committees and managers. Most Incompetent Executives have a lot of experience, but not the good kind, I can assure you. It’s the kind of experience companies mistakenly over-value, over and over again.

  • Overvaluing experience in hiring very much follows the old purchasing axiom: “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” Hiring the most experienced candidate is the safe play. And people make defensive hiring decisions. You can’t get faulted for choosing the candidate everybody knew was most experienced—so you do it. You tell yourself the less experienced but more talented candidate was a little green or would require too much hand-holding. In our hearts, we know this is untrue but we do it anyway. And so, the perpetual cycle favoring the Incompetent Executive continues.

  • “Promoting from within” is a policy disguised as employee loyalty but is really about cost and conflict avoidance. It is most widespread at the executive level where recruitment costs and scrutiny are highest. It is very common to see companies promote an internal employee without conducting a serious external candidate search when vacancies exist. I would go so far as to say it’s the predominant behavior in practice. If you’ve ever interviewed for a job but couldn’t shake the feeling they already had an internal candidate selected, you’ll know what I’m talking about. On the one hand, “promote from within” can have some clear benefits for staff morale and motivation. It’s good for the company to demonstrate feasible career mobility for employees. On the other hand, much of the time when we opt for internal promotion without a serious external search, we favor the Incompetent Executive once again. Though the “promote from within” policy masquerades as beneficial for employees, the question is, Which employees does it actually benefit? In my experience “promote from within” only perpetuates the very same hiring mistakes that cause incompetent people to get into the organization in the first place. “Consensus,” “experience,” and “fit” are all equally misapplied in the promotion scenario as well. The result is the Incompetent Executive gets promoted, and the Smart-but-Stationary Manager gets left behind.

  • “Hit the ground running” is fundamentally flawed as a rationale for promotion. It takes a ridiculously short-term perspective on staffing. Ridiculous or not, we’ve all heard this line a thousand times, and if you’re honest with yourself, you’ve probably said it a few times, too. Against any logic I can muster, “hit the ground running” seemingly values the first 30 to 90 days over the balance of an entire career. How many times have you heard managers justify promoting an inferior candidate based on how fast the person can “hit the ground running”? I’ve probably heard it three times in the last six months. We fool ourselves into thinking some magic is going to happen in the first 90 days. But have you ever seen that happen in practice? In reality, a candidate cannot create meaningful change within 90 days unless he or she is reckless and the change is negative. “Hit the ground running” favors familiarity over effectiveness. But when has familiarity ever led to growth or evolution? The most familiar candidates are too often part of the problem in the first place. But as much as it baffles the mind, this is a ubiquitous practice that favors the Incompetent Executive once again. Rather than diligently search for the most talented candidate, we promote someone we’re comfortable with. And so the Incompetent Executive moves up another rung on the corporate ladder.

  • Corporations have a natural predisposition to promote top individual contributors into management positions. This is the reason you can never figure out how the airhead from your high school is running your global sales organization. This practice is very common in sales and engineering, and I’ve seen it cripple more than one company. For some reason, we always feel pressure to promote great individual stars. You know who they are: the coding wizard who knows every inch of your technology and spent most of last year living in his mom’s basement, the smooth-talking sales guy who crushes his quota every quarter and has bedded most of the strippers on the Eastern seaboard. Inevitably, we promote these people into management roles against our better judgment. We relegate them from valuable contributors into incapable managers. In some misguided sense of obligation, we “reward” great individual performers with management responsibilities—much of the time against their own wishes.

  • We must believe deep down inside that if a great individual contributor is leading a team, some amount of his or her mojo is bound to trickle down to the staff. But inevitably we see trickle-down mojo proven to be inherently flawed. Great individual contributors very often make poor managers. The personal mojo they possess rarely trickles down through the team. This is a case where the dynamics of a corporation actually work to transform competent contributors into Incompetent Executives.

  • Your number-one goal when you are at work should be to advance your career. Too many of us take a passive approach to career management. We mistakenly assume the company will eventually recognize and reward our hard work and talent. And so we spend our time working on the wrong priorities based on this false assumption. As we’ve seen, corporations in practice don’t favor a career strategy that relies on merit alone. We need to change our priorities so we can actively advance our careers. For many years I fell victim to this career-management trap. I focused on all the wrong things. For me, the number-one priority in the first part of my career was to deliver results. I was rarely late. I delivered projects with quality and I never strayed from my quarterly objectives. Performance was my raison d’être and I would focus as much as 90 percent of my time on this aspect of my career. A distant second on the priority list was mastering my craft. I probably allocated 5 percent of my time to this. For me, that craft was marketing, and if I had a spare moment here and there, I’d spend it learning to be a better marketer. But I almost never ventured outside of my core area of expertise. My final 5 percent was spent relationship-building, which I focused at my own level of the corporate hierarchy, building a network of peers. In hindsight I know these were largely the wrong priorities. At best they were out of balance with one another.

  • If you are anything like I was during the first part of my working life, you’re concentrating on the wrong priorities at work, too. It’s very likely you’re too focused on execution and you’re not nearly focused enough on career advancement. Let’s be clear that these are absolutely not the same thing—execution and advancement. The difference, though appearing subtle at first, is important to understand. Execution is fundamentally about meeting company objectives. Advancement is fundamentally about meeting your personal objectives. Although we might want to believe that achieving one will inevitably lead to achieving the other, this is not often the case in practice. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but your company doesn’t really care about your advancement. The company’s number-one priority is delivering shareholder value. In fact, anything else would be against the law in most commercial scenarios. Shareholder value is the corporation’s ultimate decision-making north star. It’s the justification it uses to explain mass layoffs, restructuring, and all the rest of the things companies do that are at odds with employee personal well-being. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing against this practice. I want the companies I own stock in to behave this way. They’re right to do so. We’re the misguided ones. We’re the ones who go into work every day trying to do our best to put the company first, to rally together with our colleagues, to beat the competition, and to build a great organization. We’ve got it wrong. But if the company’s top priority is shareholder value, shouldn’t your top priority also be shareholder value? That, of course, depends on which shareholders we’re talking about. The mistake most of us make is to assume the shareholders we should care about are the same shareholders the corporation cares about. Your number one concern should be your shareholders: you, your spouse, your kids, your pets. These are the people who have invested in you, not the bankers and venture capitalists and high-volume traders on Wall Street. Yes, your company may have issued you stock options to try to align your personal interests with the corporate objectives, but it still doesn’t change the most important point. Your driving objective should be advancement, not execution. With advancement comes money and benefits and vacation time and retirement savings. Execution doesn’t guarantee you anything unless people notice and reward you for it. And they often won’t. The company as an entity may benefit from you executing effectively, but the individual human beings who make up the company are pursuing individual human agendas. Individuals care about self-preservation, job security, and their own advancement. Your execution is not what motivates them on a daily basis. The rub lies in the fact they ultimately form the decision-making engine for the corporation. Entities don’t make decisions; people do. They determine your upward mobility or your ultimate termination. A career strategy based solely on achieving the objectives of the corporation is a losing one. It works against the human corporate dynamics instead of with them.

  • Your company’s success is not a prerequisite for your personal success. This can be a hard truth to accept, but waking up to that reality changes the way you work and the way you embrace change, both positive and negative. I can tell you from my personal experience, most of my own career advancement has come in times of corporate failure, not success. And this principle is a key weapon in the arsenal of the Incompetent Executive who inexplicably rises through the ranks while you tread water. They genuinely do not care about the company’s success or failure, and neither should you. But what about the principle of rising tides lifting all ships, you might ask? If the company is successful, won’t we all be successful too? To this I make the underused “bear case” counter-argument: I don’t need to outrun the bear; I only need to outrun you. In my own experience more opportunities are actually presented when the company is not successful than when it is. Think about that for a moment. If the company is doing well and the rising tide is raising all ships, then you’re never getting ahead of your own competition—the other managers at your level in the company. You’re rising proportionally; you’re not winning. You need a certain amount of failure in the company to create tactical opportunities to advance your position. The company’s competition is not your competition. Your competition is your peers, and you have to outplay them to win. This is another difficult concept for most smart, conscientious people to get behind but one that makes the Incompetent Executive such a formidable opponent. While you’re wasting your time and energy helping the company succeed, he’s looking for failures to swoop in and save the day. He’s advancing and you’re waiting. The sad truth is the best career strategy is actually based on capitalizing on times of turmoil and not on rooting for consistent company success. When you reorient yourself to this way of thinking, you need to reassess whether or not you’re actually playing the game correctly. What does this say about the way you allocate your time or how you approach your work or how you view your colleagues? If an execution focus isn’t a winning strategy, then what is?

  • A winning career strategy is about playing the best game you can with the hand you’re dealt and knowing the players you’re up against. It’s not a game that can be played in a vacuum, as the textbooks and conventional wisdom would have you believe.

  • Many managers don’t view their colleagues and peers as competitors, but that is exactly what they are in the game of career advancement. There are a finite number of promotions available and many possible candidates. Very often we have to wait several years for one opportunity to move up the ladder, so we need a winning strategy to make sure we beat out the competition. Winning, as we’ve discussed, is not determined in practice by talent or work ethic. At the very least, these virtues cannot advance your career on their own. The winners come in all shapes and sizes, and achieve victory using a wide variety of techniques. In fact, only half of the successful executives I’ve worked with are competent when measured in conventional terms. The other half get there a different way.

  • Managers Having been one for so long, I feel a certain connection with the Smart-but-Stationary Manager. We’re that perpetually frustrated lot who just can’t understand why our tireless efforts, keen intellect, and passion aren’t enough to get ahead in the company. We are not to be confused with the Lost Souls who I will profile next. Lost Souls sadly have little or no chance of ever getting ahead. By contrast, Smart-but-Stationary Managers have all the potential in the world; they’re just playing the game incorrectly. During the past five years, I’ve studied the Smart-but-Stationary species, segmenting it into three profiles. There are similarities across profiles, but each one has its own special flaw that makes it uniquely well suited to a lifetime of career stagnation. Smart-but-Stationary Managers come in various shapes and sizes, but consistently exhibit characteristics from one of three classic profiles:
    • The Go-to Guy.
    • The Passion Player.
    • The Task Master.
  • Our first profile is the Go-to Guy, or Go-to Girl as the case may be. Many readers will find themselves in this group. It’s a very tempting role to play because it comes with perks along the way and disguises itself as an active career strategy. I can assure you it is not. Go-to Guys can always be counted on to come through in a jam. They will work tirelessly through a problem, roll up their sleeves, and solve the issue of the day. They’re rocks. These individuals are a fundamental part of the corporate engine and every executive has at least one on his or her team. The weaker the boss is at execution, the more he or she relies on a Go-to Guy. At first glance, you might think being a Go-to Guy would be good for your career. Whether it is or it isn’t depends on where you’re setting the bar. If you’re looking for job security, then by all means be a Go-to Guy. Latch yourself onto an executive and solve small problems for the rest of your career. If you’re lucky enough to attach yourself to the right manager, you might even move up the corporate ladder—eventually. This is a career strategy akin to those little fish that attach themselves to sharks. However, if you’ve set the bar higher and you want to become successful in your own right, being a Go-to Guy is a dead end. First off, as a Go-to Guy, your career success and failure is far too dependent on the success and failure of the executive you serve. These roles often masquerade as mentorships. You’re the right hand to the boss. You tell yourself it will pay off one day when he or she moves up the corporate ladder. And though that can occasionally happen, it’s certainly not an active career management strategy you can control. And heaven forbid you attach yourself to the wrong manager; you can literally waste three to five years riding alongside the wrong fish. Secondly, in this role, you will never change the prevailing go-to dynamics even if you do advance your career. Yes, you may slowly creep up the ladder behind your boss. But that’s it. The Go-to Guy is given lots of opportunity to contribute but almost no opportunity for leadership—certainly no visible leadership, which is the only kind that counts. Your current role is a long audition for your desired role. It’s about perceptions. If you never have the opportunity to lead, you never position yourself as a potential leader in the minds of the people who will ultimately influence your upward mobility. Finally, being a Go-to Guy can limit lateral movement as well, which is often a precursor to upward advancement. At one point in my own career, after having served loyally as the Go-to Guy for an executive, I learned that it had been suggested I take on more responsibility in another department. My mentor, who couldn’t bear the possibility of losing his loyal servant, shut down the idea. He said I was too valuable where I was and probably not ready yet for my own team. If you’re a Go-to Guy, you can bet your boss is also not actively looking for opportunities for you to move to other parts of the organization. I actually caught myself recently thinking this way about one of my best employees. As ugly as it sounds, it’s just human nature. None of us are immune. The trap of the Go-to Guy role is that it actually feels quite good.

  • Everyone likes to be needed. And there are certain trimmings along the way, like opportunities to sit in on a board meeting or present to a top client. These special treats make us feel important. And worse, they create the illusion of progress and success. But I’m sorry to say for all you Go-to Guys and Girls, they really are only illusions. Playing this role is actually slowing your career advancement and tying you unnecessarily to someone whose self-interest is not served by having you move up and away.

  • The second Smart-but-Stationary profile is the Passion Player. The Passion Player has become more common as we’ve started to collectively idolize the iconic entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. In my opinion, this can be one of the most dangerous roles to play in your career. Many of us imagine ourselves as the next transformative innovator, so we play the role in our day-to-day jobs in hopes one day we’ll be recognized for our vision and strategy. Very early in my career, I played this role and never understood why everyone thought I was a jerk and why I never got ahead. Although it’s not as common as the Go-to Guy, it’s twice as deadly to your career. Unlike the Go-to Guy approach, which can lead to career stagnation, the Passion Player strategy can lead to career disintegration. Though I’ve long since abandoned the passion strategy, I see it in my partner and we work together to keep it in check. Let me describe the Passion Player for you with a hope you don’t see many of these characteristics in yourself, because they can be detrimental to your career. The Passion Player always has an idea, or strategy, or vision for the company and will climb up the tallest mountain to shout it out for the world to hear. Think Jerry Maguire. They spend their lives debating their idea with others. They drag people to meetings, argue about the rightness or wrongness of their idea, and search out budget and support and alignment for their idea. And they gripe and complain to coworkers about why nobody gets it. Getting emotionally attached to your own ideas and projects is not a winning game plan. With very few exceptions, the most successful people in corporations are the analysts, not the passionates. The managers who win in the end are able to debate both sides of every idea regardless of who generated it, and then support all outcomes equally. They cultivate an image of objectivity rather than passion, which in my experience is much more useful in your career. The temptation is to fall into the trap of caring about who is right at the expense of what is right—and to be more precise, what is right for your career. I’ve seen many passionate managers fight to the death for an idea. Only after paying the price did they wonder if it was really worth it. The Incompetent Executive, I can assure you, does not care about any one idea. But she’s on the winning side of every decision. The biggest reason the Passion Player’s strategy is a mistake is that it’s just too risky. Your upside with this strategy is that you might think up some truly great ideas, and people will value them enough to both excuse your behavior and promote you. But that so rarely happens in practice. On the flip side, your emotional attachment and dogged evangelism of an idea will almost certainly cause disruption. They will alienate you from the people who ultimately influence your success. The Passion Player strategy is a classic negative expected value proposition. Your career is a game and you can play it any way you want. Just because something worked for Jobs doesn’t mean it’s the best strategy for you. The Passion Player strategy, while tempting, is more likely to leave you in the unemployment line than the executive suite.

  • The final Smart-but-Stationary Manager is the Task Master. This is not a profile we would naturally associate with career stagnation. In fact, much has been written to the contrary about the power of making enemies in business and on the importance of driving accountability. As the name suggests, the Task Master is demanding. This is the manager who drives people hard. She demands accountability and pushes everyone around her to perform. The Task Master embraces conflict in all its forms and is results oriented literally to a fault.

  • Though the Task Master’s strategy may play well in the fashion business, it absolutely does not work in your typical company for several reasons. Reason number one is that most corporations are comprised primarily of mediocre talents. Your own experience will confirm this. And because people are motivated by their own self-preservation, the mediocre ones, when they form the majority, create a culture that fights against the very things Task Masters stand for. When the nonperformers outnumber the performers, things like holding people accountable and driving people to results become counter-culture. This means Task Masters are always fighting against the grain, making it extremely difficult to get ahead. My partner was once placed on a performance-improvement plan for creating conflict at work, even though her actual performance was documented as exemplary. I’ve actually seen this happen a couple of times in companies, and most of the time the conflict in question is entirely professional. But in the modern corporate environment “holding people accountable” can often become “creating conflict.” “Driving people to results” can morph into “difficult to work with.” There is a very low tolerance for healthy conflict in most companies, despite what they might want to believe. It’s truly a sad reality of the modern corporation, one many of us underestimate. Knowing this means that if you’re a Task Master or have Task Master tendencies, you have to change your game unless you find yourself in one of the few industries where hardball management is condoned.

  • We talk about how critical it is to separate what you feel should be the way to manage with what is actually the optimal way to manage to advance your career. Yes, your coworkers should be trying to do what’s best for the company. Yes, they should be driving hard to perform on every task. But when has this ever been true in practice? No company is like this. Companies, for the most part, are comprised of people who just want a happy life, to have job security, and to get home at a reasonable hour every night. Most people aren’t pushing themselves to perform and don’t want to be pushed by you. So if you’re a Task Master and you’re wondering why you’re not getting ahead, it’s because you make people uncomfortable. They don’t like working with you. And, as long as there are more of them than there are of you, you’ll never get anywhere. People inherently want to work with people similar to themselves and who they like. Any strategy for managing a career that includes not being liked by others is flawed. One thing I know for certain is that most all the Incompetent Executives I’ve known are extremely likeable people who rarely, if ever, push others hard at work.

  • There’s a good chance you saw attributes of yourself in one or more of these Smart-but-Stationary Manager profiles. And, depending on the industry you’re in and the company you work for, some will cost you more than others. Without question, though, these attributes are at best neutral for your career. They’re certainly not accelerating your success. So if you did find yourself in the Task Master or the Passion Player or the Go-to Guy, take solace. You have all the potential you need to advance your career.

  • Incompetent Executives come in various shapes and sizes but consistently exhibit characteristics from one of three classic profiles:
    • The Jack of All Trades.
    • Mr. Big Picture.
    • The Precision Passive Aggressive.
  • The first Incompetent Executive profile we’ll examine is the Jack of All Trades. You will find one in every company. The Jack of All Trades is not to be confused with her Smart-but-Stationary cousin, the Go-to Guy. There are important differences between them. Recognizing them might make the difference between a promotion and a permanent vacation for you. The Jack of All Trades is a generalist. Just good enough at everything to seem valuable, but not good enough at anything to be locked into a position. She is a magnet for promotions and impervious to layoffs. There is always a job for a Jack of All Trades, and the worse things get for a company, the more value she appears to have. The Jack of All Trades thrives in periods of change and uncertainty. When the game gets messy, and the opportunities for advancement are ripe, the Jack of All Trades is at her best. She has just enough skill to make a superficial contribution to almost any role, which means the Jack of All Trades can capitalize on virtually every opportunity that arises. When everyone else is gossiping and griping about how the change will affect them, the Jack of All Trades is stepping up to the plate. Granted, there is very little substance behind her work, but it doesn’t matter. In my experience, it’s 90 percent about attitude and 10 percent about ability when organizational change is afoot. I’ve had the good fortune of working with several Jack of All Trades in my career. In fact, I spent a couple of years early in my career with the king—the “Jack of Spades,” if you will. He is literally indestructible and yet to my mind has no particular management strengths whatsoever. As this manager gets moved around the organization to fill gaps and take on projects, he tends to make a quick positive impact, enough so the initial impression of his contribution is always positive. But then, once he’s exceeded his depth, he proceeds to stop adding value altogether and, worse, he starts breaking things. But before real disaster hits, there is always some other job that needs his special attention. During the time I worked with this person, he literally ran marketing, IT, engineering, and support separately within a three-year period. Every time there was a vacancy, he was ready to step up to the plate. Then just as he was about to falter, the next opportunity presented itself. It’s like career magic. If you’re asking yourself, How do I become a Jack of All Trades? it’s all about developing a basic knowledge of everything, making your knowledge known with some well-placed criticisms when the timing is right, and being ready to pounce when opportunities present themselves. One very positive quality exhibited by nearly every Jack of All Trades I’ve known is self-confidence. They are always seeking new opportunities and chances for a big win. They’re the business equivalent to a pinch hitter coming out in the bottom of the ninth inning. They truly believe they’re going to hit a homerun, even if they have no reason to. Unfortunately, being a true Jack of All Trades is more an art form than a science, and takes many years and lonely nights with Google and Wikipedia to fine-tune.

  • Our next Incompetent Executive is Mr. Big Picture. These managers live above the execution layer of the company in both mind and spirit. This is in stark contrast to the Task Master we saw earlier. It is the Incompetent Executive profile I’m personally drawn to the most and have incorporated into my game plan in a major way. Mr. Big Picture gets ahead in the company, not through expertise, but rather by conveying the underused and very powerful image of objectivity. Mr. Big Picture ignores process and analytical minutia. He never gets emotionally involved with any project or idea; he’s above that. This is the guy who starts and ends every discussion by relating the topic at hand back to the highest-level corporate objectives. And it doesn’t matter how low level the subject is. You’ll also never see him present an idea too passionately. He always comes equipped with options for consideration. You might be thinking that this approach doesn’t sound incompetent in the least; it just sounds like good business practice. Yes and no. Yes, it’s a great business practice to adopt, although few people do it effectively. But the difference in this case is that Mr. Big Picture creates the illusion of objectivity to protect himself from the poor quality of his own work and ideas. This strategy is so powerful it literally provides insurance against ineptitude. It goes like this: Mr. Big Picture has limited talent and he rarely has good ideas, but he knows it. Being the savvy fellow that he is, he has cultivated an image of objectivity, which means he always presents a variety of strategic alternatives. In presenting choices and by putting forth analysis on all sides, he is routinely commended for what looks to be thoughtful work. But in reality it’s just camouflage for the fact that he actually has no idea what the right answer is. Rather than make a call or stake a claim, Mr. Big Picture provides a decision-making framework for everyone else. It’s a great way to handle difficult executive-level presentations and something I’ve incorporated into my personal playbook. Why bother assuming risk when you can win by simply moderating others to make the call for you? Then, when the idea succeeds, you are recognized for leading it. And if it fails, you are recognized for having provided all options objectively. It’s a perpetual win-win for the Incompetent Executive. And it has no dependency whatsoever on talent or hard work. In addition to his image of objectivity, you’ll hear Mr. Big Picture referring to “the company” a lot more than most. It’s an excellent way to avoid conflict and to deflect responsibility or ownership for a position. If an approach or idea is met with criticism, Mr. Big Picture doesn’t defend directly but rather will say something like: “As we know, the company is pushing for margins of 60 percent this year, which leaves us with several options. Option A has the benefit of control by lowering costs whereas Option B has the benefit of growth by expanding revenues. Both options are valid paths for us to take, and I can see pros and cons to both sides.” This is very much counter to how the Passion Player would respond, which would be more like: “I don’t know how to make you understand that revenue expansion is the key to our success. I’ve worked through the numbers and haven’t slept for a week. We must execute this strategy or we’ll lose to the competition.” The Passion Player personalizes everything and communicates in absolutes and ultimatums; it’s a far inferior strategy to Mr. Big Picture’s objective approach if career advancement is the driving objective.

  • Our final Incompetent Executive profile is the Precision Passive Aggressive. Not to be confused with your in-laws, these are the managers in your company who are truly wolves in sheep’s clothing. Of all the Incompetent Executive profiles, Precision Passive Aggressives are the most difficult to spot because they operate in the shadows of the company and they always come bearing gifts. It’s important to understand the difference between a normal, off-the-shelf passive aggressive person and a Precision Passive Aggressive manager. The former is just an annoyance to you. The latter is a real threat and someone playing to win. The Precision Passive Aggressive succeeds in a company by creating an image of superiority over his or her peers. They accomplish this by purposefully seeking out opportunities to mentor their colleagues, whether they ask for mentorship or not. Like all Incompetent Executives, Precision Passive Aggressives cannot rely on talent and performance as a career-advancement strategy because they are not skilled enough to contribute in this way. But they are driven. So they use another set of tactics to move up the ladder. Precision Passive Aggressives avoid conflict as a rule. They work hard to build a reputation of benevolence within the company. They don’t hold people accountable or drive them. Precision Passive Aggressives are publically supportive and always willing to help a colleague with a project or problem. But while this is the game being played out in the open, they play a sinister secondary game in the background. Precision Passive Aggressives tactically work to build an image of superiority over the very same colleagues whom they purport to help. They find opportunities to let senior managers and executives know how they’re mentoring their peers. This way they position themselves as more advanced and more prepared for promotion than the people they’ve helped. And very often, no help was ever requested in the first place. It’s about image development for the Precision Passive Aggressive—an image designed to position them as leaders in the minds of the people who can influence their upward mobility. I had the opportunity to work at a company several years ago where I was surrounded by Precision Passive Aggressives. It was as though there was a sign on the front door welcoming them into the company. One of the big warning signs that you are prey for a Precision Passive Aggressive is when they start inviting themselves to your meetings to “help out” or “stay on the same page—ostensibly to contribute, but in reality to take credit and marginalize your success in a highly visible project. It was not uncommon for a meeting that started out with five people on the invite list to balloon to 12 or more by the time it started. Precision Passive Aggressives are like vultures to a dying wildebeest, and this company was the Kalahari Game Reserve.

  • Next time someone offers to help you review your work, or help bring your project back on track, think before blindly accepting the offer. It’s rare people want to take on incremental work for no clear gain. It may be more likely the do-gooder in question is looking for an opportunity to let people know how he saved the day and position himself above you in the perceptions of your superiors. How does one become a Precision Passive Aggressive? You don’t. Remember: Incompetent Executives are not perfect corporate specimens, and the Precision Passive Aggressive in particular has many flaws.

  • Lost Souls are totally unaware that a career game is even being contested. This role requires a special lack of self-awareness, which precludes you from ever advancing your career in a meaningful way. Can a Lost Soul become an Incompetent Executive? Probably not. Lost Souls lack the tactical abilities and savvy necessary to overcome their limited talent and get ahead. Can a Lost Soul become a Smart-but-Stationary Manager? Definitely not. You simply can’t create raw talent and intelligence out of nothing. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let me point out that you will at times see flashes of the Lost Soul in yourself. But these will be your mistakes, not your standard. So if you’ve dabbled in some Lost Soulness in your time, it’s no big deal. You can overcome that. But if any of what follows describes you to a T, I’m afraid you are truly lost. Let’s profile the most common Lost Souls to get a better understanding of why they are so fatally flawed.

  • There are three types of lost souls worth talking about:
    • The Social Chair.
    • The Gossip Girl/Guy.
    • The No-Change Agent.
  • Social Chair in your department bears a striking resemblance to your high school student council president or pep squad leader, or whoever it was that planned your senior prom. I suspect they arrange more than their fair share of picnics and probably play Ultimate Frisbee. Evidently this group missed the memo between high school and Silicon Valley that the game had changed. They continue to try and score career points by organizing company activities. They haven’t realized that nobody else is assigning any real value to this stuff. The Social Chair cannot get ahead in a company for two reasons. First, organizing social events creates a perception of subservience in the minds of others. As much as this sounds callous, you must be creating an image of leadership—not as a coordinator—to be taken seriously as a future executive. And although executives at your company may laud you for being so helpful, they’re never going to promote you for it. The second reason is a matter of priorities. If you are concentrating time and energy organizing events, you are not using it to actively manage your career. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do both. But what about corporate culture, you may ask? Isn’t there value in building that? Honestly no, not in this way. Real corporate culture has very little to do with activities and events. It’s about fairness and opportunity, transparency and trust. When the time comes for reconciliation—at promotion or layoff time, social contributions are at best pointed to as the unfortunate downside of having to let a nice person go. It’s very uncommon to see a Social Chair evolve into anything beyond a mid-level manager. Am I saying you should never participate in company social events and become a grumpy old stick in the mud? No, not at all. Let me be clear, I’m saying do not be the person who organizes these things. You have to attend social events at work because it’s a great chance to network up the corporate ladder. But just make sure you’re on the right side of the lemonade stand at the company picnic.

  • The Gossip Girl is a bit of a special case for Lost Souls in that I’ve actually seen a few turn it around and become successful. However, to do so usually requires a role change or a new workplace entirely. This group operates and thrives only at its own level of the organization and below. They roam around the herd of low-level managers and staff, talking and gossiping and griping about senior management. They always seem to be complaining about something. And because they rarely get ahead in the company, it fuels a self-perpetuating cycle of gripe. Look around your company and point out the group of friends who always sit together, go to events together, and always seem to be commiserating about something. These are the Gossip Guys. They’re in every company and you may have fallen into the gossip trap a few times yourself. It’s quite natural to want to gripe and gossip. It feels good to relate with people experiencing the same feelings as you. It’s also a losing career strategy. One of the most important pieces of advice I give my friends and clients is to never gossip at work under any circumstance. It’s a classic example of a zero-upside proposition. What I mean by that is gossiping and griping with your peers about upper management can never actually win you anything. It only makes you feel a sense of temporary emotional satisfaction. But what it can do is crush your career when people see you doing it. Gossiping and griping at work is akin to playing a hand of blackjack where if you win, you keep your original bet, but if you lose the house takes all your money, your house, and your car. Your best case is neutral. Your worst case is devastating. There’s nothing to be gained whatsoever from being a Gossip Girl because the people you’re bonding with cannot help you advance in your career and the people you’re griping about have all the power over your success or failure. Do not fall into the gossip trap.

  • No-Change Agents are true creatures of habit. These individuals are held together by routines and processes as though they’re the very oxygen that fuels them at work. Typically they’ve been in the same job for a long time. They walk around with project plans and process documents, seemingly more concerned for “how” initiatives get executed than “why” or “to what end.” No-Change Agents normally exist quite peacefully for a while until something big happens: a company restructuring, an acquisition, a new strategy, role changes, new management. Change, as you might imagine, is kryptonite for No-Change Agents. They simply cannot function in a fluctuating, uncertain work environment. This is the biggest reason No-Change Agents don’t get ahead. In my experience, periods of change are the best possible opportunities for career upward mobility, and this is when No-Change Agents are at their absolute worst. Acquisitions and other disruptive corporate changes are times of mass confusion. People get laid off, roles change, new processes and systems and strategies are introduced. It’s a total mess and many people, especially No-Change Agents, cannot handle that kind of uncertainty. Rather than tactically harvest these periods for opportunities, the No-Change Agent fights against the change. But this is like fighting against a rip tide—the force of change is too powerful. All you can succeed in doing by fighting inevitable change is tiring yourself out and ultimately drowning. You’ve probably seen No-Change Agents at your workplace. You may have been tempted to behave this way yourself from time to time. They come into work after a change with a bad attitude and proceed to up the gossip and griping by a factor of 10. They constantly grumble in meetings and harp on about why the new way isn’t aligned with “the way we’ve always done things.” No-Change Agents become fixated on preserving the old culture and brand. They constantly talk about ways to return to how things used to operate. Do not spend time with these people, and under no circumstance act like this yourself. To be successful in your career, you need to be on the winning side of change more often than not. The Incompetent Executive is a master at this. Because No-Change Agents are at their worst when the opportunities for success are at their greatest, they will always come out on the losing side of the career game. Unlike the Smart-but-Stationary Manager and the Incompetent Executive, if you find yourself in the Lost Soul profiles, you’re in deep trouble.

  • For many intelligent managers, the idea of being recognized as a strategist and innovator is the driving force for them on a day-to-day basis. Although this is not always a career-limiting move, it can be if we’re not careful. Ultimately, the success or failure of playing this strategy depends more on how you deliver innovation and less on the innovation itself. Victor let his passion and hubris get in the way of an effective career game plan, and it nearly cost him his job. He lost sight of the most important career objective and confused being right with being effective. I want to be clear: I’m not advocating against innovation or being strategically minded. Obviously these are great qualities in a manager and much needed in every organization. But there is a right way and a wrong way to pursue innovation in a corporate environment. Victor clearly chose the wrong approach. If you look back on your own career I’m sure you can point to a few Victors, some of whom grew to be corporate rock stars and others who likely became early exits from the organization. Victor nearly paid the ultimate price because he played his strategy incorrectly. His fate had absolutely nothing to do with his intellect. Real power, and, ultimately real career success, come more from endearing people than from convincing them of anything. You need your colleagues to want you to be successful. In my experience, when you care too much about an idea, you inevitably end up having to make certain sacrifices to push it through. More often than not, the first sacrifice is your objectivity, which is an image all managers should strive to convey. The second sacrifice is relationship capital that you will need at some point to influence your career advancement. But wait—what could be more endearing than true passion? Isn’t passion what will make people want to follow you? That is only partially correct. Passion for the best path, irrespective of whose idea it was, is a virtue that endears people. Passion for your path, because you know it to be right, is just a bullying tactic disguised as innovativeness. If you want to be a true visionary and motivate people, you need to demonstrate a passion for what’s best irrespective of what that might mean for you personally. With Victor it was all about “his” idea, “my” strategy. And though he may have presented some analysis, he never allowed the key influencers in the company to perform their own diligence. He chose to force his ideas on his colleagues rather than present all possible ideas and allow the right one to win on its own merits. To his credit, Otto understood where his strengths and weaknesses lay. He had learned this the hard way early on in his career. Otto recognized that it was often more effective to help people come up with the answer themselves than figuring it out yourself and then convincing others you’re right. This was especially true for Otto, who frankly had very few bright ideas as they pertained to pricing. He reserved that kind of thinking for his own business plans. This calls for my world famous “foolproof framework,” Otto thought to himself as he tried to summon some emotional momentum. He started drawing two columns on a piece of paper. He’d done this four other times, and it always seemed to work. Otto sometimes worried people would see through his approach and call him out for being a fraud, but he had no other choice and pressed on. Otto proceeded to build a very straightforward decisionmaking framework that outlined all the possible options for the company. It had a list of the pros and cons for each without any bias one way or the other. Of course, Otto had no idea what the right answer was, so it was impossible for him to bias the decision-making process anyhow. He did his best to be thorough in his list of options and added a quick situational overview to provide some context for the would-be decision-makers. “I wish I could take you guys with me,” Otto purred to his favorite kitties while they gobbled up their individually prepared breakfasts on the morning of his big presentation. Even though he had no love for his job, Otto was still a little nervous about the meeting that would take place in a couple of hours. There was no question the executives expected a formal proposal and he simply did not have one to deliver. Otto had no idea what the right pricing approach was, and frankly, he didn’t care all that much. So he carried a healthy dose of anxiety as he kissed each kitten goodbye and left for the office. The meeting room was full. More than 10 K-Tech managers from various departments anxiously awaited the pricing discussion set to take place. There was a healthy dose of skepticism in the air, as was normal for a dialogue on such an important and complex subject. It was apparent even before the meeting began that everyone had brought an opinion with them. “If he says one word about leasing, I’m walking out that door,” grumbled Dawson, who ran the product team, as he watched Otto struggle with the projector, wearing what appeared to be a Hello Kitty sweatshirt. “I’m more worried about the international rollout. I guarantee you he hasn’t planned for foreign exchange,” Chris, the VP of international sales, added as the audience seemed to collectively warm up for what most expected to be a highly contentious meeting. Very aware of the high stakes, Otto finally got the presentation to project on the screen, albeit with a heavy dose of fumbling around. He felt nervous but optimistic. He was strangely comforted by the fact he had no horse in the race. He could honestly say he didn’t care what the eventual outcome was so long as he came out on top. Nothing can go wrong while I’m wearing my lucky shirt, Otto reassured himself, only half believing it. And then he began. “Good morning, guys.” Otto greeted the group trying his best to look like a pricing expert. “Good morning,” some of the group responded with eyes that seemed to dare Otto to make a mistake. “I know pricing is a hot issue for us right now and each of you has strong opinions on the best path forward. I am sure many of you have very valid concerns to share. In light of that, I felt the most prudent approach for this meeting would be to walk you through a framework to evaluate our options collaboratively. If we follow it together, we will all be heard and we can objectively weigh all alternatives available to us.” I hope they bought that, Otto thought to himself. I’m going to need all the help I can get. For the better part of the next hour, Otto guided the team through an evaluation of every possible pricing strategy under the sun, a few of which didn’t totally make sense given the strategic context. But nobody seemed to call much attention to that. The meeting, as anticipated, was very heated. For most of it Otto wished he were somewhere else entirely. There were debates and arguments and a few angry moments. But not once was any of the anger directed at Otto. The VP of sales argued with the product manager. The distribution manager argued with the retailing manager. The only person seemingly without a target on his back was Otto. He was completely out of the line of fire. He found a few key opportunities to bring the group back on point and encourage them to look at the issues objectively—and they seemed to respond. When the meeting was over, the team had reached consensus on many of the issues. They’d aligned on a subscription pricing model as the optimal strategy for the company. There were still several execution details to work out, but the heavy lifting was done. Otto could handle the small stuff without a problem. “Great meeting, Otto,” a couple of them said as they left. “Well done, pricing guru,” the VP of sales complimented sincerely as he went to his next meeting. The meeting had been a success. They had found a strategy that they could align with, and Otto was no worse for wear.

  • We learned an important lesson from the stories of Victor and Otto. It’s easy for talented, creative managers to fall into the trap of favoring passion over objectivity. More often than not, our ideas actually are good, and it can be extremely frustrating when the corporation is slow or reluctant to adopt them. The key for us to remember is that ideas alone will not get you ahead. A career strategy based on passionate pursuits is too high risk. It may pay off occasionally, but it’s not necessary to achieve success. Here are a few guidelines you can use to develop the extremely powerful image of objectivity. Incorporate them into your game plan and they’ll never let you down. Always present options. Even if you’re convinced you know the correct strategy, you must always present alternative courses of action. We’re taught to do this in business school, but you rarely see it executed effectively in a highpaced corporate setting. Don’t present fake options. Presenting bogus options in hopes of stacking the deck in favor of your idea is a rookie move. If you can’t think of other strategic options to present, you are probably overly passionate about your own concept. People can see through fake options, and it only makes you look immature. Learn to embrace any decision. It takes maturity to embrace options you don’t personally favor. But in the career game, that kind of objective, professional approach will win you way more points than any one big idea you may have. Be prepared to enthusiastically embrace whatever strategic path the most influential people ultimately align with.

  • Nancy learned one of the most important lessons for managing your career in business today. In comparison even to 20 years ago, change in corporations happens at a faster pace than most of us appreciate. As we’ll continue to see in our stories, your best opportunities for advancement often present themselves in these times of uncertainty and transition. But at the same time, changing environments also bring the highest risk of career set-back if we don’t approach them strategically. Nancy’s sad tale proves no amount of talent can protect you if you handle change poorly. The LaserNet team didn’t care about the rightness or wrongness of her ideas. It was her attitude that got her fired. Why would they want to work with someone who was bound to be difficult or threatening to their way of life? Sure, the company may have benefited from a smart and talented process manager like Nancy, but companies are entities—aggregations; they don’t make decisions. Human beings make the decisions that determine your fate. Without a doubt, the winners and losers I’ve seen in my career have mostly had their fortunes determined in these moments of change. This is why it’s so important to be at your best when they occur. We saw, in Nancy, a person with a predisposition to reject change, so when the moment presented itself, she chose to fight instead of embrace it. This is a lesson that is a lot easier to write about than it is to put into practice. Emotions run so high in periods of transition it’s very hard to maintain control. Often our personal wealth, our work, our friends, and our careers hang in the balance. So the temptation for Nancy, like for many of us, was to fight to preserve the old culture or brand or process. This temptation gets amplified by the herd dynamic as groups of the old guard band together to stand in opposition of the new normal. The fruitlessness of this reaction sounds obvious when we study it after the fact, but I still see it happen every time. Nancy also showed us how career momentum can turn on a dime in the contemporary corporate environment. Your talent and expertise have very little ultimately to do with your upward mobility on this dynamic playing field. Nobody would call into question Nancy’s intellect or her ability to execute, but she still wound up getting laid off. Termination is not a fate reserved for the untalented. One moment Nancy had been making great progress and the next moment she was out. The question for us is, How do we avoid falling into Nancy’s trap?

  • Nancy’s biggest mistake was reacting emotionally in the moment instead of formulating a plan designed to make her a long-term winner. She tried to fight against the tide and win every small battle she encountered. When you find yourself debating every issue or arguing with colleagues at meetings, you need to ask yourself honestly if this is a winning strategy in the long run. In Nancy’s case, the answer was obviously no. You never want to engage in a battle of any kind at work without a strong base. It was one thing for Nancy to ruffle a few feathers and challenge her colleagues when she had three years under her belt and was in good standing at EastStar. But after the LaserNet acquisition, she had none of that. Any points she’d scored at EastStar were wiped from the board. They didn’t know her. They had no context for her processes or ideas. It is not surprising they rejected her plans and ultimately her value to the company. They were the acquiring company, so it stands to reason they would want to preserve their own culture and processes. Rather than fight, Nancy needed to find opportunities to embrace the change. Nancy’s final misstep was to opt for “what is right” over “what is right for my career.” Arguing concepts and ideas and plans until you get terminated doesn’t do you any good, whether you are right or not. Your priority at work is to get ahead, to improve your station in the corporation. If you do that, one day you can have influence and power and all the benefits that come with it. The mistake many of us, including Nancy, make is to play our hand prematurely. We over value the importance of being right before we’ve attained the power we need to safely influence our own rightness.

  • Carl’s preparation for this moment had started several months earlier. As soon as he had heard the company was planning to go public, Carl had started to piece together his strategy. No matter how it went down, he knew things would get crazy. People would change jobs and exit the company. Processes and roles and responsibilities would change very quickly. Most people wouldn’t handle it well. So he planned his tactics: 1. Be helpful. Make the change easier on the acquiring company or new managers. 2. Be friendly. Find as many opportunities as possible to network with new people. 3. Be positive. Don’t spend time or be seen spending time with disgruntled team members. 4. Be patient. Wait to gain a solid foothold before creating conflict or debating issues. 5. Be visible. Show up to work early and stay late for the first three months after the acquisition.

  • The meeting closed and immediately everyone on the EastStar side started mulling around in shock. They talked among themselves, speculating what it would all mean for their jobs and their stock options. Not Carl. He started executing his plan. It didn’t take 30 seconds from the close of the presentation for Carl to make his first move. He parted from the herd, and immediately walked up to the stage and greeted their new owners, who had been left alone rather rudely while the EastStar staff collectively panicked. “Hi. My name is Carl,” he confidently broke the ice. Put on your best “happy” face, he reminded himself. “I’ve heard so many great things about LaserNet. I can’t tell you how excited I am to be joining the team.” “Hey, Carl. Great to meet you. My name is Jeff Guthrie and I’m CEO of LaserNet. And this is the team.” He led Carl toward the other LaserNet executives. “Great to be working with you, too.” Of course, Carl hadn’t heard a peep about LaserNet for the better part of a decade and on the inside he was as concerned as everyone else. God only knew what merging with this dinosaur meant for the future of the company. But unlike his peers, Carl refused to let his emotions get in the way of his career playbook. Good company, bad company—it didn’t matter. He had a plan and he was going see it through. Things continued on in this way for several weeks. Carl proceeded to book meetings with every important LaserNet executive that would talk to him. He ate lunch with them. He went for after-work cocktails. He talked accounts and strategy, and showed every ounce of fake enthusiasm he could summon. And he was the only one. His peers grumbled and worried and were otherwise inhospitable to their new owners. Evidently they forgot who bought whom and refused to acknowledge the reality of the new power dynamics. But Carl didn’t pay any attention to what everyone else was doing. In fact, he did his best to keep his distance from the worst of the herd so as not to mistakenly get lumped in with them. He chose not to react even when he caught a few of his colleagues making fun at his expense for “sucking up” to the LaserNet brass. We’ll see who wins in the long run, he reassured himself.

  • Nancy’s fight against change is played out in corporations every day. It’s our default response when uncertainty and transition define the playing field. It’s rare to see managers get it right the first time. It took me two painful mistakes before I finally learned how to handle these situations the correct way. It probably set my career back five years. Whether it’s an acquisition, an IPO, a management change, or a restructuring, the same principles apply. Here are three quick tips that will make sure you embrace the changes everyone else hates and ultimately end up on top: Make a change plan. You need to actually write down what your plan is or your emotions will likely get the best of you. Jot down some tactics when a major transition occurs to force yourself to act strategically and not emotionally. Pick the winner with your mind, not your heart. Make an objective assessment of which side is likely to come out on top and join that team. If someone has just bought your company or has just taken over your department, choose that team. Don’t fight against the winning side. Leave your ego at the door. If you execute the correct change playbook, people will make fun of you and tease you for being a suck-up. Ignore them. Your career is not about making friends; it’s about advancement.

  • So often, we wrongfully assume the work speaks for itself. Even when we know in our hearts it’s not enough just to do high-quality work, we feel like it should be. But in my experience, the success of any project or initiative is 40 percent about the quality of the work and 60 percent about the way in which it’s promoted inside the company. I’ve learned this lesson no less than 10 times in my career. There are rare cases even now where I get busy or distracted, and I am forced to learn it again. Any work you are doing that has impact on other people within the company, or where other people can influence all or part of its success, must be fully promoted. This is not, in and of itself, news to you. We’ve all heard this best practice before. It’s very easy to nod your head as though it’s an obvious business truism. But in practice, I just don’t see managers abide by it. I’m writing a book on the subject and admittedly I still make this mistake from time to time. And if you take an honest assessment of your own habits, you’ll likely find opportunities where you can do a more effective job promoting your work, too. Failure to promote your work is not because you do not understand its importance. We all know we should do it. It’s much more about having poorly ordered priorities and the wrong scorecard for project success. The temptation for smart, talented managers is always to focus on the work itself as the number-one priority. And we carry around a misguided confidence that if we try hard enough and do quality work, that will be enough. But quality of work is not enough on its own. When things get busy and deadlines draw near, we are forced to focus on our top priorities only. Because quality of work is so often placed at the top, and internal promotion is so often placed at the bottom, we fall into the same trap time and again.

  • We fool ourselves into some false assumptions that a) All the people who care about the project can tell the difference between good and bad work, and b) All the people who care about the project have the same definition of good and bad as we do. I see evidence every day that these statements are not an accurate reflection of how things actually work in a corporation. If we look at Evan’s story, the large account sales executive only cared about his current quarter’s deals. He probably had a lot of commission riding on them to close without disruption. So for him, any hint of derailing his opportunities was going to cause a negative reaction. But Evan didn’t take the time to calm his fears before the launch. For the senior merchandising manager, it was about his personal relationships with partners who support marketing campaigns from many vendors and might react poorly to duplicating one. But Evan had no clue this could be an issue. Finally, for the young sales representative it was about feeling listened to. But Evan hadn’t taken the necessary steps to protect against this kind of emotional reaction. We see these examples all the time. What makes it so frustrating for talented managers like Evan is they rarely have anything to do with the quality of the work itself. Evan was very sharp, and his team and boss knew it. But that’s not what got him into trouble, and ultimately not what caused his campaign to fail before it ever left the door. What makes it even more frustrating is how easy it is to take the necessary steps to properly promote your work and ensure you never run into a scenario like Evan did. Perhaps more than any of the other lessons in this book, promoting your work is the easiest and fastest way to raise your game. When we talk about project promotion, we need to focus on three types in particular: concept promotion, alignment promotion, and results promotion. They are equally important. Concept promotion is about getting influencers excited about your work before you begin a project. When I say “influencers,” I mean the three to five people inside or outside the company who have the most to win and lose from the success of your work. It should go without saying they need to actually have influence within the company to be on this list. You don’t want to waste your time promoting work to lower level staff whose opinions aren’t likely to sway the sentiment of the organization. The key to effective concept promotion is to get a clear understanding of what your influencers care about, irrespective of your own project objectives. Once you understand this, you must articulate how a successful project will help them achieve their goals. It sounds simple enough, but it’s not well executed in practice. What I see managers do over and over again is promote concepts from an inward looking perspective—promoting how they will win and why they think it’s a good idea. Focus your concept promotion on expressing a vision of success in terms that reflect the perspectives of your influencers—not yourself. Alignment promotion is about making people feel like they’re on the inside. It’s designed to avoid negative initial reactions, which can often be irrational—irrational, but still devastating, as we saw in Evan’s case with the young sales rep. Emotional first responses can inject uncertainty into the project and derail otherwise positive momentum. Even a small amount of public negativity can open the flood gates to more negative sentiment as the herd dynamic takes hold. Alignment promotion protects against this. Effective alignment promotion starts by expanding your list of three to five influencers to now include a second set of people I refer to as “potential disruptors.” If you look around your own company, it’s easy to spot these people. They’re the ones asking all the questions in every company meeting and the ones who, on occasion, talk before thinking. Their default first reaction to anything is critical. You want to set aside time to walk these colleagues through everything you’re going to present a few days before delivering it publicly. This way, they have time to process and ask all the questions they’d otherwise ask in public. You’ll often hear managers talk about having a lot of questions after a presentation as though it were some indicator of success. I don’t want any questions; I want to hear crickets when I’m done. If I’ve done my homework, I’ve answered all the potential questions several days earlier and I’ve properly aligned all the potential disruptors before I launch. The last type of internal promotion is results promotion. Results promotion can act as an insurance policy against poor performance when done correctly. However, it is too often done selectively, which can be dangerous for you in the long term. Too many managers promote the positive results but not the negative results. This is a flawed strategy. It makes a few false assumptions, including: a) People don’t notice when you only report good results, b) People actually care about the results themselves, and c) People will hold you accountable for poor results if you reveal them. If you have done your promotion correctly, none of these assumptions is true. You need to report all types of results if you’re going to be perceived to be objective. Objectivity is a powerful image to carry in your professional career, and it is scarce. You will find people don’t really care about your results for the most part anyway. Normally they are too focused on their own priorities to care very much. In my experience, if you’re objective, and you’ve properly promoted and aligned key influencers to your work before it launches, you won’t be held accountable for poor results, because everyone will feel invested in the project personally. To assign blame on you would mean they would also take some accountability for the failure themselves. Nobody wants to do that.

  • Promotion is so vital it can often alter the perception of high- and low-quality work. For all intents and purposes, Evan put a ton of time and thought into his campaign, yet it died on the vine. He prioritized research and analysis over promotion and alignment. Peter, on the other hand, spent next to no time on the work but made sure he presented something his audience wanted to hear. And with so many influencers on board, even a failed project wasn’t going to hurt Peter in the end. Here are a few tips you can use to make sure you never forget that promotion is your number-one project priority: Know your influencers. Make sure you know the three to five people who have the most influence on your project’s success and failure. Look for outspoken people and individuals who tend to be critical. Promote three times. Good promotion starts with getting people onside with the basic concept. Then it’s about giving a sneak peek to bring critical people onto your team. Last, it’s about objectively promoting the results for everyone to share in its success or failure. Promotion is the priority. When you get busy, you’ll be tempted to forego promotion. It’s much safer to sacrifice the work instead. Invest what little time you have in preparing your audience and taking the risk out of the presentation.

  • On the surface, it may seem like Polly just had a run of bad luck. But that is not what caused her demise. Polly lost because she became a one-trick pony. Her fate demonstrates the risk of focusing too much on one specialized skill and of fixating on delivering short-term results. Organizational change is inevitable. It’s also on the rise as companies move faster with every passing year. You need to be prepared for it. Polly can teach us a valuable lesson if we choose to accept it. I underscore that last point, because her lesson is perhaps the most difficult for talented managers and young executives to embrace. Results orientation is one of the most universally accepted business mantras, but it serves everyone’s interest other than your own. As we saw with Polly, when we fixate on delivering results, we are choosing to ignore working on what will actually get us ahead in the long run. Polly made a choice, although it may not have seemed like one at the time, to forego broadening her expertise in exchange for delivering short-term results for Nelson. And by doing this, she became too heavily leveraged both to Nelson’s personal success (to carry her along with him) and also to generating Website traffic as her only real professional skill. Without knowing it, Polly became what I call a “Super Specialist,” which is the business equivalent to a one-trick pony. It’s the opposite of the often-successful Jack of All Trades we examined earlier. Playing the Super Specialist game plan is a heavily leveraged career strategy. It carries considerable risk, which outweighs the potential upside of winning with the strategy. The upside of specializing to this degree is that if your skill remains valuable you’ll always have a role to play. On the other hand, there are two serious downside risks that make this a bad strategy to adopt. First, by specializing on one set of results or one set of skills you are making a bet that they will always be relevant to the company or the industry. What Polly found out the hard way is that when the company makes big, sudden, strategic changes, which they so often do, your specialty, and you by extension, can quickly become irrelevant. I have seen this play out in my own areas of expertise just in the last few years. My profession of marketing has undergone massive change and its leaving some people behind. Social media and mobile communications have fundamentally changed the way consumers purchase goods and services. As a result, there is an entire generation of marketers who now stare extinction in the face. If you’re not actively broadening your skills as part of your daily routine, you’re making a critical mistake. The second downside risk to this level of specialization is that you narrow the position you hold within the perceptions of your superiors. A narrow position is a bad one because nobody can picture you anywhere other than in your current role. And it doesn’t matter much how good you happen to be at it. Every employee owns a position in the minds of his or her superiors. In Polly’s case, she was the Web traffic guru, and when the company directive changed to e-commerce it was impossible to alter that perception. Granted, Polly didn’t help matters the way she behaved in her new role, but changing perception is a slow-moving process and difficult to accomplish. These are two good examples of why you need to allocate more time to broadening your skill set and spend less time fixated on delivering results. The average person now works for almost a dozen different companies in his or her lifetime.Your career success and failure will play out across them all. You just can’t over-commit your time and energy to immediate term priorities. Polly learned this the hard way. I’ve personally experienced the frustration of working tirelessly for years to deliver results for my manager only to have him or her replaced by someone new. That’s when you learn your results don’t transition from one boss or company to another. Ultimately, in every new career situation, you will be viewed from a different lens, their lens. Focusing on expanding our skills and learning to navigate the human element of a corporation are far more valuable investments in your career than short term results delivery. They travel well. We see results orientation manifest in all its favorite forms: “Just net it out for me,” “How can I tie this back to revenue?”, “It’s all about the numbers,” and “We need to build a performance culture.” We’ve all said these things, and we hear and follow them as business gospel. No manager in her right mind would ever dream about questioning the logic behind these directives because to do so in the wrong company would seem like committing career suicide. But like all innovation, making change to your career strategy starts with questioning the norm. Is it really all about the numbers? Why am I always “netting” things out? Why am I tying everything I do back to revenue? Results have a short shelf life. Skills have value over many years and roles.

  • So when making choices on what to invest your time in at work, you need to consider which investments will deliver the best return for your career when viewed with a multi-company, multi-manager lens.

  • You need to avoid being overly leveraged on results orientation. You need to purposefully invest time in expanding your skill set while you’re at work. This is your best protection from company, departmental, and management changes. An investment in skills will pay dividends for much longer than an investment in results. In five years, nobody will care about your results this quarter, but they will care about the skills and tools you possess. Here are three key tactics you can add to your career strategy that will ensure you properly invest your time and energy at work: Reallocate your time. Favor skills expansion over results delivery. Spend 20 to 30 percent of every day learning new skills with the intention of broadening your expertise versus specializing in any one area. Expand your perceived position. Make a point of telling people what you’re learning and the progress you’re making. They need to be able to imagine you in other roles with wider responsibilities. Play the long game. Your career plays out over many companies and bosses. Never tie your future to one person or one skill set. In today’s rapidly changing corporations, you need to favor skill flexibility over skill depth.

  • On the one hand, Gary and his teammates simply weren’t behaving professionally. There is no excuse for this and it still surprises me how often I see it. On the other hand, none of the Mavens understood the importance of differentiating yourself from the competition. Jiro couldn’t tell them apart. They spent so much time as a group, they became indistinguishable from one another. Promotions are scarce. It can take years for the right opportunity to present itself. You must have successfully positioned yourself and your unique value if you want to win when the time comes. Gary’s plight is proof that no matter how talented you are, if you don’t manage your career carefully, you won’t get ahead. By contrast, following a smart career strategy can overcome many classical management weaknesses. We saw evidence of this with Jill, who was given a promotion almost by default. The majority of managers I counsel have fallen into Gary’s trap from time to time because it is so therapeutic to gripe and gossip. It’s a very natural, unifying force for a team to gang up on the leader in one form or another. Never fall into this trap. The herd mentality is the path of least resistance if we let our emotions control our career strategies. The temptation for all of us is to share our feelings and frustrations with people who are in the same boat because it makes us feel better in the short term. But was we’ve discussed, this is a zero-upside proposition. Your best-case scenario when you herd with your peers is that you’ll feel a sense of solidarity with others experiencing the same stress as you. But that will never get you a raise or a promotion. It just makes you indistinguishable from your competitors. On the other hand, if your boss detects that you’re disrespecting him or her, it could get you fired or blacklisted. Even if you’re not being disrespectful, when you only spend time with peers, you’re not actively building relationships with your key influencers. Gary showed us how much more comfortable it is to build our professional relationships at our own level and below, or just within our own team. It’s much harder to tactically network above our level in the company, so most of us don’t do it. And worse, we often go a step further and openly criticize those who do network with their superiors. We label them as suck-ups or as political animals because we are jealous. In reality, if you’re not networking vertically within your organization, you are simply not executing the optimal career strategy. The only people in a company with the power to elevate your stature are the people above your station. Instead of hanging with his friends and talking about Jiro all day, Gary should have been building relationships and acting like a leader. That way, when change inevitably occurred, it would have been him instead of Jill who got the promotion. Gary learned the hard way that skill and talent are useless if you don’t play the right career strategy.

  • For the better part of a year, Larry had been doing whatever it took to get into the good graces of his boss, Wilson. And from September to February, that meant the company football pool. His wife couldn’t understand why he didn’t just tell Wilson to shove it, but Larry knew better. It wasn’t like he organized the pool; that would just be silly. But Larry was well aware that when it came to managing your career, it was the personal things that mattered in the end. Larry decided to make a game of it. In true football spirit, he put a basic game plan together. Whenever his fellow team members started to joke and gossip about Wilson, Larry would leave the room. Whenever a peer approached him with some complaint about their boss, Larry would suggest they have a conversation with Wilson about it. It felt a little weird at first, but he knew it was the smart approach. A couple times, Larry even sensed his teammates were making fun of him too, lumping him and Wilson into the same jokes. But Larry wasn’t going to let himself fall into this trap again. He’d already paid the price once before. Larry was all too aware that although griping might feel good in the moment, ultimately it never got anyone promoted.

  • Being part of the herd will get you nowhere. At best, it will make you indistinguishable from your career competitors. At worst, it can cost you your job and set your career back many years. Gossiping and complaining about your boss or colleagues is a no-win strategy. Don’t fall into this trap. If you want to get ahead in your career, take the opposite approach of the mob. When everyone else jokes and complains about the boss, you should embrace him or her. It’s completely irrelevant whether you like your boss or not, or whether she’s effective or smart or talented. None of that matters. The only thing that does matter is influencing the people who will control your path up the corporate ladder. Here are some can’t-miss tips to make sure you never get stuck in the herd: Never be negative. It never pays to be negative about your colleagues or your boss. Even if you’re surrounded by incompetence, you can’t get anywhere by being negative. It may seem disingenuous at times, but you have to act positive at all times and about all people. Create an image of loyalty and respect. Find as many opportunities as you can to show deference and respect for your boss. These opportunities come up a lot if you’re looking for them. Don’t debate with your boss in public but look for healthy debate opportunities in private. Focus on differentiating yourself from others. Don’t ever forget your peers at work are your competition. They’re not your friends—at least not in the game of career management. You need to be looking for ways to elevate yourself above other people on the team. A good first step is to spend more time with your boss and less time with your teammates.

  • I’ve seen a lot of Randys in my career. They are one of the most tragic characters in an organization, and they deserve so much more than they get. If reliability and consistency were the stepping-stones to success they would be at the top. Randy was dependable, smart, and hardworking. He almost never made mistakes with tasks assigned to him, but it wasn’t enough. It almost never is. The moral of Randy’s story is that being reliable is just not enough to advance your career. At least not to the executive level. Reliability is a passive career-management strategy that will not bring you the visibility required to make it to the top. Contrary to conventional logic, a career strategy based on consistency and small victories is actually higher risk than one based on big wins and major projects. Many of us like to think we will be noticed for consistently solid work. But in practice, consistency is only enough to provide career security. Career advancement demands more. A lack of big, visible wins is ultimately what led to Randy’s lack of progress. It had two material impacts on his would-be promotion. First, it meant influential people didn’t hear about him enough. He just wasn’t visible and certainly hadn’t created an image as someone ready for leadership. Secondly, because he had no big wins, his mistakes were amplified. Without clear victories to counter his losses, Randy only became known for his one big mistake—the Jacobson deal. Allison, on the other hand, seemingly had many mistakes under her belt, and was less competent on a day-to-day basis. But when it came to promotion time, she was remembered for the few big wins and not the many small mistakes she made along the way. To advance your career you have to put points up on the board. Points, in your career, like in football or rugby, come in a couple of varieties. Consistently delivering against your responsibilities and doing solid work in your day-to-day tasks wins you lots of small points. We’ll call them career field goals. And if you never make any mistakes, those points accumulate over time—slowly. On the flip side, when you inevitably do make mistakes you lose points, too. The problem is, in my experience, one career mistake is worth at least five career field goals. So it can be a challenge even for very reliable people like Randy to build up enough points using the field goal strategy to put a winning score up on the board in the end. On the other hand, recognition for being associated with a big project gets you big points. We’ll call them career touchdowns. If you’re actively looking for them, you’ll see that opportunities for career touchdowns present themselves all the time. They often don’t directly impact your personal objectives, and it will frequently look like there isn’t much to gain from all the extra work you’ll have to do by taking them on. You should do it anyway. Because like in football and rugby, even if you score a lot of field goals, your opponent is always only one or two touchdowns away from catching or surpassing you. An effective career strategy has to be about scoring touchdowns. It’s about big plays and projects. Though playing a safe, consistent game will keep you employed and keep your boss happy, it’s an extremely difficult strategy to actually win with. As we saw with Allison and Jessica before her, a less-competent opponent can beat you with a few lucky touchdowns even if you’re more reliable on a day-to-day basis. To break from the metaphor for a moment, the only people who are paying attention to the quality of your daily work are your direct teammates and your boss. This is almost never enough to get you a promotion—at least not after you’ve reached a senior management level in your career. To get promoted you need recognition outside of your direct circle of influence. Mistakes, by contrast, have a tendency to reverberate across an organization. Nobody will ever notice the 20 times you get the process right, but the one time you mess it up, it will seem as though the entire company has been affected. So what does this mean for your strategy? It starts with changing your personal career scorecard. Stop focusing on the consistency of your daily work as the number-one priority and start seeking out opportunities to participate in big projects. The field goal strategy will not get you to the top of the company. With this in mind, the next challenge is how to find those big projects or problems that can score you the touchdowns you need to advance your career in a meaningful way.

  • Opportunities for career touchdowns come in two forms: Transformational Projects and Crisis Resolutions. Transformational Projects are very high risk and should be approached with some caution. Though you can score major points by spearheading a major process or concept transformation, it can also backfire on you if you violate our rule about playing with too much passion. The penalty for failing in the Transformational Project scenario is probably worth five touchdowns. So you need to be very selective about the projects you pursue. I recommend participating in, versus leading, a Transformational Project; you still score the big points, but the risk of failure is much lower. It’s like being on the winning team but never seeing the field. You still get the championship ring, but you have no risk of being the scape goat for failure. The second type of touchdown is the Crisis Resolution. Crisis Resolutions are opportunities to score points by fixing other people’s mistakes. It’s kind of like returning a fumble for a touchdown. This is a much safer type of career touchdown, although it won’t score quite as many points. The most important thing to be cautious of is never to frame a resolution as repairing someone else’s error. Alienating people or laying blame doesn’t advance your career. It only creates one less person or group that will support your rise through the company. Because mistakes are so broadly felt within a company, the recognition you can get from helping to fix it is so great it’s not necessary to point fingers or lay blame. And you almost always want to give some credit, deserved or not, to whoever created the problem in the first place to bring him or her onside. Crisis resolutions, when approached in an ultra-positive way, can have the impact of scoring you points without hurting your relationships within the organization. The best managers and executives are always helpful. They are looking for these crises to swoop in and save the day. The moral of the story is to build your career by scoring touchdowns instead of field goals. You need to reprioritize your personal scorecard so you focus your time and energy on projects and initiatives that can actually put up enough points to beat your competitors.

  • Many of you will have had similar experiences in your own career—watching people get promoted while you sit around waiting to be noticed. Randy teaches us that reliability doesn’t equate to advancement. Security maybe, but not advancement. Harvey showed us how taking on big projects can erase our mistakes and make us visible to the influencers in the organization who have the power to move us up the corporate ladder. Here are a few quick tips you can use to make sure you stay focused on a touchdown strategy for your career: Don’t wait to be noticed. Nobody is watching you. Reliability is not a leadership quality. At least not one anybody cares enough about to promote you. The best way to get to the top is to make yourself more visible by taking on bigger projects. Even if that means you volunteer for projects that have nothing to do with your objectives. Wait for the right pitch. You can’t just swing blindly for every big project that comes your way. You need to choose the ones with the highest probability for success. The ones that will connect you to your career influencers. Having a big project failure is as profoundly bad as having a big project success is good. Swing for the fences. Don’t turn down chances to hit a home run. They come around more than we think sometimes. Next time someone asks you to be a part of a project or to take something on outside of your objectives, say yes.

  • Dottie shows us another example of why talent and expertise alone will not advance your career. In fact, they can send your career into a tailspin if you don’t apply them correctly. For smart managers like Dottie, it can be very hard to accept this fact. You’ll often hear them defend their actions by pointing to the accuracy and validity of their perspectives. They are missing the most important point. Your career isn’t played in a vacuum. Being successful in a corporation requires you play the correct strategy based on your environment. Dottie failed to assess her playing field. Most corporate cultures reject conflict. As managers, we know we should embrace healthy conflict, but in practice we do not. Most people fight against accountability. Especially being held accountable by peers. But instead of working with her environment, Dottie fought against it—and lost. Nine times out of 10, a strategy based on demanding accountability is not the optimal approach to advance your career. Accountability has been a business best practice for a long time now and holding people accountable is a universal must-do in management circles. We’ve been taught how critical it is to drive a team to perform, to demand personal accountability and excellence from your team and peers. Though this sounds great in theory, I don’t believe it to be true in practice. When you hold people accountable you illicit an instinctively defensive response as people’s personal objectives always take precedence over corporate objectives. When it comes to doling out accountability, there two scenarios worth mentioning. The first is holding your employees accountable. Because they report to us, we can hold our staff accountable to a certain extent. But even in this scenario, I have had much greater success helping versus holding accountable. For our purposes, let’s focus on the second scenario, which is where most managers get into trouble. The second scenario is holding your peers accountable. In my opinion, this is a career-limiting strategy for most of us. For starters, you do not have legitimate power over your peers. You can’t force them to be accountable unless they acquiesce—and you can’t fire them. In a perfect world all your peers do what is best for the company. They are all open to criticism and feedback. They demand accountability of themselves and others. But that is not the world you’re playing in. In the real world, your peers will never do what’s best for the company when it’s at odds with what is best for them personally—nor should they. So when you are tough on them or hold them accountable for work quality or deadlines, you take on very limited upside proposition. You can’t actually win much of anything by holding people accountable. The best possible outcome is they deliver what was expected in the first place and you may benefit in some small way as a result. But the downside potential is much more devastating. You can lose allies in the organization. You can alienate yourself. You can be perceived as disruptive or difficult. These are much harder to bounce back from than a delayed project or low-quality output. We saw Dottie make the mistake of assuming her peers viewed the situation through the same lens she did. She assumed they wanted to shake things up at Lydia’s as much as she did. But of course they didn’t. Most of her peers had been with the company for a decade or more. They built all the messages and designs she was criticizing. To support Dottie would be to condemn themselves. Human beings won’t do that. Dottie paid a big price for blindly holding her peers accountable without contemplating the larger game at play. Instead of holding people accountable I recommend helping them. Mentoring and support for your weaker peers is a great way to accomplish two objectives simultaneously. First, if you offer your help sincerely you can often get your project or issue back on track anyway. Pushing people is rarely the fastest way to getting the output you want. Demonstrating empathy is a much stronger play. Second, if you demonstrate your help and support to key influencers, you build an image of leadership that is vital to your career advancement. When people see you helping your peers, it positions you above them in the minds of others. Helping your peers is a win-win for you. Doling out accountability is a move for the herd. Leadership by helping people is what can separate you from your peers and accelerate your career.

  • For a lot of talented managers, it’s easy to get frustrated when your subordinates or peers don’t pull their weight. In Dottie’s case she just couldn’t control her desire to hold people accountable for their inferior work even when it wasn’t the best strategy for her own career advancement. What we learned from Harry is how critical it is to first choose the best strategy for winning and then implement it accordingly. Blindly holding people accountable or being hard on your peers and staff isn’t always the optimal play. Don’t lose sight of your primary objective at work—career advancement. Here are a few tips that will ensure you stay focused on helping people instead of holding them accountable: Define your power. An easy first step is to determine whether or not you have legitimate power over a person or group. If they work for you, you have power. If they don’t, you don’t. Your power situation dictates whether helping or holding accountable makes sense for you. Embrace empathy over emotion. Many people do not respond well to being held accountable. I find it more effective with many people I work with to offer help rather than criticism even when deep down inside I want to tear my hair out. Make it public. It doesn’t help you career much to mentor people if nobody important will ever find out. Find ways to let influencers know that you’re offering mentorship and support to your peers so you can benefit from the image of leadership when the time comes.

  • Despite how they are portrayed in the media, on Wall Street, and in the countless success stories we hear every day, all companies are inherently flawed. We imagine corporations to operate with logic and order and fairness. They don’t. We want to believe meritocracies abound, and hard work, intelligence, and reliability are the stepping-stones to success. They are not. We tell ourselves results orientation and passion will bring us closer to our career objectives. They can’t. What we often under-appreciate is that corporations are comprised of human beings, and all human beings are motivated by their personal security and fulfillment. So although we might window-dress the imperfect humanity of corporations with stock programs and SMART objectives and missions and visions, we know that companies are ultimately driven by human forces. The corner offices and executive boardrooms in real companies are not reserved for the smartest or the hardest working. There is a little-known set of tactics every manager needs to incorporate into his or her career game plan to fully exploit the realities of corporate dynamics. Changes must be made to your priorities and personal scorecards to ensure you’re focusing on the activities that will actually get you ahead. Embrace the imperfection of your organization or relegate yourself to Smart-but-Stationary status and watch your less-competent peers pass you by.

  • After many years of observation and analysis I’ve handpicked the top seven principles to manage your career the right way. These are lessons taken straight from the playbooks of executives who succeed in spite of their glaring lack of skill, work ethic, and intelligence. When combined with your talent and skill, they’ll make you unstoppable. We’ve reviewed a number of common career scenarios where the so-called Incompetent Executives come out on the winning side of the game despite their inherent limitations. The key for us is to incorporate those strategies into our own playbooks so we can play and win in the imperfect corporation.
    1. Never Be Passionate About Your Ideas: Many of us have dreams of being transformative figures, and we are drawn to icons like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg for their passion and perseverance. But for every Jobs there are hundreds of bodies lined up along the road that tried and failed to execute a passion-based strategy. In my experience a reputation for objectivity is much more useful than a reputation for passion. The only surefire way to do that is to commit to providing very objective alternatives in every scenario rather than to drive at any one agenda or idea. As great as your ideas may seem to you, “you” are irrelevant. The only thing that matters is “what.” Focus on helping your company evaluate ideas objectively and avoid passionate pursuits.
    2. Embrace the Changes: Everyone Else Hates Because human beings are naturally opposed to change, the greatest moments for career advancement come in times of uncertainty and disruption. During these periods, like in an acquisition or management shakeup, the opportunities are at their greatest and your competition is at its worst. While your competitors are rebelling to change and worrying what the future may hold, you need to be executing your advancement strategy. It’s critical to have a change playbook ready so you can capitalize on these moments when they present themselves.
    3. Learn to Promote Your Projects: It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming your work speaks for itself, especially when you’re busy. As managers, we often prioritize the work and deprioritize internal promotion during crunch time. This is a recipe for career disaster. It makes the false assumption that people in your organization, especially those outside your department, define success the same way you do. We know that corporations are driven by human priorities. Demonstrating to influencers in your company how your work will benefit them is much more important than the work itself. Strategically architecting an environment for success by promoting your projects before, during, and after launch is the real key to success. Doing so effectively can often make up for inferior work and act as an insurance policy for project failures.
    4. Avoid the Farce of Results Orientation: Despite what your manager tells you or what the career blogs may say, a myopic focus on results can be a prison sentence for your career. We know from studying Incompetent Executives that it’s much more productive to broaden your skill set than it is to fixate on short-term objectives. The challenge we face as managers is the burden of separating our own personal objectives (i.e., career advancement) from the company’s objective (i.e., achieving performance results). Your career is much better served in the long run by expanding your expertise than by reliably delivering results for the organization. It should go without saying this is a matter of degrees. You need to do the minimum amount of results delivery to stay in the game long enough for your advancement strategy to pay off. Abandoning results altogether is equally unwise.
    5. Don’t Be a Part of the Herd: It’s very comforting and often therapeutic to gripe and gossip with peers at work. We are naturally drawn to this behavior especially in times of change and uncertainty. You should never do it. We also tend to network with people at our own level or below in the company because it’s comfortable and easy. It’s a waste of time. To actually get ahead in a corporation you need to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Gravitating to the herd has the opposite effect. Next time you feel tempted to gossip or gripe with your fellow peers, don’t do it. Instead, create a tactical influencer plan and execute it.
    6. Find Big Problems to Solve: As it pertains to career advancement, small wins and reliable performance do not put a winning score on the board. It can take as many as five small victories to equal one big win. Managers who play a game based on reliability tend to become known only for their mistakes. Mistakes, unlike small wins, reverberate across the company and garner lots of attention. It makes much more sense to pursue a big-win strategy even at the expense of making more small mistakes. Big wins are memorable, they build attention outside your department, and they often don’t need to come at a high risk to you personally.
    7. Don’t Hold People Accountable: Holding people accountable is another modern career principle we’ve allowed to spiral out of control. Whereas it makes perfect sense why the corporate entity benefits from employees and managers holding each other accountable, it makes almost no sense for your own career advancement. In my experience, there is much more to be gained by being seen as a mentor than as a task master. In practice people gravitate to, hire, and promote individuals they like to be around, not people who demand accountability. What’s more, acts of mentorship build an image of leadership and make people want to work with and for you. Acts of discipline build a tactical image that runs counter to the leadership image that will ultimately get you promoted.
  • Here is a simple checklist of tasks that will get you on the right track and can be done in a single day: Make an influencer plan. Build a decision framework. Create a promotion plan. Assemble a learning calendar. Create a change playbook. Find a big project. Identify someone to help.

  • Make an Influencer: Plan The influencer plan is a vital tool for every active career-management strategy. This is one of those tools that, when I talk about it, everyone nods and agrees at its obvious usefulness. But then very few people go through the motions of actually writing one down. Don’t make this mistake. Take 10 minutes today and jot down a list of everyone in your company who has an influence over your career. This can include your boss, his or her boss, some key peers, and people from other departments who depend on your work. Even certain customers or business partners can find their way on this list if they can affect your upward mobility. Err on the side of having too many influencers, and be creative about how you assess who can influence your success or failure.

  • Here are seven criteria I use to determine whether or not an individual is an influencer for me:
    1. Seniority. This person is more senior in the organization than I am.
    2. Risk. This person can terminate my employment or influence my termination.
    3. Power. This person can promote me or influence my future promotion.
    4. Exposure. This person tends to be very vocal in the company and is listened to by many people.
    5. Fear. This person has a tendency to be critical or negative and can be hard to work with.
    6. Validation. Public support from this person would be good for my career.
    7. Future. This person has proven to be going places and is likely to get promoted soon. For each of these seven criteria we should assign a score between 1 and 5 to rank the degree of influence they have. Then we can total them up and see who to give priority to in our plan. Now that we’ve made a list of criteria we can put it into a simple table and start filtering our potential influencers through it.
  • This brings us to the second part of the influencer equation: the influencer plan. The obvious question is: Once you know who you need to influence, how do you actually go about influencing them? The answer ties back into everything we’ve covered thus far. I like to look at the influencer plan as containing two parts. The first part is about long-term influence development, and the second part is about tactical project influence. We spoke extensively about project influence and the need to do active promotion before, during, and after any significant project you take on. An influencer plan in this case protects us against project failure and accounts for the human side of the corporation. Long-term influence development, on the other hand, is about separating yourself from the herd and strategically networking with your key influencers on an ongoing basis. You can think of it as influence for the long game. This type of networking can often make managers uncomfortable, as they see it as butt-kissing or sucking up to senior people in the organization. Don’t fall into this trap. I spent at least a decade of my career making fun of the butt-kissers and joking with my peers about how pathetic it was. I thought it was beneath me. Of course, I also spent a considerable amount of time griping as I saw the same people I made fun of rising in the ranks with promotion after promotion while I stayed stagnant. Influencer development, even upward on the organizational chart, can be done with tact, and is a tried and true method of effective networking.

  • The simplest way to get started is to take your prioritized list of influencers and create an influencer calendar. Essentially this is a reminder to set up a meeting at least once a quarter for influencers more senior than you and at least once a month for people at the same level as you. When it comes time for the actual meetings I tend to focus on basic relationship building and do my best to avoid making it all about business or overly professional. Ultimately, you need to be building human relationships with these people to exact any meaningful influence over them. People want to be around individuals who they like spending time with. As we know, this directly translates into who gets hired and promoted. The only other thing you want to cover when you meet with your influencers beyond personal relationship-building is to clearly understand their most important priorities. Once you understand what motivates people, you can find opportunities to help them.

  • I feel compelled to add that this is the point where people often start thinking, Does this guy seriously expect me to make a list and book meetings with my boss’s boss to kiss up? Yes, I do. But you don’t have to be insubordinate or overly aggressive to do it. You’re not asking for anything or flattering them or trying to close them on something. You’re just building a relationship and understanding their priorities. The rest will naturally take care of itself. Whether you like it or not, this is how people get ahead in corporations and if you’re not going to do it you can be certain one of your competitors will. This is one of those key moments when it pays to think like an Incompetent Executive. They don’t worry about how they’re perceived by their peers and whether or not people will think they’re sucking up; they’re winners, and use every available tactic to get ahead. Be like them. Make your influencer plan tomorrow and put into action one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal. Incompetent Executives do it all the time and get ahead in spite of themselves. Imagine what will happen when a talented manager like you starts using it, too.

  • Build a Decision Framework: The decision framework is a great tool to have on hand and you can build one in 15 minutes tomorrow morning. You’ll be able to use it over and over again, and it will help you build an image of objectivity. I look for any chance I get to remind people how objective I am. When I’m delivering a new strategy or idea I could care less about what approach the company takes. And I certainly don’t pretend to know whether or not one strategy is more likely to work than another. As we saw in a couple of our tales, hubris often gets in the way of objectivity, and we make the mistake of backing our own ideas to a fault. Backing any one idea is too high risk and assumes both that you know the best course of action, and even if you do, that other people will agree with your assessment. Presenting a balanced and thoughtful decision-making framework is the smarter approach for your career. Helping others evaluate the decision collaboratively is a much safer tactic to any new strategy or idea even though it won’t necessarily result in a better decision being made. It has the impact of distributing blame when things go badly, but in my experience does very little to diminish the credit you will get if the strategy is successful. Moreover, if you craft the decision-making framework effectively, you can often lead a team to the optimal decision anyway.

  • Create a Promotion Plan: The promotion plan is frankly just as simple as it sounds. And I won’t overcomplicate it. You’d be surprised how many managers and young executives don’t have a target promotion or promotions in mind at all times. And for the few who do, they often aren’t creative enough in the possible promotions they might be able to get. I’ve never been handed a promotion in my entire career; it’s very rare. So if you’re sitting around waiting for someone to appreciate your work so much that he presents you with a promotion, you are making a colossal mistake. That is the very definition of a passive career-management strategy, if it can even be considered a strategy at all. As I’ve said so many times, your only priority at work is to advance your career. That is how you attain your personal objectives for your personal shareholders—your family and loved ones. Everything else at work is secondary to this. The only way to attain your personal objectives, like more money, better benefits, vacation time, retirement savings, and other rewards, is to get promotions and move up the corporate ladder. I’ll assume anyone who doesn’t care about these things stopped reading a long time ago. So if your goal is to get promoted, you need to start with a promotion plan.

  • The promotion plan starts with identifying your promotion targets. Usually there are between one and three possible promotions you can be working toward at any given time. I would recommend you think creatively about this and extend your set of targets beyond your current department or business unit. Once you’ve identified your promotion targets you need to clearly identify the influencers who can help or hinder your ability to get the promotion. You should have this already in the influencer plan we built earlier. The final step is to speak to each of the key influencers A) to make your intentions clear that you are working toward this promotion, B) to understand what it will take to get there, and C) to request their regular feedback along the journey. Many managers feel this type of approach is tacky or butt-kissing, or they’re afraid to do it. They couldn’t be more wrong. When you speak to your influencers about a promotion, you’re not asking to be promoted and you’re not dictating a timeline. You’re only making it known that you’re after the promotion and willing to work for however long it takes to achieve it. This is the only way to make sure you understand what gaps you need to fill or what changes you need to make to be considered. Even if you’re miles away from being ready, it’s still very valuable to understand exactly how far and what steps are required to ultimately get there. You would be surprised how many people don’t get promoted simply because nobody knew they were working toward it. A lot can be gained just by lobbying support from your influencers to help you improve. Everyone respects that type of ambition and you’ll never get a negative reaction. The final step in the promotion plan is to link it to your learning calendar. You need to set specific learning milestones for each possible promotion so you’ll be closing the gaps between where you are today and where you need to be to get promoted. This is another one of those tactics that everyone nods to but nobody actually does—nobody, with the exception of the Incompetent Executives getting promoted all the time. Make a point of going through these steps and actively managing your promotion plan.

  • Assemble a Learning Calendar The learning calendar is a tool I use to force myself to actually work on broadening my skill set. It’s closely connected to many of the other tools we’ll also be putting into action. Without a learning calendar I find it too easy to deprioritize this vital aspect of my career plan. It is not enough to build deeper expertise in a single subject matter area, either. As we’ve seen in several of our stories, being a specialist doesn’t lead to career advancement—career security perhaps, but definitely not advancement. It’s vital to document your learning curriculum and agenda at least a month at time and align it to your promotion and influence plans. I like to start by selecting three themes for the quarter and focus in on one per month. At least two of the three learning themes will be outside my established area of expertise.

  • The tendency is to keep going deeper and deeper into subjects we’re already good at. It’s easier that way, but it’s a mistake. If you’re already an expert in pricing models, don’t invest your valuable time becoming the world’s greatest pricing guy; it won’t pay off for you in the end. How many CEOs out there were promoted to the top because they were pricing experts? So if you have pricing expertise already, I suggest focusing your learning themes on adjacent areas like licensing, channel models, and distribution mechanics. This way you are broadening your skill set within adjacent subjects, and painting an image of someone who could manage a larger team and hold wider accountabilities. By building this broader set of skills and creating an image of competency around several subjects, you’ll get shortlisted for more promotion opportunities, which ultimately will translate to advancement for you.

  • Once you’ve identified the learning themes you’re going to tackle for the quarter and connected them to your promotion goals, the next step is to actually assign time to learning. This is harder than it sounds. In my experience, many managers actually assign zero time to skill set expansion because they are so burdened by delivering on objectives and completing short-term projects. So you have to find a way to force yourself to learn something every day that will improve your skill set. I like to do this first thing in the morning because I have more energy and I can find fewer excuses not to do it. I’ll set aside 30 minutes each morning to read up on my subject themes. If I’m particularly busy or tired I’ll watch videos or listen to podcasts instead. I recommend setting up your blog RSS feed with the top bloggers in each subject area you’re pursuing. You’ll have a permanent library of reference material for as long as you need it. The last point to make with respect to the learning calendar is that you need to tell people you’re doing it. Learning and not telling people about it is pointless for you career strategy. Sure, it’s great to broaden your skill set but if nobody knows, you’ll just be the smartest low-level manager in your company. I look for opportunities to tell my influencers about things I’ve learned recently as a topic of conversation. It’s always a great approach to mention what you’ve recently learned and ask for guidance or advice from their experience or from what they know of the subject area. That way you’re not just bragging about how smart you are and rather asking for help or perspective. The Incompetent Executive gets promoted because so often he or she carries a shallow knowledge of many subjects—the Jack of All Trades. Start expanding your expertise and steal their tactic for your own game plan.

  • Make a Change Playbook Periods of organizational turmoil are your best opportunity for career advancement. It’s in these moments that the big moves in your career will be made. I find it helpful to document my game plan when I see big changes coming. The process of actually writing my plan down helps to remind me how important it is to be consciously executing purposeful tactics during these periods versus reacting emotionally. Unlike the influencer plan, you don’t need a structured spreadsheet or model for this one. You can just doodle these in a notebook to make sure you’re not forgetting your plan. I recently met with a business partner who confided in me within an hour of meeting him that he had a new boss he couldn’t stand. He just couldn’t figure out how to deal with him, and he and the rest of the team missed their old boss immensely. As much as he delivered the polite version of his plight, it was pretty obvious that he and his peers were not handling this change scenario well. A management change is almost universally mishandled by staff who fight against what has already taken place in some naïve hope their discontent can actually reverse time. In this case, when your peers are all gossiping and griping about the evil new boss, you should be actively networking with her and finding ways to be helpful in the transition. Getting on the winning side of change is as much about choosing to play on the winning team as it is about any specific strategy. Having a positive attitude and aligning yourself with the eventual winners are your keys to success. So when change is afoot, I jot down a few key notes in three basic areas to guide my behaviors. It reminds me that my goal is to get ahead in the company and not to express my emotions or misgivings about the situation. Here is a sample of what that might look like:

  • Sample Change Playbook My Change Playbook Change: Marketing and Sales Merging
    1. Reassess my influencer list: VP of sales is now in charge. Need to add him to my list.
    2. Identify transition projects: Volunteer for team process alignment committee.
    3. Key actions: Book lunch with VP of sales. Book kickoff meeting with sales directors.
  • The first area I focus on is the influencer list. It has most likely evolved as a result of the change that has occurred. I make a quick list of who the key players are and who can most profoundly influence my success or failure in the new environment. My only caution is not to let any personal misgivings cloud your assessment of who actually has power and influence. Sometimes we can convince ourselves power hasn’t shifted when in fact it has. The second thing I take note of is what key transition projects are likely to take place or have been scheduled already. I want to be a part of these and will do whatever I can to participate. These will come in the form of process alignment meetings, systems integrations, best practice sharing, and a variety of other events. They all have the goal of smoothing the transition from the old way to the new way. You will participate on these committees and in these meetings ostensibly to help in the transition, but in reality you’re tactically demonstrating leadership and networking with the winning team. The final area I make note of is how I can advance my position during the change period. Specifically, what I will do to proactively improve my status. This can include things like booking a meeting with the new boss to understand her priorities and challenges. It might be taking one or two new people out for lunch or dinner after an acquisition. It can be the small things and casual conversations that reveal the best opportunities for career advancements in a highly dynamic environment. If you see yourself doing the same old routine trying to ignore the chaos around you, you should stop and get involved. The most important thing in taking advantage of change scenarios is your attitude. Get on the winning team. Do the opposite of what the herd is doing. Find opportunities to demonstrate leadership in the face of disruption, which will often be present during these times. This is a great example of when the Incompetent Executive performs well while others do not. Get strategic during turmoil and rise to the top. Find a Big Project This one doesn’t require a lot of additional discussion. As we’ve covered, it’s the big wins that create upward mobility in a company. Your best case playing a strategy based on reliability is job security. Often when I tell people to go out and find a big project they respond with a look that says but my job doesn’t require any big projects. This is exactly the kind of copout we use to excuse our lack of success. There is always a big project to find. Fix something. Propose something. Contribute to someone else’s project. The key here is to be a part of something that will create attention and interest, and demonstrate you are a leader. Just don’t get too passionate about any one strategy or path. Be objective; present the company options with how to improve or develop or advance. Attaching yourself to big projects is so important it almost doesn’t even matter if the project itself is a success or failure. It’s about being seen as a leader. Often these projects will feel like a burden. They’ll be outside your objectives. Do them anyway. Identify Someone to Help To get ahead, your superiors need to be able to imagine you at the next level. One of the best ways to do it is to be seen mentoring and helping your peers in the organization. You can start doing this tomorrow. I look for the opportunities when most people hold their peers accountable or criticize them. Instead of holding them accountable, I offer my help and support. And I do it publicly. This takes a lot of emotional control because often the best situations for helping people are ones where someone’s incompetence has impaired your ability to get a project executed or task completed. Make a list of a few peers and one or two subordinates who routinely struggle to execute their work effectively. Make sure your list has more peers than subordinates. Helping peers is much more powerful than helping subordinates, because you’re already expected to be doing the latter. The people on this list are the ones all the other managers complain about. The ones who hold up projects, or submit work late or with low quality. Instead of making life hard on them like everyone else does, you’re going to find specific opportunities to make life easier for them. Then you’re going to make sure everyone knows you did it. This is how you tactically build an image of leadership. Waiting for people to notice you have leadership qualities just takes too long.