Author Archives: bobmac

The Best Way to the Top is to Look to the Bottom (But not the boss’)

When working your way to the top of an organization it is better to be pushed up than pulled up

At the start of any career, getting to the top looks like a long and arduous journey. The climb to the pinnacle of any corporate pyramid is considered so tricky and fraught with so many seemingly impenetrable obstacles that thousands of books and articles have been written purporting to the offer the secret route to the apex of corporate power.

For the most part, these lessons in corporate ladder-climbing suggest that the climber look to those above them for a helping hand. The idea is to try to kissing-assimpress, curry favor, ingratiate and kowtow to those above you; all in the misguided hope that they will pull you up the ladder to power. This strategy for getting to the top is succinctly categorized as the practice of “ass-kissing.”

And ass-kissing must work, since so many people have done it for so long. In fact, from a very young age we are conditioned and trained to use this technique to get ahead. Children learn early on that acting sweet and nice in front of adults, no matter how they may act with peers and siblings, will invariably get them treats. Most are so indoctrinated in the dissemination of false flattery and insinuating themselves into the good graces of those in authority, that by the time they graduate from college they are ready to turn pro. This preparation is deemed essential, because it is a generally accepted dictum in the business world that admission into the elite corporate inner sanctum comes only to those who have proven their proficiency at kissing the asses of those above.

At the same time, we are encouraged to facilitate this ass-kissing task by using those below us in the pecking order as stepping-stones so as to be properly positioned to pucker our lips. (All the while expecting those below us to perform the same function. Much like a chain ass-kiss.)

Down the Up Staircase

The truth is that this concept is ass-backward. In reality, the surest, fastest, safest and most secure way to the top is to pay more attention to the needs, plans, desires and motivations of those below you. By adopting this contrarian approach to career-climbing, the respect you show for those who work for you (after all, they know you don’t have to do that) will motivate them to join together, work hard and push you up. In practical terms, it is much better to have a broad basis of support pushing you up than it is to depend on the idiosyncrasies of a few above you to pull you up.

But don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in offering deference and respect to those with greater experience and higher in the pecking order – if they deserve it! And even if they don’t, it is appropriate to show respect for the position, if not for the individual. Our bosses deserve loyalty, respect, and support – until they do something to prove otherwise. But those qualities are best delivered honestly – face to face – not by false flattery and bending over to find an ass to kiss.

I know that it seems like pure Pollyanna to suggest that this anti-ass-kissing strategy will work in the real world, but that is because so few have the courage to employ it; not that it won’t work. There are so many real world examples of the weakness of power when it is focused at the top and the broad base of real power that comes from below, it amazes me that more in the corporate world don’t recognize this reality and use it for their benefit.

Remember back to the days of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain. Poland had been sucked into the orbit of the Soviet Union. The power in Poland was consolidated at the top and supported by the military strength of the USSR. If ever there was an ass-kissing society, this was one. The only way one could survive, let alone move up, was with some very serious ass-kissing. Then there was this guy Lech Walesa. He was a lowly electrician in the Lenin Shipyard (now the Putin Shipyard) in Poland. He was about as far down as possible on the political power-grid, but he was anything but an ass-kisser of those above him. He certainly was not helped from above, but he ended up leading the overthrow of the Russian ass-kissing government and ultimately became president of a free Poland. So what happened? Walesa looked down, not up. Appealing to the needs and desires of the masses of powerless people he was able to congeal the efforts of the many to create a power force that ejected those at the top and pushed Walesa up.

Think of it another way: The most powerful natural force on earth is the volcano. How is this power demonstrated? Rocks and debris are hurled thousands of feet in the air and miles away from the volcano, but they are not sucked out of the volcano, they are ejected by a massive force that pushes up from the bottom.

Sure, these examples are a bit grandiose and unlike anything any of us will encounter in our own day-to-day corporate battles, but the fundamental concept demonstrating that real power always works its way from the bottom up and not the top down is relevant – even in the more mundane task of corporate ladder-climbing. It is the recognition of where real power comes from that is important in these examples, because it helps us to understand that the best way to move up is to be pushed up not pulled up. When we recognize that fundamental fact, it not only allows us to see the ultimate futility of ass-kissing for what it is, but more importantly it offers a better strategy for moving up.

My experience in business taught me that the pathway to real and lasting success came from helping others be successful – not the dead-end of ass-kissing. Although I do plead guilty to sometimes playing the fun game of faux ass-kissing, simply to mock those who lived by and fed off it (oh, the stories I could tell about that.) Anyway, the reality is that if we will look down the ladder, instead of up it, and help the people below to be successful, then they will push us up.

I learned early on the rule of “power of numbers” in trying to accomplish my goals. There was a limited amount I could do alone – and even less if I spent time ass-kissing. However, if I could support and motivate those below me, then a lot more could be accomplished and my fortunes would rise with the tide. When you are sincere and honest in your efforts to protect and help those below you to achieve their own personal success, they become a base of support that gives you immense power.

And the Moral of the Story …

Don’t be beguiled by the value of kissing up to your superiors, regardless of how far you ascend the corporate ladder. Deferential? Yes. Toadying? No. Ass-kissing? Never. Break the culture of corporate ass-kissers by stepping out; concentrate on being the best at what you do, accept responsibility and most of all, build a solid foundation of support by looking down the ladder, not up.

Distinctively Different Times Call for Distinctively Different Leaders

The long-held dictum that if you do what is expected of you, you will do well is no longer the sure path to success.

There have been more changes in business orthodoxy in the first 15 years of the 21st century, than occurred during the entire 20th century. When the last century ended, it marked not just a turning of the page, but also a closing of the book.

The world of accepted business mores and the time-honored requirements of success and leadership were hit with the unannounced suddenness and destruction of a 9.2 magnitude earthquake. This tremor of transformation shook the traditional concepts of business and leadership to the core, and the resultant tsunami of change washed away all that had been customary and comfortable. The result is that these new times call for a new type of leader; a leader who not only does what is ethical, but is cheerfully ready to go the extra mile.

Perhaps you think these comments are too dramatic and overstate the situation to the point of biblical hyperbole (Matthew 5:41, “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain (two).” Well, consider the following. It’s fair to say that the American economic system (if not the world’s) has been at war with itself since the start of this century. It was not so long ago when – in simpler times – top- and bottom-line growth (no matter how achieved) were the sole goals of business leaders. But over time, the simplicity of that model and the abuses it perpetuated ultimately caused the very fiber of the business world to unravel.

Think about it. In just a little more than a decade we have witnessed the illicit machinations and ultimate destruction of Enron, Tyco, EthicsAdelphia, Lehman Brothers and many others; all the result of slavish – to the point of being unethical – focus on top- and bottom-line growth. It is still hard believe that over a span of just a few years such icons as General Motors, United Airlines, AIG, Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, Fanny Mae, Freddy Mac, Citicorp and scores of other established institutions of business suffered the turmoil of restructuring, bankruptcy, dissolution or acquisition; but it happened.

The game is different now; meaning that for individuals to become successful leaders in this new environment, they are going to have to be different, too. The conventional concepts of ethics and leadership skills are not going to be enough to be successful. It will take more than the time-honored perception of being ethical and more than the classic traits of leadership if one is to emerge as a new type of leader who can be successful in these new times. The successful leaders of tomorrow will be those who employ new concepts and altered skill-sets.

The business world is filled with thousands of well-intended, dedicated individuals working diligently to meet the standards of ethics and to apply the accepted techniques of successful leadership. That is good, but it is not enough to stand out and distinguish oneself as a leader in these new times. If you want to be the one to rise above the rest and achieve truly unique levels of success as a leader in this new environment, you first have to come to grips with the understanding that it is no longer enough to simply follow the rules and lead like everyone else. You need to be willing to take a different approach than other hard-working, ethical individuals trying to achieve leadership and business success.

Believe it or not, it is possible – and not all that difficult – to absorb what has been learned in the past regarding ethics and leadership and then take it just one step further. Being willing to go “one step further” is what will distinguish the average leader from the exceptional one.

Traditionally, being ethical means doing the right things that are required to be done. Follow the laws and regulations and don’t lie, cheat or steal. That’s the way it has always been. However, to distinguish oneself as a new type of leader will require doing the right things that are not required to be done. It is a different philosophy of leadership that embodies the notion of simply doing more than what is required to be done and instead focuses on what should and can be done.

A Pregnant Idea?

The idea of “maternity leave” is a simple example of how this new concept of ethics in leadership might work. Most states have laws mandating maternity leave, a period of paid absence from work, to which a woman is legally entitled during the months immediately before and after childbirth.

Failure to comply with these laws certainly would be unethical as it is something required to be done. Compliance with the law is the accepted and ethical way of acting, but what if the mother is given the option to “take as long as she needs” to be with her baby? Even if taken without pay, allowing the mother to take as much time as she needs and keeping the job open for her when she returns is not required, but it is what should be done.

Many will argue that this type of approach will only increase costs and the payoff is not measurable; but they are wrong.

Leadership that is based on doing more than what is required becomes a social influence that encourages followers to reciprocate with increased loyalty and effort for the leader.

It is no coincidence that companies with a culture of leadership that is dedicated to doing more than what is required to do and doing what should be done do better. Many, in fact, are extending the concept of “parental” leave to include maternity, paternity, and even adoption leave. Smart move.

The Price of Merely “Being Ethical”

Another, more complicated, example of this leadership concept would be the current travails of General Motors. Ten years ago GM discovered an important safety defect in cars they were manufacturing. If you trace all the actions of GM management from the time they GMdiscovered the defect to the present, you will find the company complied with everything “they were required to do,” but not one leader stepped up and said, “We have to do more.” GM set about to discover the defect and find a solution; they reported the incidents and actions to the National Travel Safety Bureau, it made refunds to complaining buyers under “lemon laws,” but they went no further. The NTSB dropped the ball and did not order a recall and so GM did not do a recall. GM did what was required, but no more.

In the meantime GM profited from the sale of millions of defective cars that resulted in the deaths of at least 15 people killed and hundreds injured. No leader at GM stood up and said, “Look, we are being ethical by doing what is required to be done, but we need to do more than that.” They were playing by the accepted old rules of leadership and business; and look at the cost to GM is now.

If, 10 years ago, there had been leadership and a culture at GM that set the standard of not just doing what was required to be done, but what should have been done, then GM would have been transparent regarding the problem, recalled the defective cars and stopped making others until the problem was solved. No doubt it would have been time-consuming and expensive, but GM would be better off for it today.

And the Moral of the Story …

Times are different now and the old way of leading and doing business is not enough to assure success. What is needed now is a different attitude and approach from leaders and businesses. The old idea that doing what others are doing and just doing what is required to be done is the wrong thing to do now.

The new world calls for a new type of leader and corporate philosophy if real success is to be achieved and maintained. There is nothing complicated or secret about this new order of leadership. All it calls for is an attitude and a new standard for doing the right thing. Understanding that doing the right things that are required to be done is not enough and that the real standard for successful ethical leadership in the 21st century is doing what should be done.

The Only Thing Worse than Failing to Achieve Your Dream is Failing to Try

Failure to try is to guarantee failure by default.

There exists in the human psyche what some believe is a genetic, almost primordial drive in Americans to “be one’s own boss.” In fact, it can be argued that the desire to “be our own bosses” is what triggered the American Revolution.

This drive, this self-actuating desire, manifests itself in American society as an entrepreneurial spirit best described as the American Dream. In no other culture or country in the world has such a broad base of its population exhibited this longing to achieve individual freedom via the route of entrepreneurism. It was the embodiment of this ambition that served as both foundation and fuel for the American economic miracle.

That was then, this is now

Unfortunately, in the American society of today, dreaming of success inevitably invites a chorus of naysayers. They see the American tradition of “dream chasing” as passé. They believe that everything that should be done has been done. And since End-Of-The-American-Dreamthis is true, those who chase their dreams are, ispo facto, a threat to those who cherish the status quo.

Perhaps that’s why there seems to be a nascent consensus to suppress, rather than support the individual’s dream of success. Just look at the demoralizing gauntlet the dreamer must run to realize success. Negative pressures, disheartening influences, outright skepticism and threats of recrimination for failure. They’re all designed to discourage one from even trying.  Dreamers who face these seemingly irreconcilable influences often wilt amid the resulting conflict, confusion and insecurity. Indeed, the impediments can become so overwhelming that the very idea of making the effort to achieve success is blunted. William Shakespeare noted that self-defeatism when he wrote (in Measure for Measure) “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”

The most significant impediment to following one’s dream of success is, without question, the specter of failure, and especially, how the naysayers might view one’s failure. Failure is positioned as the penalty lurking at the end, to be assessed when success is not achieved. Failure is depicted as the equivalent of a celestial black hole that sucks in failed dreams and destroys any hope for the future. The dreamer not only says “I have failed,” but far worse, he or she may be convinced by others to believe, “I am a failure.” Threatened by this bleak scenario, most fail to try to achieve their dreams, because they have more fear of failure than a passion for success.

Taking Responsibility for the Dream

But failure is a phony issue. Failure is like the schoolyard bully: it has the power to define how we actonly if we allow it to. BullySure, failure exists and it can be painful, but what many do not realize is that the benefits of success far outweigh the penalties of failure. There is another way to look at the concept of failure: Who do you think feels worst about themselves? Those who failed trying or those who failed to try?

Some use the fear of failure as a motivator for success, but the best way to defuse the impact of failure is to view it as something that can happen at the start of the path to success, not the end. Failure can actually be turned into a positive when it is viewed as a tool to signal that you are not on the right path to success, not as a signal that success cannot be achieved. When failure is viewed from this perspective, it becomes a motivator to keep trying, not to quit. The truth is that if you are not risking failure, you are not trying hard enough.

We all know the names Henry Ford, R. H. Macy, H.R. “Colonel” Sanders, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickinson and Bill Gates. These diverse individuals – and thousands like them – toiled in different fields of creative activity and each had their own definition of success. But they all shared one thing in common: They were all abysmal serial failures before they became successful dream catchers that we know and revere. The irony is that their initial failures not only failed to dissuade them from their dreams, but clarified the goal and added fuel to the fire to achieve it. It is a great lesson to learn.

Another reason why failure has such a foreboding feeling for many is because they fail to understand the difference between a dream and a fantasy. A dream is something that can be made to happen, while a fantasy is something that can only be wished for. Chasing a dream is a risk; trying to achieve a fantasy is a gamble. The difference between those who fail and later succeed and those who fail and flounder is an understanding of the difference between a dream and a fantasy. A risk can be managed, but not so a gamble. If it is success you seek, the most important step is the first step and that is to make an honest determination as to whether your definition of success is a dream or a fantasy.

There are a number of ways to do this, but they all come in the form of questions:

  • Does what you seek to offer differentiate you from the competition?
  • Are you seeking to create something new or copy the old?
  • Do you understand the risks inherent in the effort or are you oblivious to them? (Only risks that are recognized can by mitigated and overcome.)
  • Is there a need that is not being met or maybe not even recognized?
  • Are you willing to share success, but accept responsibility for failure?
  • Do you have a specific, clear vision of what you seek to achieve, that can be communicated and understood by others?
  • Are you more passionate about what you will achieve than what you will receive?

Recognizing the intent of these questions and answering them honestly will either confirm the potential of your dream or force you to recognize a fantasy for what it is. Recognizing the difference between a dream and a fantasy will not guarantee success – success can never be guaranteed – but it will help you formulate a plan that will increase your opportunity for success. No one can dream for more than that.

And the Moral of the Story …

So you have a dream for success. Make sure it’s your mind and not your heart that is dreaming and when you do, chase that dream with all your heart. Failure to do so is the ultimate failure.

No matter what happens, you will always be happier having tried and failed, than you will ever be having failed to try.