We like to think that our organizations are essentially meritocratic. That if we work hard and deliver results, the organization will seek us out and reward us.
It doesn’t really work like that.
Even in our everyday communities, the people who acquire status and power work hard, certainly, but they also use a lot of social and political skills to get to where they want to be. Good, decent, hardworking people may well be the salt of the earth, but they don’t get to Congress unless they run for office. And running for office involves a lot of, well, politics.
It’s the same, in our experience, in most organizations. You don’t get invited to join the board because you’re hardworking, talented and a lovely human being; you have to put in a lot of social and political effort, as well. You have to be a bit Machiavellian.
Our latest book, “Machiavellian Intelligence: How to Survive and Rise in the Modern Corporation,” explores the politics of modern corporations and highlights six things that hardworking, talented people tend to do at work that may not, in fact, be helping their career progression.
We call these the six habits of highly (un)successful executives.
Working Too Hard
We all have to work hard to succeed in our careers. Working hard is simply a given. But working too hard is not just bad for your health, your relationships and your sense of perspective — it can also be bad for your career. You can become “invisible,” beavering away so hard that senior people forget about you, or think that this is clearly what you are best cut out for: working hard in your current role. At every point in your career, it’s essential to position yourself as being ready for the next step up. This requires self-promotion. You have to take the time out from working hard to do the additional self-promotion that lets the relevant people know how much more you have to offer.
Nice people are helpful to their colleagues. Nothing is too much trouble. But near the top of any organization (and in the middle, actually), you and your peers are competing in a zero-sum game: For you to win, someone else has to lose. And if you are too helpful to your colleagues, you may just give them the edge that will allow them to outshine you. We’re not suggesting you should be unhelpful or difficult, but keep an eye on the how the obvious high-fliers in your office behave. You’ll probably notice that they look after No. 1 first and don’t go out of their way to give their rivals a helping hand.
We all have certain assets that we bring to our work: our knowledge, our skills, our experience and our network of contacts, for example. If, in a new role, you quickly share your knowledge, skills, experience and contacts with all of your colleagues and superiors, you will quickly run out of gas. Organizations are increasingly demanding: They will suck up your assets on ever-shorter timeframes, leaving you burned out. Machiavellian executives use their assets when they have maximum impact — and when it is clear to everyone that this has been their personal contribution. They don’t give everything up easily.
Going It Alone
Hardworking, talented people often (wrongly) assume that they don’t need to “put themselves out there” and that they don’t need friends in high places to succeed. But at several points in your career, your name will be mentioned to a senior member of the organization when you are not in the room — hopefully, in the context of moving you into a more senior role. At that moment, when you are not there to make a case for yourself, the senior member needs to have an opinion about you. This could be anything, so long as it is positive. “Ah yes, Jane. She sent me a copy of her report; very impressive.” Or, “Henry — he did some very good work on the data task force.” If the senior member has never heard of you, that’s not good. You are an unknown quantity, and senior people don’t like risk. Don’t go it alone: Network and schmooze. Create your own brand and promote it.
All organizations say that they love diversity, that they actively seek out contrarians and beg them to join the organization. This is not true. All organizations slip into groupthink almost from the moment they are founded, and quickly form an opinion about the kind of people they want to have on board. Consider the dress code. It’s as bad a mistake to wear a suit in a jeans-and-T-shirt culture as it is to wear jeans in a suit-and-tie culture. It’s not impossible to succeed while being seen as a maverick, but it’s a lot more difficult. Go with the flow. Fit in with the culture.
Sticking Things Out
Hardworking executives tend to be conscientious. Once they’ve taken on a role or a project, they feel honor-bound to deliver what they promised at the outset. Never forget that the prime function of your current role is to give you leverage to help you move on to the next, more senior role. This leverage is often at its most powerful after a relatively short time in any position — when you have put things in place that can be taken on by others while you move on up to use your prodigious talents at a higher level. If you stick things out for too long, your success will simply become “the new normal.” Choose the moment. Machiavellian executives are masters at this. They seek out roles in high-profile areas and quickly leverage any success to move up. Timing is everything.
Most modern organizations are steeply hierarchical and highly competitive. So, blow your own horn. Don’t actively help your competitors get ahead of you. Hoard your assets and use them at the moment of maximum impact. Make yourself known to the people in power and show how you can be of service. Keep your momentum — and leverage your successes to move up at the earliest opportunity.