Career warfare rule 5

Kenny Rogers was right

If you’re gonna play the game boy

You gotta learn to play it right

Know when to hold em

Know when to fold em.

Know when to walk away

Know when to run

Of course, the song lyrics held truths and wisdom that went beyond the poker table. In the course of your career, there will be situations you will not be able to further your brand. Rather than choosing to die on this hill, you must know when to cut your losses and move on.

Nepotism means “not you”

Stay and learn what you can from family run companies, but leave when you are ready to become a leader in your own right. Understand that you are never going to be one truly in charge. At best you will be keeping the seat warm for the children. Do not think that because you are treated with love and as “one of the family” that you actually are family. The business will pass on to the children, regardless of their lack of qualifications or your abundance thereof.

Even if the children protest loudly that they have no interest in running the family business, chances they will still end up coming back once they realize how much easier it is in life to be the heir apparent. Even marrying in the family is not enough. There will always be a distinction by blood.

Worse, only 30% of family owned businesses survive into the second generation. This means that as the number of heirs increases, so does the likelihood of feuds and factions and infighting. You will eventually be forced to choose sides, and your career will be torpedoed if you end up backing the wrong horse.

If a gang controls the turf, set up shop elsewhere

D’Allesandro relates a story here about how he was working at a company when one of the senior managers took him aside and explained to him that the place was run by a Scandinavian tong. Unless he was a Midwesterner of Scandinavian origin, he would never be accepted and his career advancement halted. This book was published in 2004, and it mentioned that even then with all the laws against discrimination, that there still existed companies where you would be excluded from advancement on the basis of who you are.

The advice here is that you should recognize these situations, and not waste too many years in a situation where the existing people in power will be resistant to you. Besides race and gender, where you were born, what school you went to, whether or not you belong to old money, and other factors come into play here. It is an uphill battle to stay in such situations and try to be the pioneer that breaks through existing prejudice. If you do stay, don’t be in denial and recognize it as the gamble it is.

Don’t let the hazing go on too long

This is an issue with young people working at law firms, consulting firms, accounting firms, or architecture firms. The old make the young work difficult and brutal hours by dangling the hope of making partner as a carrot. The associates, eager to prove themselves, are forced to endure demeaning work and demeaning treatment from partners.

“Working for a partnership is longest hazing on record”.

This dynamic leads to young associates chasing older partners who are often not as smart. The old timer’s attitude is that since they put up with the hazing, the newcomers have to put up with it too.

Of course, there is a benefit of having worked at a prestigious firm and having it on your resume. Because these firms are prestigious, they also attract prestigious clients, and you will also learn a great deal there.

The problem is the young people are so focused on making partner that they become unrealistic in their expectations. Only 2-3 % of new hires ever make it to become partner. Existing partners don’t want you to make it, because that would mean giving up equity. The only way it would make sense for them is if you bring in a lot of new business. However, many people are not realistic about their own nature. Hunters make partner. People who skin the animals do not. So don’t fall into the trap of staying too long chasing a futile goal. At a certain point, you gain diminishing returns on the experience gained at these firms.

In fact, your brand will actually look suspect to many by the time you reach your mid thirties. You will be less willing to put in the long hours, as you have put in your dues at this point. You will have a family, so doing last minute travel all over the world becomes less appealing. Partners will want to replace you with someone younger and cheaper:

“People believe that the reason that middle aged men often look for trophy wives in their twenties has to do with looks. Actually, it is because young women are so much more pliable, wide-eyed and worshipping.

Parnterships, too, prefer pliable, wide-eyed, and worshipping.” Pg. 117

Don’t be the guy that stays too long at a firm hoping to make partner, only to get fired and replaced with someone younger. So be smart about it and give yourself a timeline. If people who came in around the same time as you make partner and you do not, make a note of it. If by next year you are still passed up, its time to leave. This advice is applicable to promotions at any company, not just at firms.

If you’re talented, expect to have your desk set on fire

Entrepreneurs are the ultimate narcissists. They tend to become paranoid under stress, constantly on the look out for enemies. As such, it is hard to remain in favor of such people. But don’t stay too long. To them everything is personal. They will do favors such as give you some time off or giving you a gift or a loan. But now you owe them. In addition, any sense of independence on your end is considered betrayal. Hence, at companies run by entrepreneurs, a cult of personality and worship grows around the leader. Employees will do anything for the CEO, including limit their own careers.

Entrepreneurs are insanely controlling. It is no coincidence that Elizabeth Holmes worshiped Steve Jobs. Both were incredibly controlling entrepreneurial assholes. Stories abound of Elon Musk terrorizing employees. While the best dictators like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk can get accomplish great things, the worst dictators are crackpots that ruin lives (check out the book, Bad Blood for a detailed look the horrors of Theranos). Entrepreneurs will be very picky about certain things and come up with arbitrary rules to enforce their obsessive compulsive whims.

Entrepreneurs do not like to share. They don’t want to share equity, and they don’t want to share credit for the company doing well and they don’t want to cede any decision making power. If you are good at your job and taking too much spotlight, your desk will be set on fire, such as John H Patterson of National Cash Register Company in 1884 was wont to do. Any power you gain at an entrepreneur run company can be taken away in an instant. The CEO giveth, and the CEO taketh away.

Entrepreneurs also tend to treat their employees like toy soldiers. Once they are done playing with you, you are abandoned. Worse in many cases they will attack your reputation or sue you and smear you. Again for a modern example, check out Bad Blood that documented Elizabeth Holmes and her reign of terror at Theranos.

So while working for an entrepreneur is a great way to learn, you will want to leave before you incur the entrepreneur’s wrath.

Regardless of whatever situation you find yourself in, if you no longer have a path forward for advancement in your career, it is time to leave and find someplace where you can continue to grow.

Career warfare Rule 4

Learn which one is the pickle fork

Manners matter. There are the type of manners that involve knowing which spoon to use at a formal diner, and the type of manners that demonstrate respect and compassion. Both types are important. The former type of manners are important because it is a part of the world in which the successful executives inhabit. Unfortunately, people will interpret cluelessness with respect to manners as cluelessness about your job. Hence why manners are important to brand. The latter type of manners are important because being able to demonstrate respect and compassion are the qualities of a leader, and as such will improve your brand, and come into consideration when it comes time for promotion.

Do not embarrass yourself

This is the most important rule above all. A single embarrassing moment is enough to torpedo your brand forever. The embarrassment may confirm something that has only been hinted at before – rumor may have it that you are are an alcoholic. Saying you’re going to a doctors appointment and being caught at the bar will torpedo your brand. The embarrassment may reveal hypocrisy and undo the reputation you’ve already built. If you’ve established a reputation for working hard and getting things done, but it turns out that all those WFH emails were really an excuse to go fishing, its not a good look. Finally, if you’re just starting out and establishing yourself, a single embarrassing moment may define you forever. Maybe you got drunk at the company party and vomitted everywhere and fled crying from the venue. This will cement your legacy, and not in a good way. So be extra careful and conscious of associating your personal brand with anything negative, negative, or embarrassing.

Don’t wash your face with a pancake

Dress appropriately for the job or you will not be taken seriously. This is more true in some industries than others. Learn proper table manners or you will lose credibility. There is an amusing anecdote provided in this section of the book about a woman wiping her face with a chinese pancake during a job interview. The rest of the interview went poorly because the interviewers had lost interest.

Making assumptions about people you don’t know can be fatal

While dressing well and having good manners is important to building a good brand, do not these same standards of criteria when judging others. Slow down and cautiously observe the people that you don’t know. There are countless stories of blunders – mistaking the wrong person as the CEO and ignoring the actual CEO, car salesman treating a customer poorly because the customer was dressed sloppily, only to find out they pissed off their biggest customer. The book provides a few amusing anecdotes. Also – keep any prejudices or bigotry to yourself. This particular piece of advice from the book has aged quite well. A quick glance at all the people who lost their jobs due to social media posts today should make that quite obvious.

Work with cocktail dresses and alcohol is still work

“Fun” time at the office is the most dangerous. Do not let your guard down. Even in offsite recreational events for fun, your behavior will be judged. Be incredibly cautious. Do not think that because there is alcohol, it doesn’t count as work. If anything, the presence of alcohol makes the danger to your brand that much more serious. People will remember and judge if you embarrass yourself. Be sure to avoid your boss. Spend too much time and you will look like a suck up. The longer you spend with your boss, the greater the risk of saying something inappropriate, especially with alcohol in your system. Say hi and move on.

Offsite meetings are the worst. Often run by training consultants, “the real snake oil salesmen of the business world”, these meetings are driven by an executive’s need to bring the org “family” together. But as mentioned before, work family is not “family”, and is always dysfunctional. Offsite meetings may be marketed as a time for relaxation and bonding, but they are anything but. Keep your guard up.

Keep your mystery

Keep your private life private. Avoid office romances. You have more leeway in the corporate world than in politics. Having an affair typically torpedoes your brand as a politician (Hi John Edwards), but typically won’t cause any issues at the workplace as long as you keep it to yourself. Do not bring dates to work events. You will be judged based on the company you keep. If you show up with too many different dates, you will be judged as a player, and someone not trustworthy. If you show up with the same person and they are well liked, you run the risk of pissing everyone off if you eventually break up.

This is especially why you should avoid dating at the workplace. Of course, office affairs and dating are a fact of life and happen all the time. But you would be wise to keep it on the down low. Breakups can lead to blowups.

Understand that marriage, unlike dating, is a public institution

Unlike dating, marriage does not remain private. Who you marry impacts your brand. “You are forgiven one divorce. You married too early, you grew apart, you spent too much time on your career. But if you blow the second marriage, its about you”. Someone who divorces too many times will be seen as someone who cannot keep their vows, whether work or marriage related.

Do not let your spouse speak for you. It will come off as weakness. Do not let your spouse nurture a grudge against your boss, and especially do not let them tell off your boss. That has never helped anybody’s career.

Treat your boss’s spouse as a proxy for your boss. Treat them with respect and as a human being. Not only is it the right thing to do, its the smart thing to do as well. If you manage to piss them off, they will find a way to ruin your brand. On the flip side, don’t be too friendly with them. There are conflicting loyalties at play here which can damage your career.

Patience is a virtue, maybe even the virtue

Be impatient for results, but patient in the way you handle people and situations. Listen to your colleagues with empathy before talking. Do not go for the second drink so you can remain in control. Do not brag about the affair. Take time to make your boss’s spouse feel at home. Having good manners means having the discipline and patience to stand back and take a deep breath before figuring out the right thing to say or do. Having good manners also means that you have the discipline and patience to become a great leader. Other smart leaders will recognize that, and it will benefit your brand.