How often have you seen job postings on a company’s website boasting about its “equal opportunity philosophy” only to learn that everyone who is actually hired is cut from the same cloth?
Truth be told, many companies increasingly hire from diverse backgrounds, whether it’s in terms of ethnicity, race, age, educational background, level of experience, or sexual orientation. In fact, some of the best companies resemble a rainbow or mosaic. But for all intents and purposes, the world is still largely uniform when it comes to those who hold positions of power, particularly in the North American business world.
Sure, Pat Russo runs Lucent, Carly Fiorina heads HP, Stanley O’Neal runs Merrill Lynch, and Kenneth Chenault is the head honcho at American Express, but the corporate world is still to a large extent a white man’s land of opportunity.
As such, young professionals who aim for the top need to ascertain what types of skills and experience they will need to get there. Gender and race are not “variables” in the strict sense; rather, they are fixed traits. Since changing gender or race is not possible (or desirable) for most people, we need to find out which variables can be tweaked in order to facilitate one’s rise.
Toe the company line
One of the most important variables consists in the degree to which you go along or against the grain. When he served as Secretary of State in George W. Bush’s first administration, Colin Powell was arguably both a loyalist and a bit of a rebel. He communicated some messages that were consistent with White House policy, but he also occasionally took a public stance that was seemingly contradictory to the White House’s. Thus, it came as no surprise that his replacement was Condoleeza Rice, a hard-core loyalist who would never go against the grain.
The question is: Do supervisors have a tendency to hire those who share their viewpoints or rather those who disagree and offer different perspectives?
The importance of common values, being “on the ball,” and more…
Arguably, everyone values diversity. Even extremist organizations have members who share their philosophy to varying degrees, but the bottom line is that human beings have a tendency to align themselves with like-minded people. In a non-profit organization, people come together to accomplish a greater good. In for-profits, this shared goal could be something as trivial as the pursuit of profit.
When you are forced to be with people you disagree with, things can get ugly. For example, a party with friends (with whom you tend to have a lot in common) will usually be a festive occasion; alternatively, a family gathering (consisting of people with whom you probably only share a bloodline) can quickly turn dysfunctional.
In other words, while you do not choose your family, you do choose your friends. Generally speaking, you will have more in common with friends than with family. Interestingly, you might not want to start a business with most of your friends because, despite your similarities, you might have some striking differences in philosophy.
In business, you tend to have more in common with people who sit on the same rung of the corporate ladder as you do. For example, a data entry clerk will have less in common with a senior manager of the same company than he would with a data entry clerk at another company. In this case, the peer group is the employee’s level , not the company.
The key challenge for a young professional is finding a way to break through to mid- and senior-level management. In order to do this, he needs a reality check.
Being on the ball
Successful managers try to hire people who are “on the ball.” Although experience in the field is a major factor, what matters even more is the degree to which a candidate is aware and capable of tackling a given challenge.
So the first thing you need to measure is the extent to which you are “on the ball” or, more importantly, how “on the ball” you come across.
Evolutionary, not revolutionary
During an interview, you may be asked to comment on what you would do similarly and what you would do differently if you obtained the position. While you should take this opportunity to offer a candid response, you should do so knowing that people only have a limited capacity for criticism.
To a certain extent, they will appreciate your input, but after a certain point, they will get defensive and take it as a personal attack. Therefore, say what you will, but note the potential downside: If your ideas are too revolutionary, you will be cast aside because you will be seen as someone who will try to take the ship in a different direction.
Why you shouldn’t always trust your instincts…
Human beings can do great things when they have good intentions. When their intentions aren’t pure, however, they usually think small and err considerably. When hiring a new candidate, most people have a tendency to be territorial and choose a weaker candidate. When a manager does this, it is not only a sign of incompetence, but also a sign of immaturity and a flagrant violation of his fiduciary duty. The objective should always be to hire the best person.
Ideally, a manager should always hire someone who can eventually be groomed to replace him. Otherwise, he will be building a house on quicksand and leaving it vulnerable. In fact, he should look for people who can replace not just him, but others in the organization as well. This is the notion of successor planning that provided GE with the best bench in corporate America.
E-mail of the week:
I have been watching The Apprentice over the past year and wanted to get your take on Donald Trump’s management style.
Well, The Donald has hit the jackpot with this highly rated reality TV show. This is probably very helpful to him and quite ironic because, judging by the dwindling fortunes of his casino empire, young professionals should not be rushing to take his advice on business.
After all, while Mr. Trump does deserve a lot of credit (along with reality TV impresario Mark Burnett) for the show’s success, it is important to remember that success in entertainment does not translate to success in business, or vice versa — think Mark Cuban. Furthermore, while Mr. Trump has experienced tremendous success in real estate, a lot of that can be credited to the springboard provided by his father’s company and the surging real estate market in Manhattan.
That being said, it is important to give him points for leveraging his nine lives by dodging bullets and playing creditors against one another when the markets were not so favorable. Such tenacity and longevity are great assets in business. In the end, the greatest lesson provided by Trump is that sometimes, you do need to develop a cult-like personality to survive.
Mr. Trump has positioned himself as an exciting, charismatic visionary with a tremendous brand, but the fact that the brand is essentially himself could cause his legacy to self-destruct once he hands the baton to an eventual successor. In any case, that day seems to be way off by the looks of it.
Ash Karbasfrooshan is also the author of Course To Success, available at www.CourseToSuccess.com. His new book, The Confessions of Alexander The Great: 33 Lessons in Greatness, is available at www.AlexanderTheBook.com.