expert advice

Having good qualities and capitalizing on them are two different things. My optimistic assumption is that you possess qualities such as honesty and diligence, and I’m further assuming that over the years you’ve been rewarded for hard work and ethical behavior at least as often as you’ve been rewarded for academic achievement. But whether you’ve allowed these positive qualities to show in the workplace is another question. I’m not suggesting that you would be purposefully manipulative or deceitful in order to get ahead. What I am suggesting is that many people are afraid to let their best qualities shine at work, assuming that it might make them appear soft. As a result, they don’t reap the benefits.

1. SHARE YOUR SUCCESS WITH OTHERS.

Some of the high achievers profiled here have downplayed their own achievements and insisted that they owe their success at least in part to the efforts of others. Their statements don’t come across as false humility. Instead, they indicate their genuine gratitude for the contributions of colleagues and mentors and their belief that success is a group rather than an individual effort.

As CEO of Carson Pirie Scott, Dennis Bookshester enjoyed enormous success and received much praise for leading the retailer to record sales and profits. Throughout his tenure, though, Dennis made it his policy to include others in the spotlight and attribute significant achievements to colleagues. As he says, “You want to give credit to other people and never say, ‘I did it myself.’ Even if something is your idea, you should help the people who contributed recognize the role they played in making something work. I always recognized people for doing a great job, even when I may have come up with the idea originally.”

2. BEND OVER BACKWARD TO WORK WELL WITH OTHERS.

It takes effort to be a productive collaborator. No doubt some people will rub you the wrong way and you will find it difficult to talk with them, let alone work with them. There will also be times when you feel that you can accomplish a goal faster by yourself than in a group. Recognize, though, that organizations are increasingly relying on teams to get things done. Being productive in team environments, therefore, is a highly marketable skill. You may have to swallow your pride at times or force yourself to adjust your schedule or style to accommodate other people, but it will be worth it. When you develop a reputation for being a good collaborator, you have a better chance of getting assigned to top teams working on your company’s key business issues.

Sam Morasca of Shell attributes his success to his team skills. He says, “I always felt that you could be the smartest guy in world, but if you couldn’t work well with other people and get them to see your side—and if you didn’t listen to their side—you would have trouble. I did well with teams, and as a result I ended up being put on high-profile projects—the Saudi Arabian project, the Alaskan project, the Deep Water Tanker projects.

“I was a good team member because I’m a social person. I come from an Italian family, and I’m not a solo player. I also came from an athletic background, so I’ve been involved in team sports. Growing up, I preferred to be a team player than an individual star. When I became a senior person at Shell, though, all of a sudden I didn’t have a team of peers. Nonetheless, I would roll up my sleeves and be there with the troops. Some of the old-timers viewed this with disapproval, but I would rather be eating pizza with my team than in the executive dining room.”

3. FIND A CULTURE WHERE NICENESS COUNTS.

As I noted earlier in a previous article, not every company is an ideal place for C students. The Leo Burnett agency was seriously pursuing Eicoff prior to its acquistion by Ogilvy & Mather. But Leo Burnett seemed to have a Darwinian culture, at least at the time. Young people were placed in the media department, and only the strong survived. To do well there, you had to be political, and I wouldn’t have wanted any part of that culture. C students need to choose their cultures carefully. You’re most likely to flourish in companies that are less political and more humanistic.

4. PRACTICE SMALL ACTS OF KINDNESS AND CONSIDERATION.

You don’t have to be the professional equivalent of Mother Teresa to be considered a good gal or guy. You can’t offer career-saving advice every day. You can, however, display good manners and treat people with small kindnesses regularly.

When I first arrived at Eicoff, I didn’t understand the importance of being nice. I was twenty-seven and in a hurry to make my mark; I thought you had to be a tough guy to succeed. Al Eicoff, who looked and talked like a tough guy, recognized the importance of common courtesy. A number of employees had complained about my gruff demeanor, and Al took me aside and said, “In order to succeed here, you have to be nicer. For instance, if I want you to have a seat in that chair, I can do it one of two ways. First, I can say, ‘SIT DOWN!!!’ Or second, I can ask, ‘Will you please sit down?’ The first way, you want to kill me. The second way, you’re receptive to what I have to tell you.”

businessmen photo

Here are some other ways of practicing small acts of kindness:

•Never summon people to your office. Bosses summon direct reports reflexively, and it creates low-level animosity that builds up over time. No one enjoys being treated like a slave. Summoning also gives people the impression that you think you’re superior, detracting from all the other good things you might do. Therefore, either ask people to come to your office or stop by their office.

• Make your own phone calls whenever possible. Few things create a worse impression than a manager who has his secretary make his calls for him, and then adds insult to injury by forcing the person on the other end to wait until he is ready to take the call.

• Ask busy people what you can do to help. It may be your boss, colleague, or direct report who seems overwhelmed and stressed out. The least you can do is ask if you can assist her in any way. It may be that there’s nothing you can do, but the gesture will be appreciated and remembered.

• Be friendly and polite when dealing with mailroom personnel, clerical staff, and especially secretaries. I have never understood why some professional people feel it’s acceptable to treat nonprofessional staff with disdain or indifference. I have found that A students can be particularly guilty of this sin, acting like these individuals aren’t at their level, and thus they’re not obligated to behave civilly toward them. C students have a natural appreciation of nonprofessionals—there but for the grace of hard work and some lucky breaks go I—and so are more likely to treat them with respect. Still, some C students forget how they hated the disdain they felt from their “betters” and fall into the trap of only being nice to the people who can help them. Secretaries, in fact, can help you. They can also hurt you. If you doubt it, just be rude to a secretary. At some point he’ll let his boss know that you weren’t particularly nice. To a great extent reputations are made or broken through the cumulative comments of an organization’s secretaries.

•Smile and say hello. Harried executives rushing from one meeting to the next may brush past you without even a nod of recognition. Their faces may be screwed up into frowns or grimaces, communicating that you don’t want anything to do with them at that moment. Avoid walking around in a funk or wearing a mask of indifference. Smile at people and say hello,even to top executives who may be frowning or grimacing. These small gestures give off good vibes, and good vibes are part of what builds your reputation.

men discussing business

Say please and thank you. These little words mean a lot, especially if you say them consistently and to everyone regardless of rank. Saying thanks to a secretary for working overtime means just as much as thanking the boss for a promotion. It communicates that you’re intrinsically a good person, not someone who is only nice when it serves her purposes. It drives me nuts when I hear one of my people say, “I need you to do this” as opposed to “Will you please do this?” The former communicates that you view the other person as a functionary, the latter that you see the other person as a real human being.

5. ESTABLISH SMALL BUT MEANINGFUL NONWORK CONNECTIONS.

Whether you’re a CEO or just starting out in your career, you have more in common with people you work with than you assume. It may be that you attended the same college. You may have a mutual love of classical music or historical novels. You may both relish Thai cooking. Whatever it is, you can establish a quick connection to anyone by making small talk. It doesn’t take more than a few questions to figure out where someone grew up, what school they attended, and the hobbies they enjoy.

By establishing this connection and referring to it when you see this coworker, you demonstrate that you were paying attention to what they had to say. Many people limit their communication to impersonal exchanges of information and fail to establish a human relationship. It may seem like a small thing, but making the personal connection can take the relationship to a more meaningful level. Instead of going into your coworker’s office and saying, “Here’s the report,” handing it over, and leaving, you can start out the interaction by saying, “I can’t believe how the White Sox third baseman blew that play in the eighth inning last night.” Knowing that the report recipient is a rabid White Sox fan, you may spend the next ten minutes venting your mutual frustration. These sharing exchanges over time help you build a supportive network. When you’re up for a promotion or in need of resources, people will want to help you because you’ve made these human connections.

business class

6. BE GENUINE.

People can spot phony niceness a mile off. Don’t try to be someone you’re not, forcing laughter at jokes you don’t find funny or buttering up people you think can assist your career. You don’t need to censor your nice qualities. You don’t have to hide your disappointment, contain your laughter, or mask your approval. Stop worrying about being professional and start worrying about being more of the person you are. Let people see your sense of humor, your idiosyncrasies, and your concerns. Be yourself, and the odds are that people will respond positively.

7. WHEN IN DOUBT, DO THE RIGHT THING.

No matter what your profession is or your position in it, you’re going to be tempted to take shortcuts or do something that is less than honest. There are many morally gray areas. You may want to leave your company immediately for another position even if you’ve promised your boss you would never depart without giving her at least two weeks’ notice. Your time is being consumed by the company’s largest customer, so when a smaller customer needs some help, you tell your assistant, “Screw them; they’re small fry; we need to devote ourselves to the big fish.” Or you may have just offered a position to one candidate, and then learned that a more talented individual is interested in the job. Can you rescind the offer?

Doing the right thing can be difficult, but it’s essential if you want to be known as a decent, caring person. I’ve found that C students generally know the right thing to do in most situations, but they rationalize doing the wrong thing. They tell themselves that it’s just a small indiscretion or that their decision may hurt a few people short-term but help a greater number in the long run.

The key here is to examine your decision making for rationalizations. Trust your instinct to guide you in these instances. If you feel it’s the wrong thing to do, go with your gut.

career options

8. WHENEVER POSSIBLE, FORGIVE YOUR ENEMIES.

Some people don’t deserve to be forgiven. At some point in your career, you’re likely to encounter an individual who has it in for you and does something unforgivable. You don’t want anything to do with this person, since it’s unlikely he’ll ever change. On the other hand, you’re much more likely to encounter people who offend, irritate, and disappoint you. These individuals might not be bad people; they simply make mistakes in judgment. C students can use all the friends they can get, so don’t burn bridges and avoid creating more enemies.

Bose Electronics has been one of our clients at Eicoff since 1992. After about seven years, our main client contact, Mark Rutherford, made the decision to fire us and replace us with another agency. The new agency promised Bose all sorts of things that they were unable to deliver. We heard that Mark wanted to rehire Eicoff, but he wasn’t sure we would want to work with them again.

I was furious when Bose dropped us, since I felt we had done a good job for them. Nonetheless, I flew to Boston to meet with Mark. I told Mark, “It broke my heart when we lost you as an account, but I would walk from Chicago to Boston to get this account back. You just made a mistake, but that’s in the past.”

I could have made him feel guilty, exacting a small measure of vengeance for his mistake. I knew he wanted Eicoff back as his agency, and I had license to say whatever I wanted in this situation. Rubbing salt into the wound, however, would have done neither of us any good. I forgave him, and in doing so started building a great relationship with Mark that is still going strong even though he no longer works for Bose.

9. BE OPTIMISTIC

I’m not telling you to be Pollyannaish or simpleminded in your optimism. Don’t deny reality and pretend everything is great when it isn’t. At the same time, no one likes a pessimist. In every organization you’ll find very smart individuals who are also very cynical and sarcastic, who could watch a beautiful sunset and talk only about the dark night to come. People love working with those who see possibility and hope rather than impossibility and doom.

At this point, I’ll turn the floor over to Sam Morasca, who can argue for optimism more ably than I can:

“My dad told me that the world doesn’t like a grouch. At Shell everyone was smart. But people complained and criticized all the time without having a solution, and it was no fun working with these grouches.

“There is a story of a psychologist who tested two ten-year-old kids—one was an eternal optimist, and one was a pessimist. The psychologist put the pessimistic kid in a room with fancy toys and said, ‘This room is yours, do anything you want, we’ll be back in few hours.’ He then put the optimistic kid in a room with just a pile of horse manure and a shovel. When the psychologist returned to the room with the pessimistic kid and the toys, he found the child sitting in the corner doing nothing. He complained he was bored, that he didn’t know how to work all the toys, and that he was worried about breaking them. When the psychologist entered the optimistic kid’s room, he found the boy whistling and shoveling the manure to the other side of the room. The psychologist asked him what he was doing. He said, ‘With all this shit, there has to be a pony somewhere.’”

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have the kid with the shovel on my team.