career success


While being a decent human being is a good end in and of itself, it comes with a bonus. In today’s world, relationship-building is a critical skill. Being able to communicate, motivate, listen, create trust, and earn respect all have a tremendous impact on your career and your effectiveness. More than ever, people who can resolve conflicts, build partnerships, and manage teams are worth their weight in gold. Leaders with these capacities tend not to be the brilliant strategists and genius technicians. Instead, they are regular folks, individuals with exceptional people skills and sterling character. More often than not they are C students.

If you are a C student, you are in a good situation to capitalize on the character you developed early in life. Receiving average grades is humbling, preventing you from getting too arrogant. You weren’t obsessively competitive in school and were happy to share your class notes; you learned to be generous with your information and ideas. You probably also recognized the importance of leading a balanced life. While other people may have been academic grinds, spending hours every night in the library, you found a balance between studying and socializing. You formed great friendships and learned to communicate clearly and compellingly. Rather than feeling the need to dominate conversations and express your brilliant opinions, you were able to sit back, listen, and respond to what others said. You also discovered that people tend to judge you for who you are rather than what you know.

All this has prepared you to be a person of character in the workplace. If you work hard at displaying this character, you’ll reap benefits in the following three ways:


In just about any organization, people gravitate toward individuals who exude decency and charm. They naturally want to work with those who are fun to be around and who are able to listen as well as talk. They want to collaborate with colleagues who are flexible and able to recognize the value of ideas other people come up with. Customers and suppliers, too, will gravitate toward individuals they trust, whom they believe have their best interests at heart.

business development

Rich Melman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) has done an amazing job of creating employee loyalty and building business relationships that last far longer than the norm in the notoriously volatile restaurant business. He has also established unusual customer loyalty for his restaurants. This has come about in large part because Rich has consistently emphasized honesty and decency, and it is one of the reasons LEYE has received awards, including Chicago magazine’s number six ranking in its “Best Places to Work” survey and number one ranking in employee satisfaction.

Rich describes his philosophy as follows: “I’m brutally honest, though not mean-spirited. When someone needs to be told they’re off base, I don’t have a hard time doing it. Integrity comes about in many ways. Being honest with yourself. Being honest with others. Not cheating people. This is a strong and healthy part of our culture. Leaders work hard and are honest, and their people follow suit.”

Over the years, LEYE has created over 130 restaurants. In some instances they have taken in partners for investing purposes, and it has been rare that those partners lost money. One time, though, LEYE tried a new restaurant concept that didn’t work right away. They could have made some changes and continued to improve the concept, and odds were it would have made money eventually. During that rebuilding phase, though, the partners still would not have made back their initial investment. Though LEYE was under no contractual obligation to return the money to the partners, they did so and closed the restaurant. One of the investors ran into Rich shortly after the payout. When the investor introduced Rich to a friend he was with, the investor said of Rich, “Here’s a guy who could have walked away from us, never given our money back, but he paid us back.”

Rich said, “I just thought it was the right thing to do. I messed up. I should have conceived the restaurant differently so that it would have been more successful.”

career skills photo

suspect that this partner, as well as the others involved in the venture, would be eager to do business with Rich again.

People want to work with those who do the right thing, not just because it makes sense financially, but because these individuals are enjoyable to be around. No one likes to work with smug individuals or those who pontificate at the drop of a hat. Unethical and amoral individuals also turn people off. So, too, do people who are rude, crude, or antisocial in other ways. On the other hand, most people love to work with colleagues who are friendly, open, and honest. They want to be on teams with people they can depend on and with whom they enjoy spending time.

Throughout my career, I have tried to make as many friends and as few enemies as possible. My theory has always been that the more people you have rooting for you, the greater the chances of your success. I recognize that sometimes people will choose to work with a jerk because his skill is critical to a particular project or they’ll hire a supplier who is arrogant but is also the best in the business. All things being equal, though, most people will choose to do business with someone they like over someone they don’t trust or find unpleasant.


Unfortunately, we live in a time when people place less trust in their leaders than ever before. CEOs at companies such as Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom have made the public in general and corporate employees specifically distrustful of top executives.

If you aspire to be a leader in your organization, I would recommend starting to develop your reputation as early as possible. Everyone begins work with a blank slate, and every day you enter something on that slate that reflects on you positively or negatively. Your reputation is cumulative, and if you have many more positive than negative entries after a period of time, you’ll position yourself for top jobs. As much as organizations want their leaders to produce results, they also want them to present a solid-citizen image to the public and inspire and motivate employees. They want everyone to feel that a leader has their best interests at heart, and that if she has to make a tough decision—downsizing, selling off a division—employees will give her the benefit of the doubt.

career discussion

As a CEO for over twenty-five years, I have attempted to be a trusted, accessible leader. I reinforce this image in many ways; for example, I treat clerical people with the same respect I treat vice presidents with; I communicate my intolerance of dishonest practices; and I work hard to understand other people’s points of view. I have also done everything possible to maintain my good name. I was taught the value of a good name by my grandfather Charles Fingeret. When I was a young boy, I used to walk with my grandfather from his Coraopolis scrap yard to the bank to deposit the cash he had earned that week; he always carried what seemed to me a big roll of cash, though it probably seemed so large because there were so many ones. One day while we were on our walk, he stopped at a shop on Mill Street called Joe Workman’s to buy a Ben Hogan hat, which cost about three dollars. My grandfather said to the shop owner, “I don’t have any money with me at the moment.” The owner responded, “Don’t worry, Charlie, we know you’re good for it.”

When we walked out of the store, I asked him why he had told the owner he didn’t have any money.

“I wanted to show you the importance of having a good name.”

I never forgot the lesson my grandfather taught me that day.


When a company is looking at a job candidate, they first look to see if that person has the necessary experience and expertise to fit the job. Almost as important, though, is whether she has the right personality and values for the job. After interviewing a candidate, they might ask themselves the following questions:

•Is this person a good fit for our company? Will he get along well with others on his team?

career and business success

•Does she seem as if she might be overly egotistic or self-serving? Does she possess an arrogance that might rub others the wrong way?

• Do I like this person? Did I enjoy talking to him during the interview, and did he listen and absorb what I said?

• Does this candidate seem as if she has good values, that she would work with suppliers and customers in an ethical manner?

Sometimes people mistakenly believe they should show off during job interviews, boasting of their accomplishments and demonstrating their superior knowledge. Typically, they talk too much and listen too little. It’s fine to mention your accomplishments, but this can be done naturally within the course of a normal conversation. More often than not, boastful, smug job candidates turn off interviewers, who will think to themselves, “I can’t stand this guy now; how is it going to be if I have to see him every day?”

In terms of promotions, one of the great myths is that the most qualified person gets promoted. If the promotion involves a highly technical position—an accounting or MIS job, for example—then expertise may be the single most important factor. If, on the other hand, the job involves a lot of people responsibilities, then other factors come into play. C students receive promotions to managerial jobs all the time because they know how to develop other people, and establish relationships with a wide range of people; they also are responsible and committed. A students may be promoted up to a certain level in technical departments—their superior computer design expertise secures a top job in that department—but they may not be considered seriously for higher-level positions involving numerous people responsibilities.

Tradeoffs inevitably must be made in both hiring and promoting. Sometimes organizations will be desperate for someone with the knowledge and skills to handle a challenging position, and this desperation may make them willing to hire someone who is not Mr. Personality. It is also true that most people won’t hire or promote someone who lacks the skills or knowledge to handle a job, even if they are the nicest guy in the world. In many instances, though, allowing your natural integrity, charm, and humanity to show will make a big difference in your career.