Grind Your Teeth, but Bite Your Tongue

Grind Your Teeth, but Bite Your Tongue

According to former Senator Bob Dole, among many others, a key quality that draws luck to a career is carefully calculated patience. Jim Parker, CEO of Southwest Airlines, stated the flip side. "Impatience is a major factor in career downfalls," he noted.

Now when top professionals say that patience is essential to success, they are not talking about passivity. Rather, they recognize that, as a matter of pure professional science, time will present opportunity, so patience is a prerequisite to success. However, there is an important distinction to make here. Invincible executives are not patient people; they are people who are capable of being patient.

For example, I recently saw a young executive torpedo his career by taking on a boss whom he rightfully felt to be incompetent. This boss was less than two years away from retirement; the young executive had thirty-five years left in his career. Had the young executive simply bitten his tongue and waited the situation out, a major promotion would have opened up right in front of him like the parting of the Red Sea. The young man made a fatal career error when he chose not to wait for his boss's retirement to materialize—even when he had a good idea that the event was coming. The incompetent boss had enough friends at the company to get the junior executive fired. This story illustrates the point, gleaned from the careers of both successful and unsuccessful people alike, that the poor manipulation of a potentially lucky situation usually leads to a career flameout. Conversely, the tactical use of patience opens the door to opportunity.

Now you don't have to just sit there and wait around for something lucky to happen—although that can and has worked for many people. Invincible executives do create opportunities, and you can maximize your chance for a successful career by creating opportunities. However, "opportunity creation" is a delicate process. You can never force an opportunity. Let's discuss the difference between forcing an opportunity and creating an opportunity.

Forcing Opportunity: The Professional Kiss of Death

First, the wrong way. The most common way people ineffectively force opportunity is through "back channeling"—a fast route to nowhere, according to senior Boeing attorney John Judy. Back channeling is going around someone you should be dealing with in order to get to someone higher up. For example, I know a young man we will call William. He was a junior aide to a U.S. senator. William was very ambitious, constantly trying to become more "visible" to very important people—his boss, other senators, senior constituents. He continuously pushed for access to top Washing-tonians. His motto was, literally, "visibility is everything."

William reported to the senator's administrative assistant (AA), who is effectively the chief of staff for the senator. One day, the AA told William to write a letter for the AA's signature to a congress-woman so that the AA could report to the congresswoman what the senator planned to do about a conflict between a bill pending in the House of Representatives and one pending in the Senate. William wrote the letter, signed it himself, and then sent it to the congresswoman. Worse yet, he called the congresswoman personally to discuss it. The congresswoman politely took the call, and she and William actually resolved the matter. But she did make a tactful mention to the AA that she had been surprised that someone so junior was negotiating with her.

The AA approached William and reminded him that the AA was supposed to lead the negotiations. William then made the typical lame reply that someone confronted with his or her inappropriate back channeling always makes: I thought you were too busy and just did it myself. The result was twofold: William looked incapable of following instructions, and he came across as insincere. It did not matter that William had both increased his visibility with the congresswoman and successfully resolved the problem. His young career took a big hit.

Back channelers always follow the same route to failure—they ignore the chain of command and then lie about the reason. William was looking for a new job within three months of the incident I described above. Invincible executives get noticed by senior people by doing their jobs well; not by doing someone else's job and not by going around people to gain access to higher-ups.

Another way that misguided employees commonly force opportunities is by demanding (or simply adopting) a title or a promotion. Here is an extreme example, but it is a true story that illustrates the point well. Stephanie was an assistant facilities manager in charge of leasing office and factory space for a large manufacturing company. She was bright and very ambitious. One day her boss found a letter she had sent to the owner of a warehouse. She had signed the letter with her name, and underneath her signature was the title "Chief Facilities Officer."

She had just made up the title. Everyone at the company knew that the company did not have a chief facilities officer—and the whole department thought it sounded not only disingenuous but downright silly for someone to adopt such a stilted label for a rather modest job. Stephanie became a sort of a joke around the office after that—"Hey look, there goes the chief facilities officer!" Worse yet, the company lawyer noted, by putting the word "officer" in her title, she represented to outsiders that she had the authority of a senior company official, which could create serious liability issues in the event of a dispute. Stephanie's career never really recovered from her effort to force an opportunity.