Recognizing and Creating Opportunity: An Essential Professional Skill


Recognizing and Creating Opportunity: An Essential Professional Skill

Earlier, I quoted invincible executives who said that you should always focus on doing your current job well. Consistently, top executives recommended against constantly pushing for a promotion or implying that you are more than you really are. These important observations, while true, cannot be equated with the unproductive idea that you should keep your head in the sand. You can focus on doing your current job well while simultaneously taking steps to ensure that you learn of and take advantage of opportunities that will come your way. "One definition of luck is that somebody opened the door and what you look at as luck really is what you prepared for, and that is the ability to step through the door and take advantage of the situation," according to Stephen Lambright of Anheuser-Busch.

So let's discuss a very different approach to harnessing luck: recognizing and creating—rather than forcing—opportunities. There are legitimate ways to increase the likelihood that luck will come your way. You increase your odds of success if you carefully cultivate and grow your own luck. Here's how invincible executives do it.

While invincible executives do not force opportunity, they do gather as much knowledge about the greater goings-on in their company and industry as possible. They start by reading company newsletters and industry publications. This publicly available data gives them a base from which to assess possible opportunities. Several of the invincible executives I interviewed for the book had trade publications sitting on their desks—some of them had five or six. There can be no doubt that you find opportunity by staying completely on top of developments in your company and your industry.

But the process of opportunity identification and exploitation goes much further. The invincible executive uses inside information to advance his or her career. Remember, it is illegal to trade stock on inside information; but it is not illegal to plan your career based on inside information. Many invincible executives I interviewed told similar stories about their early years in business. They developed friendships among a wide cross section of people in their companies. They made a point to get to know the financial and accounting people in their companies. That way, they remained generally apprised of the financial health of the company, and they often knew of mergers, acquisitions, and divestments before anyone else did. These aspiring professionals also made a point of getting to know the company lawyers, and these friendships gave them inside information on big business deals in the works or serious potential liabilities that the company had to address. They also got to know the company marketing staff so that they could keep informed on the state of customer relationships.

A couple of successful executives—both on condition of anonymity—confided to me that they deliberately cultivated friendships with the executive assistants to top managers so that they could very tactfully accomplish two objectives: (1) keep tabs on what the top execs were up to and (2) learn what the top execs valued in their workers.

One of them told me this startlingly Machiavellian story—right out of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying—about the dividends yielded by getting to know the assistants to top executives. "From becoming friendly with the assistant to our executive vice president, I learned that the executive VP hated beards, detested junior executives who drove expensive foreign cars, was very macho about drinking his coffee black, loved the New York Mets but thought they needed better pitching, and was looking to replace the marketing manager on one of his pet projects. At the next meeting that I attended in his presence, I made a point of: (1) shaving my sideburns before the meeting; (2) pouring a cup of coffee before the meeting and making a smilingly derogatory remark about cream and sugar; (3) telling the executive VP in small talk before the meeting that my dream baseball team was the Mets with Roger Clemens added to the lineup; (4) casually working into the discussion at the actual meeting that one of my biggest rivals drove a BMW 700 series car that would put my Ford to shame; and finally (5) bringing up some carefully organized and presented ideas on how we could improve our marketing of the boss's favorite project. ... I was promoted to senior marketing manager the next month and my career soared."

Yikes. How calculating can one be? For better or worse, it worked. Rather than running around telling everyone that he was really good or deserved a promotion, this man, now a top executive himself, gathered knowledge and then used it at the right time. That is creating opportunity rather than forcing it.