Connections Evaporate the Moment You Walk in the Door
When the Bush administration was formulating its energy policy in 2001, Vice President Cheney solicited the advice of senior Enron executives. They were big contributors to the Republican cause. Enron had a major league connection, and it no doubt assisted Enron in getting some pro-oil industry points in the final draft of the policy. Few could dispute that a key connection got Enron chairman Kenneth Lay in the most powerful door in the world—the White House door.
But even a connection that powerful could not buy Mr. Lay a cup of coffee when the energy giant began to implode. Enron's calls for help from the White House fell on deaf ears. "They dropped him like a hot potato," a columnist noted. The reason: connections will never get you a second chance. They will never rescue you from a screwup. They provide access but no staying power whatsoever. Once you have attained the position for which you used the connection, you have to succeed on your own merits. Just like the kid who got the job at the accounting firm. Even a father who was a powerful client could not rescue him from his misdeeds.
Affirmative Action Versus Connection
Affirmative action is a state-sanctioned "connection"—a way to get in the door for those not fortunate enough to have traditional connections. Most members of minorities with whom I have discussed the issue believe that anyone who can benefit from affirmative action should take maximum advantage of the opportunity and not feel guilty about it at all.
"Country clubs, private high schools, and the connections that come out of them are like affirmative action for underachieving white people," a black judge told me on condition of anonymity. He marveled at how some Americans object to affirmative action on the grounds that it allegedly gets unqualified minorities into top jobs. He believes that the "old boy network" is the oldest form of affirmative action—and the worst form of affirmative action because it operates almost completely independent of intelligence or ability. "How many rich white fathers got their dumb sons good jobs while laughing it up with friends on a golf course?" he wondered. "Affirmative action generally overcomes disparities in educational opportunity, not disparities in intelligence. But connections can even overcome disparities in intelligence," he added.
This is an important point that all of us should keep in mind when we play a connection. There can be a backlash, and the doors will close quickly if you are not up to the task. People are watching you—many of them resentfully—and they are waiting for you to fail as soon as you play the connection card. So you can use a connection to get into the door, but the standard by which your performance is measured after that may be higher than if you had never used the connection at all.
Rule 7: When You Suffer a Setback, Come Clean and Bounce Back
Have you ever suffered a serious career setback?
Yes: 70 percent
No: 30 percent
Almost a third of the invincible executives I know have never suffered a career setback. They are the golden women and men of the professional world. You probably know a couple of them. They make you sick. Unfortunately, you cannot plan to be that fortunate. Just as everyone has a few lucky opportunities in his or her professional life, most of us will find ourselves in a very bad situation or two as well. In fact, three of the people I interviewed for this book suffered professional setbacks since the interview and were back on track in short order.
Invincible executives minimize the effects of setbacks by (1) coming clean and (2) bouncing back. The analysis, however, proceeds better in reverse order, so we'll start our discussion with bouncing back.