Introduction - Most Unlikely to Succeed


Introduction—"Most Unlikely to Succeed"

You may be the invincible executive, and you may not even know it. Big-time success is a complex and deceptive goal. Millions of people have the qualities necessary to become leaders in their fields, but they have not discovered their personal paths to the top. So they settle for mediocre careers that simply pay the bills. It does not have to be that way.

At the other extreme, many executives think that their careers are secure and on the rise when, actually, they are teetering on the edge of professional disaster. These people often suffer setbacks from which they never recover. Just look at the recent accounting and self-dealing scandals that have toppled senior executives of Tyco International, Global Crossing, Enron, Arthur Andersen, Xerox, Adelphia, and ImClone, to name a few. These executives thought they had it all, and then lost it in a flash. Such failures are avoidable.

This book organizes and analyzes the wisdom of a group of very successful people for the purpose of solving the mystery of professional victory. It will allow you to harness your best qualities and suppress those that make you vulnerable to failure. It will provide you the secrets of professional staying power, straight from the experiences of some of our country's most invincible executives.

The basic rules are the same no matter what your chosen field is—corporate executive, military officer, politician, entertainer, writer—you name it. We should start, however, with three threshold requirements to professional invincibility. First, you have to be smart. Not necessarily book-smart, but smart nonetheless. I assume that you are. If you're not, save your money and put the book back on the shelf. All invincible executives are very smart.

Second, you have to put your career at or very near the top of your priorities list. As we will discuss in detail shortly, invincible executives are engaged in an endless battle to balance their family and leisure interests with a job that almost consumes them. I assume you are waging that battle as well. If not, you will never be assured a place at the top.

Finally, you have to be honest. That does not mean you have to be a moralistic do-gooder. You can be tough, even ruthless, in certain circumstances; and you can take risks. But you have to know where "the line" is, and you can never cross it. We will cover some of those "lines" a little later.

Then, assuming you have the intellect, commitment, and integrity necessary to become invincible, you have to learn and execute thirty very basic tactics, continuously, for your entire professional life. Mark my words. All the brains, ambition, and good intentions in the world won't get you there unless you follow these rules. That's where I come in.

I decided to write a book about professional staying power one night when I was sitting in one of those black row-chairs next to Gate D3 at LaGuardia Airport in New York. The plane was an hour late, and I had arrived two hours early—only to find that there was no line at security. I found a sufferable position in the chair and then turned my attention to stretching USA Today into a threehour read.

Within two minutes, I was interrupted—loudly—by a middleaged man in a suit. "Hey you! Sir!"

"Yeah?" I asked, bothered, as if the man talking had diverted my eyes from the closing pages of A Tale of Two Cities.

He pointed to my luggage tag that had my business card on it.

"You work at a big law office, right? One with like hundreds of lawyers all over the world?"

"Yes, I do."

"I had a friend in high school who went to work at your place after he spent some time at another law office. I was amazed he could even get a job with you guys. Jeez, in high school, he was a goof-off, you know, not exactly big-time law material. Yeah, I have thought about Walter many times, but I suspect he probably didn't last long at your place. You've probably never even heard of him."

"Walter who?" I asked, with a bit more interest.

"Walter Metcalfe."

I smiled. "Actually," I said, "he is the chairman of the firm."

The man was aghast. "No way! Walter? That's impossible."

"It's true."

He shook his head. "I cannot believe it!"

While this incident may have reflected some lingering high school jealousy, it got me thinking. That "goof-off" to whom the man referred had gone on to become the chairman of one of the most prestigious law firms in the country. He was listed by The National Law Journal as one of the one hundred most powerful attorneys in the United States. He hobnobbed with leading politicians, philanthropists, CEOs—even Alan Greenspan. How did he do that?

A couple of weeks later, I was having lunch with clients, and I listened to a conversation similar in tone about a woman named Susan. She was the senior vice president of human resources and administration at a multibillion-dollar financial institution. "She had not even gone to business school," the better-educated (but less successful) lunch crowd lamented. A bank hired her out of college as an executive assistant—a glorified secretary, for heaven's sake! Then came four mergers in eight years. After each merger, Susan got a promotion while she watched her peers get downsized and outsourced, or just barely hold on to what they had. Now Susan has 450 people reporting to her; she makes over $400,000 per year; and she has her former coworkers totally baffled by her unbridled success.

I know Walter and Susan—and many others like them—as the invincible executive. They have gotten where others aspire to be, and managed to stay there in tough times, and no one can quite figure out how. In the vast majority of cases, they are not the "Most Likely to Succeed" kids who then glide with ease—and seeming destiny—to professional success. Think about it. What happened to your Most Likely to Succeed classmate from high school? I do not even know where my Most Likely to Succeed is. It sure wasn't me.

More often than not, the invincible executive is a woman or man whose career seems guided less by the graceful hand of destiny than by something closer to a cattle prod—jolting her or him through glory and worry to the top of the corporate heap. My research reveals that the invincible executive does not get to the top easily and only rarely does so with grace. To borrow a somewhat overextended metaphor from a young CEO of a sporting goods franchise: the invincible executive "rides the wave of successful ventures aggressively like a surfer on the brink, but just as often he must emerge unscathed from the crashing waves of failure around him." Issues of prose aside, the man captures an important point. Others with good educations, intellect, and ambition fall into the vast ocean of corporate mediocrity. Yet the invincible executive advances, thrives, survives. He or she has staying power.

The head-shaking and bewilderment that invincible executives leave in their wakes suggest to me that their coworkers have a lot of trouble pinpointing those qualities that lead to meteoric careers. So I decided to get to the bottom of the issue of who gets to the top by profiling some seventy top executives—many of them seemingly invincible—whom I have encountered in my own career as a writer, lecturer, attorney, and prosecutor.

To get a uniquely comprehensive perspective, I went for a great deal of diversity in the type of people I profiled—not only in terms of gender, religion, political affiliation, and race, but also in the type of work they do. In fact, the people I discuss in this book have only one thing in common: they rose to the top of very competitive fields and stayed there for a long time. These fields included big business, finance, the military, politics, entertainment, writing, medicine, and law.

I conducted one-on-one interviews with forty of the seventy people I profiled. Some of the interviewees have become so successful that they are household names. However, I thought it was important that I also interview people with more modest success stories—such as owners of successful small and medium-sized businesses and people with humble backgrounds who became successful engineers or senior managers in large corporations. The higher-profile interviewees included people as wide-ranging as corporate legend Bill Marriott of Marriott International; Jim Parker, CEO of the United States' only profitable major airline, Southwest Airlines; upstart software CEO Barrett Toan of Express Scripts; former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt; former Senator Bob Dole; ex-Attorney General Janet Reno; retired U.S. Navy Admiral and U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher; African-American entrepreneur extraordinaire Earl Graves; six-time Emmy-winning television producer Christopher Lloyd; and eight-time Grammy winner Sheryl Crow. The interviews often lasted two hours or more. Certain companies, like Marriott and Boeing, gave me access to a cross section of their top executives, which helped me glean corporate viewpoints that supplemented the thoughts and opinions of individual professionals with whom I spoke.

In other cases, I learned the views of senior professionals not through formal interviews, but by working with them on legal matters, business transactions, or civic events. For example, when I served as the chief of staff for Senator John Danforth's Waco investigation, I had the chance to interview, interface, and/or work with top professionals such as Senator Arlen Specter; General Pete Schoomaker (then commander in chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command); then Defense Secretary William Cohen; several top officials of the Justice Department, the Department of Defense, and the FBI; a couple of federal judges; and even ex-President Clinton. Through these and other experiences as a lawyer, speaker, and prosecutor, I made notes—often contemporaneously—of the behavior and insights of top executives as they performed their jobs. Many of these insights are included in this book as well—supplemented with research that I did on their careers.

Interestingly, people with careers ranging from "rock stars" to "four stars" say and do a lot of the same things—in somewhat different, but equally insightful, ways. When a top woman punk drummer with purple hair and a nose ring makes the same observation as a silver-haired man dripping with battle medals, we must have distilled some sort of truth about professional accomplishment. By conducting a wide-ranging survey of successful people, supplemented with my own professional research, I think I have finally figured out what makes the invincible executive.

This book is not deep. But the thirty rules that follow are powerful, and you can use them every day. While I acknowledge that invincible executives are multifaceted, profound, and, in many cases, difficult to pigeonhole, they are also very tactical people. Yes, they all have their complex inner selves, but they also cultivate their professional progress and personal images with nuts-and-bolts principles of conduct. I'll leave the profound observations on leadership and "team building" to others. We are going to cover the specific tactics that separate the most successful people from the crowd. This is not a book about professional psychology; it is a book about professional triumph.

In that practical spirit, I have concluded that invincible executives tend to follow thirty basic Rules of Invincibility, or ROIs for short. (Fittingly, the acronym, ROI, means "king" in French.) Once you strip away the intangibles, the ROIs of the invincible executive are simple and easily distilled. In many cases, they are absolutely Machiavellian—contrived and nearly calculating. In fact, one of the people I interviewed said that the title of the book ought to be The New Prince: Machiavelli Visits the Twenty-First Century. I took it as a compliment. Using the rules that I describe requires no apology—by the executives who use them, by me, or by you. They are the means—completely legitimate and ethical—by which talented people get to the top and stay there. Nothing wrong with that.

Few invincible executives adhere to every ROI, but a large majority adhere to most of them. The thirty ROIs relate to three principal areas: career path, personality characteristics, and management style. So I have divided this book into three parts: "The Invincible Career Path," "The Invincible Personality," and "The Invincible Management Style." There are ten rules on the career planning that leads to the invincible career path, ten rules on the inner characteristics that create the invincible professional personality, and ten management tenets that lead to an invincible style of organizing and harnessing the capabilities of other people.

Each of the thirty short sections has the same structure. First, I state the ROI. Then I provide the Snapshot results of a survey question I asked top professionals that ultimately led to the ROI. Following the survey question and answer, I elaborate on the ROI by giving you some of the specific thoughts of top executives with whom I discussed the issue. The process is simple, and the results might surprise you.