Rule 13: Respect Ambition, but Destroy Opportunism

Rule 13: Respect Ambition, but Destroy Opportunism


start sidebar

Are you good at spotting people who are trying to take advantage of you?

Yes: 90 percent

No: 10 percent

end sidebar

"Show me a person without ambition and I'll show you a person who is going nowhere," Senator Bob Dole told me. Invincible executives love ambitious people. They reward ambitious people. They never feel threatened by ambitious people. But there is a fine line between ambition and opportunism. Cross that line and you are dead meat.

In April of 2002, I interviewed Earl Graves, the founder of Black Enterprise magazine and one of the most successful African-American entrepreneurs in the United States today. Mr. Graves's own career provides extensive insight into what creates an invincible executive—he rose from his beginnings as the poor son of Caribbean immigrants to earn a seat in boardrooms that symbolize American economic power. Not only is Mr. Graves's personal experience valuable to distilling the qualities of invincible executives, but he works so closely with other top executives across the country that he provided extensive insights into the inner workings of other top executives as well.

Mr. Graves started as an assistant to the late Robert F. Kennedy and currently sits on the board of DaimlerChrysler and many other top companies. Like so many top executives, Mr. Graves is direct and to the point—just a courteous tinge shy of abrupt. For example, I asked Mr. Graves, "How do you tell if someone you are considering for a job is going to be a good employee?" I expected a long analysis of the qualities that make productive employees. Instead, Mr. Graves responded, "If his first question is 'How many credit cards am I going to have?' this guy is not going to make it."

I asked the same question of former Senator Bob Dole in the political context. "How do you tell if a politician is opportunistic or sincere?" He replied: "Yell, 'Mr. President!' and watch how fast they turn around."

At the end of the last chapter, we discussed how top managers harness their fears into more precise professional conduct. A significant part of that sharpened professional awareness goes into picking high-quality, reliable people. The vast majority of invincible executives believe that they are good at separating the good employees from the bad ones, and good business partners from bad ones. They exhibit piercing discernment in their evaluation of other people—principally employees, but also potential customers, partners, and suppliers. Here is how they go about rewarding ambition and rooting out opportunism.

Gut Feeling

About half of the invincible executives with whom I discussed the issue claimed to have near clairvoyance in determining who will try to take advantage of them. "I can just tell by looking at them," or "I can tell after five minutes of speaking with them," was the variation on a theme I heard during my interviews. For example, Bruno Schmitter, the CEO of the successful Hydromat, Inc, a major international supplier of high-tech machining equipment, told me: "I break people down like machines. I determine quickly whether they are reliable and consistent. I can see behind people who are not genuine and who do not have themselves under control." An executive trainer with whom I worked in the retail business several years ago echoed that sentiment: "A top executive separates ambition from opportunism almost immediately. We like ambition; we detest opportunism, and we are very good at telling the difference between the two," he said. If you are going to be an executive with staying power, therefore, you must value ambition, destroy opportunism, and be adept at telling the difference between the two.

Surprisingly, a few of the top executives I interviewed stated to me that they feel women are better than men at judging opportunism. Top banker and baseball team owner Drew Baur, for example, said that when he needs a quick, reliable judgment on someone's intentions, he asks his top women advisers for their opinions. "Women are simply better judges of opportunism than men," according to Baur. "We have had at the bank a couple of misfits, and I would have to say that some of the women executives picked it up much faster than I did."

There is probably some truth to the notion that top managers display good intuition about the quality of other people. But I suspect that, more often than not, what is really going on is the rapid assimilation of a variety of more concrete indicators of people who will not be reliable. Here are some of the more specific qualities that invincible executives seek in deciding the people and companies with whom they will work.