Quirks with Perks
Mr. Graves's story related earlier illustrates point number one. Invincible executives search for small, tangible signs of opportunism in those they are evaluating. Graves points to two such signs of an opportunistic person. First, opportunists make little slipups that show a preoccupation with "perks." An opportunist cannot help but think of himself or herself as being above the organization. Consequently, he or she will ask about company credit cards, flying first class, baseball tickets, fancy hotels. "They love to talk about these things; they can't help it," says Graves. That is not to say that people should never talk about the trappings of wealth and power. But invincible executives are on the lookout for people who are preoccupied with the perks—like new employees who raise these matters during their first few days at work, or seasoned employees who spend more time trying to get their airline seat upgraded than preparing for the meeting that necessitated the travel.
Second, Graves looks for someone who tries to change the organization before he or she understands it. He points to a new employee who immediately pushed for casual Fridays. She did not bother to find out that Mr. Graves is adamantly opposed to casual dress in the office. "Change is fine," he said, but "you do yourself a disservice to walk into an organization that is doing well and start imposing your values on it immediately." Opportunists try to mold everything to suit their personal desires, and they usually lack the patience to wait very long to do so.
Mike Sears of Boeing notes a third quirk of opportunists—the "spotlight" mentality. Opportunists are pleasant and charming when the spotlight is on; they are irritable, condescending, and moody when they are toiling behind the scenes. Look for these signs.
The Buck Stops Over There Somewhere
Others who are good at picking out opportunists look for an opportunist's specific choice of words rather than focusing on the subject matter of the person's communications or his or her general attitude. For example, opportunists take credit for all victories. They are not the conduit for the organization—a concept that we discussed earlier. Consequently, they use "I" and "me" instead of "we" when discussing positive results or developments.
They also remind others constantly of their victories—even when the organization has moved on to new matters. Opportunists feel a need to tell you—in the first five minutes of any given conversation—about some great victory they had, some important title they had, some board they sit on, or someone important they know. Ambitious people, on the other hand, allow others to tell you about their accomplishments and then downplay these accomplishments when you bring them up.
The self-centered words, phrases, and stories that characterize an opportunist disappear when problems arise. In these situations, opportunists tend to compartmentalize their jobs in order to limit their exposure to failure. First, they try to avoid assignments that carry with them a significant risk of failure—even when such situations present a great opportunity for success as well. "Opportunists shy away from risk, even when there are large potential rewards. The reason is simple. They plan to jump back into the risky matter once they are confident that everything will turn out well," according to seasoned corporate attorney Jack Walbran.
When failure does occur or seems imminent, opportunists run for cover quickly. That includes shirking responsibility for the actions of their subordinates. Consequently, they frequently use phrases like "you'll have to check with Susan" or "unfortunately, my assistant did not get that done." They pass the buck at the very first opportunity. Many go so far as to send subordinates into "bad" meetings, even when their own peers will be present.
A senior Justice Department official once told me that his least favorite phrase from a subordinate is "should be." "For example, I assign you and your legal team to do a 'white paper' on an important legal strategy. A week later I ask you if the white paper on the new legal strategy is done, and you answer, 'Should be.' That phrase says three things about you. First, the phrase says that you think I am too stupid to figure out that you do not know the answer to my question. You do not know if the paper is done or not and you won't admit it. That is patronizing. Second, the phrase 'should be' says you do not know what your people are doing. You have not taken the time to interact with your subordinates to determine if they have completed the assignment. Finally, the phrase says that you are ready to blame someone else if the job hasn't been done. You are 'predistancing' yourself from the failure. That's why the phrase 'should be' is a sure sign of both ineptitude and opportunism at work."