The accurate observation that you must whittle away the negative aspects of opportunities cannot be confused with the inaccurate idea that opportunities only arise during good times. In fact, many career-making opportunities have arisen during troubled times. "It seems to be a common theme among successful people," according to Drew Baur, the chairman of Southwest Bank and an owner of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. "They don't cower in times of turmoil. Rather, they look around and say, 'How can I turn this around to my advantage, to the advantage of the people who work for me?'"
Mike Sears, the executive vice president and CFO of Boeing, used to work for McDonnell-Douglas. In the mid-1990s the CEO of McDonnell-Douglas sent him to Long Beach, California, to head up the commercial airliner division of McDonnell. Within a few months, Mr. Sears determined that the commercial airliner division of the company would be unable to compete over the long term with Airbus and Boeing. He reported his findings honestly to the CEO. Those findings contributed to the decision of McDonnell to merge with Boeing—a move that strengthened Boeing and saved the legacy of McDonnell. It also had the effect of cementing Sears's reputation as a straight shooter who is not afraid to identify a problem and participate in developing creative, daring, and controversial solutions.
Sears's coworker, Doug Bain, whom we met earlier, described to me a defining moment in his career—when he agreed to lead a difficult negotiation with the Boeing labor union in 1986. Rather than shy away from controversy, Bain recognized the negotiation as an opportunity to show his ability to work under pressure. When the negotiations concluded successfully, people at the top of the company took notice and that one incident changed his entire career trajectory.
"Problems create opportunities" is a motto of Sam Fox, a phenomenally successful and wealthy Midwestern entrepreneur who has acquired 131 manufacturing companies through a holding company known as the Harbour Group. In the 1970s, he realized that American business schools were almost totally focused on finance, marketing, and investment banking. They were ignoring manufacturing, and there was little fresh talent in the manufacturing sector. Consequently, manufacturing expertise in the United States was falling behind that of Germany and Japan. So Fox, who is an experienced manufacturing executive, organized a company to bring modern manufacturing know-how to "Rust Belt" companies. He assembled a staff of seasoned executives in various manufacturing disciplines and began purchasing manufacturing companies. Fox now has a fortune estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Many senior corporate executives told me stories about how their careers actually benefited during a wave of mergers and downsizing initiatives at their companies. Remember, they note, when a company is under stress, the normally rigid corporate structure becomes more fluid. Most people hunker down and brace for the worst. Bad idea. Instead of lying low and trying to hold on to what you've got, look for opportunities. To do so, according to Norma Clayton of Boeing, "You go into the merger situation without any preconceptions about what is going to happen. You stay out of the politics and you listen. You watch the feet of the people who are making the decisions. And you look for the opportunity."
In order to maximize these opportunities, volunteer to work on "transition teams" that effectuate mergers; and make lateral moves out of "redundant" areas like marketing and accounting and into areas that the company perceives to be most attractive to potential merger partners—the bestselling product line, the areas of the company that utilize the most sophisticated intellectual property. The invincible executive always converts institutional problems into personal opportunities in these creative and incisive ways.