Are you good at spotting people who are trying to take advantage of you?
Yes: 90 percent
No: 10 percent
"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.