Originally posted 3/4/2004
There’s always a steady steam of books and articles offering advice to people who are beginning, or about to begin, their business careers. In the current crop of such publications, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on “taking care of yourself’–negotiating hard about starting salary, being insistent about raises and promotions, making sure you get full credit for the things you accomplish, etc etc. This general theme seems particularly pronounced right now in advice directed at women.
Within limits, it’s common sense. If you don’t stand up for yourself, you’re going to get run over. And, in an era of (at least perceived) insecurity, it’s natural that people would be increasingly focused on career self-protection.
But. Note the qualifier, “within limits.”
Readers of the afforementioned publications need to also read a little article that appeared in Investor’s Business Daily (2/23), under the title “Opportunists are Trouble.” Opportunists:
..avoid assignments that carry high risk of failure–even when such situations also present a great opportunity for success. They shirk responsibility for the actions of their subordinates…And while opportunists might seem highly intelligent, it’s often not the case…They master the art of appearance, but have very little depth.
The article quotes the author of “Staying There,” Thomas Schweich:
If you are going to be an executive with staying power, you must value ambition, destroy opportunism and be adept at telling the diference between the two…(Wise) executives search for small, tangible signs in those they are evaluating.
Earl Graves, founder & publisher of the magazine Black Enterprise, offers some advice as to how to detect an opportunist. One clue is an excessive preoccupation with perks–company credit cards, tickets to sports events, etc–and particularly, a focus on perks during the first few days on the job. And Mike Sears, previously CFO at Boeing, advises executives to look out for the “spotlight” mentality. People with this personality trait will “be charming when the spotlight is on, but turn irritable and condescending when they think “no one of importance” is watching.”
Another clue to an opportunist–and this one should be obvious–is excessive use of the words “I” and “me” when discussing positive outcomes. And then there’s the “should be” flag. Let’s say you ask your subordinate about the status of an assignment, and his response is that “it should be done.”
“(It) says that you think I am too stupid to figure out that you do not know the answer,” (said a senior Justice Department official). (And it) “says you are ready to blame someone else if the job hasn’t been done. You are pre-distancing yourself from the failure.”
It seems to me that many of the current practices in our educational system–grade inflation, excessive focus on unearned self-esteem–contribute to the development of the personality pattern referenced here under the name “opportunism.” And the problem with the kind of business advice that I mentioned at the beginning is that it tends to reinforce these tendencies, rather than causing the individual to reflect on them and balance them out. I worry that some of this advice could cause people who could have been successful to adopt behavior patterns that will destroy or limit their careers. Some, of course, will succeed despite their behavior (or even because of it, in unhealthy organizations), and they can then do damage that is sometimes on a very large scale.
A worthwhile article, and Schweich’s book sounds very interesting.
8/24/2012: I was reminded of this post by Bill Waddell’s post here.