RERUN–Ambition and Opportunism

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.

4 thoughts on “RERUN–Ambition and Opportunism”

  1. The problem is that opportunism usually works. My observation from life in large law firms demonstrates this sad fact. Distancing yourself from failure or potential failure is critical to survival in most organizations. If there is a significant failure and you were known to even be on speaking terms with the participants in the failure, you are tainted. I recall once going to court and getting told off by the judge, and he was completely wrong. I came back to the office and the person I was working for was so furious that she was literally weeping with rage, something I don’t think I have ever seen, and she kept shouting, “this is MY CAREER”! Being associated with anyone other than a major rain-making partner is probably professional death. Finding the very small number of powerful people and attaching yourself to them is the only means of survival. Performance reviews are absolutely meaningless. The only thing that matters is whose “guy” you are. This is a zero sum game. It is a harsh version of musical chairs. This means that you cannot allow any credit or benefit to redound onto others. It will not be reciprocated. If you take responsibility for your subordinates failures, you will simply be jettisoned along with them. There is no upside. It never happens. What I have seen work is making clear to any subordinate that success is “ours” or “mine” and that failure is “yours” and yours alone. I recall well a partner who got reamed out for something that I had nothing to do with calling me to his office slamming the door and saying in an enraged hiss, “This is ON YOU!” Absolutely everyone is disposable. Nice guys don’t finish last, they don’t finish at all.

    Furthermore, this model is profitable. The subordinates compete intensely in terms of work product and hours billed. The owners of these firms would be idiots to change anything.

    Maybe in other types of businesses it is different. But I have no reason to think it is. From what I have seen, they are all like this.

    It is simply human nature.

  2. I think the degree to which these tactics work vs the degree to which they backfire varies widely across industries, among companies/organizations within an industry, and among the domains of individual executives within those organizations.

    In general, it is far easier for opportunists to get away with shifting blame to peers than shifting blame to subordinates. Any organization with a hierarchy that is not completely dysfunctional is going to at some point hold those in management positions accountable for the success or failure of the mission which they have been assigned, which means that *they* are responsible for the performance of their subordinates. No national sales manager, for example, is going to let a regional sales manager get away with missing quota substantially for 3 quarters in a row by blaming subordinates…not if he wants to keep his *own* job…rather, he will remind the RSM who hired those subordinates and decided to retain them.

  3. To pursue that sort of opportunistic approach to work it seems as if one has to have no soul. It is just a purposeless pursuit of money. I would hope that most people need their work to mean something more. At some level good people want their work to have been beneficial to someone other than themselves.

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