Never lie in business

Feb 10 2013 10:47
*Ian Mann

Losing It! Behaviors and Mindsets that Ruin Careers: Lessons on Protecting Yourself from Avoidable Mistakes by Bill Lane

IT WAS Bismarck who said: “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. A wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

It is certainly preferable to learn how to protect yourself from the avoidable mistakes that have ruined other’s careers than having to learn them the hard way – from your own ruined career.

The mistakes author Bill Lane describes in this book are not the complex business decisions that turned out poorly, but those of a more basic type. These mistakes flow from bad behaviour and wrong mindsets, and ruin many, many more careers.

Worse still, they could all have been avoided had you known how the game is played.

At 57, Lane was “retired” from General Electric where he had held a middle level position writing speeches for top level executives, including its CEO Jack Welch. There, and in similar positions at the Pentagon, he was able to observe what made otherwise brilliant and successful people fail.

This is not a self-help book by a roaring success who is generously sharing the story of his great achievements. Rather it is the insights of an only mildly successful man, who is thoughtful and observant.

It was Irving Berlin who said: “The toughest thing about being a success is that you’ve got to keep on being a success.”

What brought Bill Lane down was that he took his success for granted and moved onto autopilot, still doing good work, but no longer dazzling with his brilliance.

“The best advice I can give anyone in management… (is to) strive endlessly to expand your responsibilities and never stop, never coast, never get comfortable, no matter how many people tell you how great you are and how well you are doing.”

Many people tell everyone they meet in the corridor how weak the company leadership is. This is career limiting - “the whispering cynics by the water cooler” are known to all, and their careers are at best limited and at worst terminated at the next restructuring.

Lane urges everyone to “sign on” to the leader’s programme wholeheartedly and enthusiastically, despite reservations. It is possible that they are right and you will be seen to be on the side of the winners.

If they are wrong, at least you will be seen as someone who did their very best to make a lost cause succeed.

Of course, if what you are being asked to do is morally wrong or even simply bad for shareholders, then you have to leave on principle. With your head high, you are an attractive candidate elsewhere.

A full chapter of the book is dedicated to the problem of immoral and criminal behaviour at work. Lane raises an interesting question: when does bad behaviour start? What was the first act? Once started, it only seems to accelerate in intensity and extent.

Lane tells of a junior administration head who had misrepresented expenses for a team lunch that had cost way beyond what could be justified. She added names of people who were not at the lunch to justify the expense. When this was discovered, she was dismissed.

The iron, non-negotiable, inviolable rule, says Lane, is never, ever lie. If the lunch host had submitted the huge bill she might have been told to pay the excess, but this is a minor issue compared to being branded a liar and a cheat.

Never lying will be seen by others as a personal strength, with the misdemeanour probably dismissed with a minor sanction. Superiors and colleagues alike admire truth-tellers.

“Truth telling, even when it hurts, is absolutely the number one totem you must worship in your business or institutional life,” writes Lane.

It is a leadership challenge to cultivating a culture with a fanatical bias for integrity while at the same time encouraging competitiveness and a compulsion to deliver. Where this is achieved, you have seen true leadership greatness.

Jim McNerney of Boeing advises everyone to have “situational awareness”. What is really going on around you? How are you rated? Where do you fall short?

“Do a very real assessment of the situation - reach out for data to your allies, confidants, teammates, and customers-  and do it fast!”

A leader’s followers provide two critical services, the first of which is the provisions of situational awareness. The second service is best encapsulated in the Japanese business proverb: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

In a conversation with the captain of the Trident submarine (a vessel capable of virtually wiping out half of what was then the Soviet Union), Lane was told of the Oofongo Rock disaster that never happened.

The captain who normally didn’t even make eye contact, much less allow himself to be questioned by junior staff, told Lane of how a junior staff member noticed a dot on a map and said: “What’s that?

Impatiently he snapped: “What’s what?” He watched the seaman point to a dot on a map that was a jagged, solitary rock, Oofongo Rock, that sticks out of the sea.

It was directly ahead and only minutes away. His willingness to listen saved the monstrously expensive vessel from certain, debilitating damage.

“Every flame-out has arrogance at its core,” asserts McNerney, so ask yourself and your colleagues whether they perceive you as arrogant.

When formulating a speech for a GE vice-president, Lane was told that the executive wanted to tell graduates that they must develop “an insatiable intellectual curiosity about everything around [them], and about everything for which [they] may someday be responsible”.

His advice: “If you are a nurse, understand how the hospital works, and then become familiar with the entire healthcare system.”

A prime cause of failure is not being curious about everything around you. Curiosity must inform your thinking on all issues around you, including the reasons for a success. Incuriosity leaves you vulnerable to being lied to or misled.

This book is filled with the wisdom many wish they had received earlier in their careers. It reads very well and your career will be protected by the insights.

Readability: Light -+--- Serious

Insights:     High -+---- Low

Practical:    High --+-- Low

 - Fin24

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy. Views expressed are his own.


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