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 decision that turned out poorly, but those of a more basic type. These mistakes flow from bad behaviour and wrong mind-sets, and these mistakes 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 the top level executives, including Jack Welsh. 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 program 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 to someone has 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 you 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 is has started it only seems to accelerate in intensity and extent.
Lane tells of a junior administration head who had mis-represented 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 has 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.