Choosing The Bad Guy

To an outsider, it might have seemed a very easy choice. One candidate for the job of heading up the project was very professional, a tough negotiator, dogged, determined, and principled. The other candidate had a reputation for being tough on his employees, hiring his friends . . . and he was rumored to take kickbacks. Which would you choose? I chose the “other” candidate. And I’ll tell you why. Although the “other” executive had several bad habits and was suspected of being dishonest, he had one overwhelmingly good quality. He was completely focused on making the project successful. He had his own particular idea of what success would look like.

There were bells and whistles on it that I wouldn’t have put there, but it was a vision that I could see working. Almost everything he had done on the project so far — including some tough treatment of employees — was done with his goal in mind. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t love everything about the project he’d create, but I was equally certain that if I let him do what he wanted, he’d get the job done. Some eggshells would be broken in the process, but the project would succeed, profits would be made, and eventually everyone associated with it would be happy. I had a different feeling about the “better” candidate.

Although he was very competent in many ways, I found much of his behavior to be inexplicable and/or wrongheaded. He developed staff loyalty by treating some of his employees better than others. He made decisions that were tough on customers — especially when he decided those customers were “problems.” Ultimately, I developed the theory that instead of being focused on the project, this “good” executive was really focused on himself as a key person in it. He was, to put it bluntly, a very political sort of person. To me, “political” means “power-oriented.” And a political executive is one who thinks he can achieve his objectives by amassing power. He does that by organizing his world into allies and enemies. Stanley Bing, the author of “Sun Tzu Was a Sissy”, sees the working world that way.

In my essay on his book in Message #1281, I told you why I think that sort of approach doesn’t work. Because the “good” candidate believed in amassing power instead of profits, the decisions he’d make were sometimes miles away from what made sense to me. When I discussed my perspective with him, I could almost hear him thinking with contempt, “You say that because you are weak and not willing to fight.” Meanwhile, I was thinking, “Hey . . . our job is to get this job done with as little friction as possible. Why fight all these petty battles when victory can be had by being more accommodating?” For a while, I tried to get both executives to work together on the project, but that proved impossible. Their behaviors and attitudes were simply incompatible. So I had to choose one of them to be in charge — and it was not an easy decision. I felt better about things the moment I moved forward and did it. But that good feeling wasn’t because I was sure I had made the right choice. It was mostly the relief I felt in not having to negotiate what had turned into daily altercations (see “Word to the Wise,” below) between the two.

Which candidate would have worked out better, I’ll never know. But I do know that I find it impossible to put someone in charge of a business who is not completely focused on that business. If you work for me, you can’t be motivated by personal power. I don’t expect you to be perfect, but I do want you to be devoted to the goal. This is such an important lesson in business. Yet so many very competent people never learn it. They waste their careers working 24/7, making alliances and breaking them, starting fights and taking bruises — only because they are operating under the illusion that business is about power and power is about protecting themselves and fighting with others. It’s so much easier to achieve your goals when you focus on them and not the obstacles — perceived or real — that stand in front of them.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]