How Important Is Loyalty In Your Career?

“Only the person who has faith in himself is able to be faithful to others.” – Erich Fromm

Here’s a question I’ve wrestled with for years: When it comes to success, is loyalty a good thing or a bad thing?

Should you be loyal to those who have been there for you? Always? Even after they can’t help you any more? Even if it might hurt you?

If you care about the people who support you, you are going to face these questions in your career. A story I recently read on Oscar De La Hoya illustrates how troublesome loyalty can be.

Oscar De La Hoya, world boxing champion in four weight classes, is a nice guy. Devoted to his mother, who died before he won his 1992 Olympic gold medal, the 39-year-old champion says he “feels her” looking after him – by a touch on the arm, the neck, the face.

A singer and songwriter, De La Hoya fawns over his 14-month-old daughter and claims to be devoted to his wife. Maybe so. But when it comes to business, he’s all business.

The Bodies Left Behind . . .

But so is Shelly Finkel, the guy who trained, managed, and supported De La Hoya during his amateur career.

Finkel not only treated De La Hoya like a son but paid as much as $100,000 for his mother’s medical bills. De La Hoya had promised Finkel he would sign with him when he went pro. But when the time came, he signed with someone else.

The “someone” was Robert Mittleman and Steve Nelson, both of whom Oscar jettisoned after only 16 months. Next was Mike Hernandez, who was De La Hoya’s business manager for six years – during which time De La Hoya and his family went from a net worth of less than $20,000 to millions. Hernandez was fired last year.

When De La Hoya fired Gill Clancy, the celebrated trainer, he said, “I loved him being around – great attitude, great motivator. But I look at everything as a business. If they’re not doing anything for you, why have them along?”

Is this what it takes to come out on top?

Excellence Is The Standard

What do you do with someone who has devoted himself to your goal and has been good, loyal, and productive in the past? Do you just toss him when the time is right?

There are those who advocate a “me-first” approach when it comes to business relationships. Some have become best-selling authors. Loyalty, they argue, is a sentimental attachment that winners cannot afford. When someone is no longer useful to you, get rid of him.

Success is determined in no small part by the quality of the people that surround you. I’ve argued in past ETR messages that when it comes to the key people in your career, good is not good enough. (See Message #120, “The Underestimated Importance of Firing People” and Message #126, “Fire Someone Now.”)

But does that mean you should dump a loyal employee or vendor the moment you find someone better?

In a word, no.

When you mistreat a longtime supporter, you create a lifelong enemy. Populate your world with enemies, and you assure yourself (and your career) an untimely death.

More to the point, loyalty is a two-way street. Develop a reputation for “using” people, and you will find yourself used when you least expect it. Your employees, feeling insecure and unappreciated, will be motivated only by money and will jump ship the second they get a better offer. Your vendors, also feeling insecure and unappreciated, will think nothing of charging you more and doing less for you – and making sure you don’t find out about it.

Ultimately, loyalty (like honesty and integrity) is a characteristic people will judge you by. In the long run, your life gets better and easier when there are more people pushing for you than against you.

So how do you avoid the terrible choice of keeping someone who’s been with you for years or bringing in someone “better?”

The most effective thing you can do – by far – is to hire (and partner with) only great people to begin with.

A really great employee (particularly a key employee) is someone who has the potential to take the long voyage with you. When hiring, say to yourself, “This person may be fine now, but will he be able to do a great job when my business is ten times this size?” If you can’t answer affirmatively, you shouldn’t make the hire.

The same rule holds true for vendors and consultants.

The second-most-important thing you must do is provide your key people with the information, technology, and direction they need to be excellent. It is so easy, and so common in growing businesses, to neglect this important part of the relationship. Time passes and the business grows, but the excellent person you started with hasn’t been given what he needs to keep up. You get frustrated and blame it on him, when it’s your fault.

Another thing you can do to be loyal to those who are loyal to you is to be honest with them every step of the way. If you believed they were excellent when you hired them, but soon found out otherwise, don’t keep them in limbo by letting them do the lesser jobs and doing the more important stuff yourself.

Observe them carefully, come to a reliable judgment, and then let them know. Much better and easier for them to be redeployed or even fired after a few months than after a few years.

Finally, recognize that loyalty doesn’t mean you must do what others think you should do for them. Just because someone expects to be your business manager doesn’t mean you should agree to it, unless you have promised to do so.

When you hire or partner with someone, he should understand that your commitment is to a particular vision. If you can inspire him to commit to that vision too – and not to you personally – it will be much easier for him to do the right thing when the time comes.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Don’t suggest benefits you can’t provide. Hire and partner with excellent people, teach them, listen to them, and get them to commit not to you but your vision.

If you do that, you won’t have to make the terrible choices Oscar De La Hoya had to make. You won’t have to hurt someone who has been good to you and spend the rest of your life feeling bad about it.