The Success Recipe Myth
At the close of the 20th Century, I got the idea that I would write a book about CEOs who rose to the top of the corporate ladder but did so by rising through the ranks rather than by getting hired from the outside. I interviewed over two dozen Fortune 500 CEOs for the book, but I never published it. Rather than keeping their career advice locked away on my hard drive, I've decided to post it here. I've deleted the contributors' names for privacy reasons. All have retired since I interviewed them and I don't have their explicit permission to share their stories.
Here is the first chapter...
I have a confession to make: the book you’re holding in your hands is not the book I intended to write. You’ve been lured here under false pretenses and a catchy title. “Keys to the Boardroom” — sounds like one of those formulaic success books doesn’t it? That’s what I intended it to be.
I thought I could go out and interview a bunch of Fortune 500 CEOs, learn their “secrets” to success, and distill them down into a handful of “keys” that anyone could pick up and use to unlock the boardroom door. Here it is, folks, step right up. Six easy, proven steps to jump-start your career. Read this, do it, and tomorrow get that fat promotion you’ve been after. Six years, tops, until you’re CEO.
Fortunately, the book didn’t turn out that way. I kept the title, because, well, it did get you this far, didn’t it? The fact is, this book does contain some of the best career advice you’ll ever receive, from some of the most successful people you could ever hope to meet. It does contain advice from America’s top CEOs on how to navigate the politically-charged sea lanes that you must traverse in any large corporation. It may even help you get that big promotion. But to focus on how to use the career experiences of the CEOs who contributed to this book to advance your own career is to miss the point entirely. Bear with me here for another page or two as I explain.
When I started my career at Hewlett-Packard fifteen years ago, my peers gave me some advice about what I should do to “get ahead” in a Fortune 500 company.
“Visibility’s the main thing,” said one. “In a company this big, you’ve got to get noticed by the other managers, not just your boss.”
Another piped in, “You’ve got to have a career strategy. You’ve got to map out exactly where you want to be in five years, ten years, twenty years, and a plan for getting there. You won’t get there if you don’t know where you’re going. There’s a class you can take.” “Success is simple, really,” another said. “Read your job description and follow it. Everything that’s expected of you is in there. You can’t go wrong by doing what you’re being paid to do.”
“No,” said another, the resident cynic in the group, “You get ahead by antagonizing the right people. It’s the fastest way to get noticed and earn the respect of your superiors. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
And so in my first few months in my new job I watched as my colleagues grandstanded in meetings, fretted over whether their next move should be to marketing or manufacturing, kept their heads down and did what was expected of them, and argued venomously about even the most trivial of issues.
I embraced several of these notions myself and applied them to my career, and after twelve years of playing these games I had achieved some measure of success: I had competed for and won a first-level management job and was well liked and respected by my peers and my employees. But that seemed to be as far as I would go.
After four years as a front-line manager, no one was beating down my door to promote me further. I felt I was stagnating, adrift in my career with no clear ambition or direction. My enthusiasm was gone, and I needed some new lessons to jump-start my stalled career.
I decided to seek advice from the most successful people I could find, people who didn’t just talk about success but had actually achieved it. And who better fit this description than the CEOs of the largest companies in America. And because I learn best by explaining my discoveries to others, I decided to capture the ideas gleaned from my CEO interviews in a book that I would call Keys to the Boardroom.
So, having decided to write a book about Fortune 500 CEOs and how they had “managed” their careers to arrive at the top of their organizations, I put together an outline that included chapters on the strategies that I already understood: visibility, planning your career, getting results, and how to antagonize your way to the top.
I wrote to every Fortune 500 CEO and used this outline to solicit their interest, and asked them to meet with me to describe how they had used these principles to manage their careers. In other words, I already knew the recipe for success-I just needed their stamp of approval to lend my theories credibility.
Fortunately, some of the CEOs were gracious enough to grant me an audience in spite of my outline.
My first interview was with the retired CEO of a forest-products company. I arrived an hour early at the low-key building north of the city where the CEO now kept his office, and spent the time pacing around the parking lot, trying to calm my nerves and build up my courage before I went in. Here I was, a writer with a day job as a first-level manager at Hewlett-Packard, about to interview one of the elite 500 managers in the corporate world. What did I know about leadership to carry on an intelligent conversation on the subject, or to even ask intelligent questions about it, for that matter?
The CEO’s executive assistant, Lucille, greeted me in the reception area with an offer of coffee, and asked me to take a seat while she told the CEO I was here. Moments later a vigorous man with a warm smile entered the room, and before I could say a word, he offered me his hand, looked me right in the eye and said, “John? It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He again asked if I wanted coffee, and, no doubt reading the intimidation on my face, broke the ice by asking me all about myself and my book and why I was writing it and how he thought it was an excellent idea. I had never experienced a warmer or more genuine greeting.
The interview began. The first question elicited fifteen minutes of nonstop ideas, stories, theories and insights (and I was worried about awkward silences!). Instantly I knew I would have to scrap my entire concept for the book. The CEO insisted I call him by his first name. He didn’t rise to his position though maneuvering tactics that my peers had suggested. Instead, he spoke of the importance of values in a corporation, of directing his career by doing what he loved to do, of his deep respect and enjoyment of people, of being even a little uncomfortable with the level of leadership he had attained.
And so on that day I learned my first lesson: Seek advice from those who have done it, not from those who merely claim they are doing it.
The wisdom of my peers, I discovered that day, was too simplistic, too shallow, too prescribed. Success comes not from superficial behaviors and career tactics, but through practiced effectiveness, and effectiveness comes through conducting yourself and your business with your own personal brand of integrity, conviction, and intensity.
Let’s get one thing clear: this book is not an instruction manual for becoming the CEO of your company, nor does it hold the secrets of success and power and wealth. If your looking for a quick-fix recipe to energize your career, one that will assure you the best seat at the boardroom table, go find another book. There are many other books on the shelf that purport to service such career ambitions, but this is not one of them. Offers for sure-fire overnight recipes for success may be tempting, and by all accounts certainly seem to be marketable, but in the long term they don’t work, and let me tell you why.
Most people want the recipe for success, but they don’t want to take the time to get the ingredients. While it’s easy to follow someone else’s recipe, you can’t produce sustained results this way. A recipe produces the same result each time, but success is based on differentiation and distinction. CEOs didn’t get where they are by being like everybody else, they got there by being different.
As you’ll see, CEOs defy stereotypes; there is no one formula for success. And while there are no recipes to memorize and follow blindly-every career is a custom job-there are lessons to be learned.
What’s the difference between a recipe and a lesson? A recipe is a formula that produces the same result each time. A lesson is a deep learning experience from which a person’s future judgments and actions are shaped. A recipe is deterministic, but a lesson produces a unique and fundamental change in each person who receives it. Recipes are easy-anyone can follow a recipe-but only a few will take the time to master a lesson.
This book offers a series of lessons on how to effectively lead yourself, your people, and your company. These lessons are not opinions or hypotheses, but are proven principles derived from people who have already mastered them: the CEOs of major automobile companies, computer conglomerates, chemical companies, aerospace companies....to name a few of the largest.
Effective leadership begins with the development of the self. You cannot sustain success by manipulating the system or by reading someone else’s script. Without the foundation of the self, the structure of your career that you worked so hard to build will eventually crumble, no matter how adept you become at following the recipe. Success is built upon effectiveness, effectiveness is built upon results, results are created from the ability to inspire and lead people, and leadership ultimately springs from self-knowledge, personal integrity, and values.
And so while this book is not a step-by-step procedure for success, it is a book about how to go to work each day and love it. It is about getting the most from yourself and achieving your own definition of success. It is about advancing as far as you want to go in your career, not because you planned it that way, not because becoming CEO was your ultimate goal, but because-deep down, bottom line-you earned it.
Most of all, it is a book about some remarkable people, most of whom you will probably never have the privilege to meet. But even if you never have the opportunity to meet them in person, when you finish this book I think you’ll find that you know them as you never thought you would. You’ll hear them talk about their career set-backs, their insecurities, their defeats. You will understand that at a fundamental level, they are just like you. And because they eventually made it, so can you.