How to Succeed in Business by Really Trying

In a basketful of new management books, authors outline the virtues of being tough on yourself.
Paul B. BrownFebruary 21, 2007

In an extremely good self-help book published ten years ago—and virtually ignored—basketball coach Rick Pitino stressed the importance of setting demanding goals, learning from failure, and being persistent if you want to improve your performance.

But the biggest lesson he had to offer was contained in his title: Success Is a Choice. A handful of new books succeed, to varying degrees, in showing how to turn that choice into a reality. The best of the bunch is What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith with Mark Reiter (Hyperion, 23.95).

Goldsmith, an executive coach, starts with an intriguing premise: The very things that have made you successful can keep you from improving.

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Because you have done well in the past, you may be reluctant to change. Why should I? you ask. Look at all I’ve accomplished up until now by acting the way I do.

That’s certainly true to some extent, Goldsmith concedes. But, he adds, invariably “all of us in the workplace delude ourselves about our achievements.”

For instance, Goldsmith says, we may overestimate our contribution to a successful project and forget our failures and dead ends. Because we have in our heads an overly inflated picture of our accomplishments, it becomes very difficult to change, even if changing would lead to even far greater success.

What Got You Here Book
All of us in the workplace delude ourselves about our achievements.
-on What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

To overcome the problem, Goldsmith lays out a straightforward approach:

Mathew Hayward Ego Check (Kaplan, $24.95) can be seen as an inadvertent companion piece to Goldsmith’s book. Explaining what can happen if you remain too full of yourself, he chronicles in painful detail how executives (mostly the usual suspects, such as Hank Greenberg at AIG and Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard) were done in by hubris. But if you only have to time to read one, go with What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

Okay, now that you’re armed with the convictions that you’re not too big for your britches and that you actually do want to improve, where do you start?

A unlikely, but promising way to begin is with a 60-year-old text originally titled The Unwritten Laws of Engineering and copyrighted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

William H. Swanson, the chief executive officer of Raytheon, however, probably has come to rue the day he learned of the book’s existence. You may recall that in 2005, Business 2.0 published a glowing article on the pamphlet he self-published: Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management. Praised by no less than Warren Buffett and Jack Welch, the booklet became a phenomenon. Executives fell over one another trying to a copy.

It turned out that much of Swanson’s work drew on the pamphlet issued by W.J. King, a former General Electric engineer who retired as a UCLA engineering professor in 1969 and died in 1983. When the borrowing came to light, Swanson said: “Clearly, the similarity of the language between Professor King’s 1944 book and some of the rules within the ‘Unwritten Rules’ is beyond dispute… .I regret that over the course of the years and in the process of compiling the ‘Unwritten Rules,’ any reference to Professor King’s work was not properly credited.”)

King’s book has been updated by James G. Skakoon, general manager of Vertex Technology, an engineering and consulting firm, and just brought out by Doubleday ($14.95), and you can see why they published it—and why the Swanson pamphlet was such a hit. This is a very good book.

What King was trying to do—and he succeeded extremely well—was explain a phenomenon that existed at work in the 1940s and ’50s, and one that continues to this day.

In those days, smart, technically proficient people were stumbling as they tried to climb the career ladder. Their missteps, King noted, rarely had anything to do with how well they did their jobs.

As part of his work as an engineer, King studied the problem and came to this conclusion: “The chief obstacles to success are of a personal and administrative nature rather than a technical” one. People get into “much more trouble by violating the undocumented laws of professional conduct than by committing technical sins or errors relating to their work.”

To make sure they wouldn’t stumble, King sat down and codified exactly what managers need to do to get ahead (assuming they have the necessary technical skills.)

His advice is simple and straight-forward—”confirm your instructions and the other person’s commitments in writing.” Unfortunately, it is far too often honored in the breach, as are his other statements about communication: “Cultivate the habit of ‘boiling down matters’ to their simplest terms,’” and “make it unquestionably clear what is expected of employees.”

Yes, the language is now archaic. Consider, for instance, the dictum: “beware of using your employer’s resources for personal purposes. It may be considered suspicious at best, larcenous at worst.” But that is part of its charm.

Indeed, this book is simply a joy. And if it doesn’t reinforce the lessons you already know—or should know—something is terribly wrong.

An equally entertaining book that presents the mirror image of King’s is 45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy (Perigee, $13.95) by Anita Bruzzese, who writes the “On the Job” column for Gannett News Services.

45 Things Book
It’s fun to read about employees who committed those sins and still expected huge raises.
-on 45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy

Odds are that you’ve learned by now that such things as “treating the workplace like it’s the love shack,” “earning a reputation as whiner, drama queen or general pain in the neck,” or “giving lackluster speeches or presentations”—three of Bruzzese’s lessons—are going to keep you from being promoted. Still, it’s fun to read about employees who committed those sins and still expected huge raises and promotions.

“Your ‘frog’ is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate about doing. It is also the one task that can have the greatest positive impact on your life and results at the moment.”

In other words, recognize you are never going to accomplish everything on your “to do” list, so concentrate on the very few things that will have the greatest impact on your life and let everything else slide.”

Ironically, in constructing the book, Mr. Tracy doesn’t follow his own advice. Even at 128 pages it is filled with superfluous and sometimes contradictory advice (early on you are told that you should stick to your important task until it is done, and a few pages later he says it is perfectly okay just to do a slice of that important task on a regular basis.)

No matter. The central point is valid. You choose where to place your efforts, just as you choose to succeed.

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