You are not Jack Nicholson

There’s an excellent dialogue going on over at Million Dollar Journey that includes a few comments from yours truly. The gist of the comments I’ve been following (and there are two different comment ‘streams’ going on, so you have to read through them) is that there’s a disconnect between competence and promotion in many organizations. I take the position that who you know is far more important than what you know, a position held by Gates VP.

I should start off by saying I dislike the position I’m defending. I wish that every promotion in every company was always based on the simple question “who can do this job best?” It’s not. Often the question is “who stood up for me in that political battle over who got the corner office” or “who hangs out after work and has a beer with the boss” or, even worse, “who is male?” This is awful – but I think it’s still true, and it’s going to take many more years to break that pattern.

I have been having an earnest disagreement with a colleague at work over the past couple of days. We had a large meeting, including 40-50 people from several departments, to determine a course of action for a big corporation-wide problem. The meeting was ‘facilitated’ by one of the groups, meaning someone stood up front and assigned responsibilities and due dates for various tasks. In breakout conversations afterwards, I took the position (as did other consultants present) that this exercise was ridiculous. Assignments were given and responsibilities assigned before a goal was defined or basic information was discovered. Most of this was brushed off with earnest declarations that “at least we’re getting something done!” by employees of the corporation.

I wish I could say that pure technical competence is always going to win out. I would be happy to hear that people who read this could say “my workplace is like that!” I can speak mostly just to my experience, and my second-hand knowledge of my family’s, friends’ and colleagues’ experiences. For all of them, their workplace promotions and treatment have been driven by a combination of accident, personal preferences and irrational behavior, with a tiny mix of technical competence thrown in.

As far as competence goes, there may be people out there who are The Only. Jack Nicholson, for example, is more or less the only guy who can put Jack Nicholson in a movie. You can’t outsource to India, or hire 30-year-old Jack Nicholson. You can hire someone similar but not the same. If he doesn’t show up, you don’t have Jack Nicholson. You, however, are not The Only. Whatever you do, I guarantee you that somewhere out there, a person exists who can do your job as well as you can for less money. They may not be interested – maybe they are working for someone else, or prefer to live in a different city, or they just never heard of your job. But you are not irreplaceable.

I use that point to show that competence can’t be the driving factor. Often bosses may not be interested in replacing you because it’s too much of a hassle to fill out the “no cause lay off” paperwork with Human Resources, or it means they’d actually have to break in a new person. But if the opportunity to replace you with someone who could do your work just as well as you presented itself – with no effort on your bosses’ part – and they would take the job for less money, why wouldn’t your boss replace you?

I will tell you the only reason why, and it’s not a good reason. Maybe there’s a boss who likes having the guys around. He likes football and blonde jokes, and he’s surrounded himself with guys who at least act like they do, too. Now maybe there’s a recent MIT graduate or foreign-born professional or woman who could do one of his guy’s jobs, but this boss inwardly cringes a bit at the prospect of having to watch himself. He likes that crutch of talking about the Giants as an excuse for real teambuilding. So he will keep on his guys.

You could have the same scenario play out different ways. Bosses who like single people because they don’t have commitments like kids pulling them away from a single-minded devotion to work. Other bosses may like pretty women, or people who curse, or Christians, or quiet people or Ivy League grads. The preference doesn’t have to be negative, at all, but it’s a preference, and if you don’t meet that requirement you’re going to have to work harder to make up for it.

So while I think the old boys network as a clear, obvious component of the corporation may be fading, I don’t think it’s realistic to assume that corporations always reward the best, smartest workers. I can look around my workplace right now and see plenty of smart people who are working for less-smart people. I have seen plenty of people smarter than me stuck levels below me, and plenty of people stupider than me well above me in the corporate hierarchy. Every time, the reason has been the preferences of the boss or the group-think of the management team leading a department or just a herd mentality. You shouldn’t ever just rely on your brains to succeed, because if you do you’ll be smart John Kerry watching dumb George Bush take the oath of office. Successful, but a step behind.