Self promotion in the snake pit

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy September 5, 2013
What is needed for the future successful career? Our management book shelves are stacked with advice. Dan Schawbel thinks he has some answers. I'm not so sure but you decide for yourself.

Wombling's view
This one is for that small percentage of people who aspire to success in business. In saying that, I recognize only too well that there are many, many people - the vast majority - for whom business success is an alien, undesirable concept. Where would we be without those hard working people? It's also a post that leans more towards the knowledge based economy.

In a world where Dragon's Den is taken seriously, I have to wonder how comfortably Dan Schawbel's advice to millennials will sit:

"Today’s workplace doesn’t tolerate slackers,” says Gen Y career expert Dan Schawbel in his new book "Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success." In a rapidly changing economy, young people either rise to the top or don’t survive.

That's a bit dramatic and although I hear many stories that would suggest Schawbel is stating the bleeding obvious in some locales, I don't know whether I'd want to work in a company where survival is table stakes. Unless of course you see this as an extension of the snake pit aka the school playground.

The biggest issues I have with these formulaic types of 'how to' books rest upon the over simplified world view that rarely captures the realité. It leads to the inevitable conclusion that if you really could write a winning formula for success then everyone would be successful, everyone would lead. It just doesn't happen.

In the opening sentence quoted above, lies the presumption that the workplace generally is homogenous. That is untrue. There are huge cultural differences between geographies, nation states, public and private endeavour and non-profit organizations. For global organizations, there are significant differences in legal frameworks that directly impact how success is viewed, measured and rewarded. And all of that before we get close to thinking about cultures that define individual businesses.

The other day I was discussing the deferential style of one particular individual that at once seems at odds with the go getting leader yet seems to work in the instance under discussion. I'm not convinced that would work in any other circumstance. All of which suggests that claims for the value of self promotion must be contextualized and not generalized.

I find some of the generalizations to be downright dangerous. This for example:

It’s never been easier to acquire hard skills — and those skills will only get you so far. Companies are looking for leadership, organizational, teamwork, listening, and coaching skills.

Really? When I was a teenager, I wanted to become an airline pilot. It was a passion that lived with me for years...until I discovered that you need to be skilled in the sciences. I was (and remain) a lousy mathematician and you absolutely would not trust me to conduct a physics experiment with any expectation of a successful outcome. As for map reading - I can get lost on a roundabout. The crushing sense of disappointment lives long in the memory. My sense is that Schawbel may be confused by his own rhetoric.

One of the more glaring errors is where Schawbel says:

When you master the right hard skills that relate to your profession and industry, people will notice your talent and ask you to work on projects with them.

What? Talent and technical skills do not necessarily go hand in hand and are not mutually interchangeable without context. Some of the most talented people I have known had poor technical skills - but - they all had the ability to surround themselves with super smart technical folk who could do 'the needful' while they concentrated on seeing around corners. As Merv Adrian at Gartner says: words matter.

At the same time I am thinking of someone who has the ability to master extraordinarily complex ideas in a heartbeat (talent) and then translate those into useful software (skill.) I believe that person would make an outstanding leader. Yet that person's concept of success is not what you'd expect. He likes to teach and regards the successful passing on of knowledge as a hugely important success factor that is an end in itself. He has no desire to take on a leadership role as commonly perceived.

Leadership?  Success?

As to the soft skills of which Schawbel speaks, I am reminded of what Vijay Vijayasankar recently said about leadership. In a sense it is not so different to Schawbel's assertions:

You have to be a cheer leader for your team, you need to be their biggest fan, you need to do their PR, you occasionally will even need to be their mom if situation warrants it and of course you will need to kick their butts too as needed.

Vijay's perspective comes from a long history of being schooled in a particular style of leadership in a company that until fairly recently had a much admired culture. The company also survived and thrived following a near death corporate experience and had figured out how to nurture and grow leaders in the context of its culture. That's IBM. So much for 'new rules?'

Putting that context to one side for the moment, Vijay's implied balancing act is tough to get right. Very few people I know in leadership positions get that balance right even a fraction of the time. Instead they get it right enough of the time for it not to matter.

Some people have innate abilities that go some way to fulfilling some of the skills Schawbel outlines. Others have that indefinable quality 'charisma' that gets people to follow them regardless of skill. Still others are great listeners while others cannot listen. The variety of human experience is truly infinite.

But above everything, I worry that Schawbel is encouraging self promotion over something you cannot buy - experience. And that applies regardless of talent and leadership qualities. Some will argue that you can buy in experience where needed provided there is enough of the leadership 'juice' to overcome the obvious deficiencies - the old "fake it til you make it" mentality. I'd love to see the longitudinal evidence for that as a success strategy albeit I am equally skeptical of success evidenced by time served entitlement .


What do you think? Is it possible to formulate success? Does Schawbel's argument resonate with you or do you prefer Vijay's nuance? Or are there dynamics in the market that are wholly unrepresented but which impact the now and near future? Have we reached a point where uncertainty demands self promotion? What about the many who find this idea distasteful? Do talent management systems a offer a good way to surface next gen successful leaders or will LinkedIn and a well honed wit do the trick?

For a more nuanced view on 'talent' and 'management' check out Chris Paine's post. 

For a view on building loyalty and its importance, check this from Deepak Chopra. This is in direct contrast to some of what Vijay suggests.

Image credit: Chris Paine, featured image via George Takei on Facebook

End note: the featured image reminds me of something I frequently see among Gen Y/Z'ers - a poor command of written language and a tendency to defer to text message forms of expression.

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