Next year I will turn forty. While, in general, the Baby Boomer culture reviled this age (“Lordy Lordy Look Who’s,” et cetera) I quite like it. One of my favorite aspects of being this age is that younger people seek my advice on their future careers. I help them decide what positive moves to make, and I also act as a sounding board when my young colleagues come face-to-face with all the stupidity, vanity, aggression and banality that keeps the rest of our cabinets well-stocked with Stoli and Xanax. My young colleagues discover just how many wretches seek out the talented and attempt to drag them back into the primordial slime of mediocrity. Like many people in their early careers, they get passed over for a promotion; they don’t get the big new job; they get thrown under the bus by a colleague with less talent but more guile.
This is when I try to turn my young colleagues away from the darkness and back to the light. For if age has taught me anything, it is to keep the faith and do good work at all costs. More often than not, it works out. Really.
The bad guys usually get it in the end
“Nice guys finish last” is the English expression that betrays a deep cynicism about our world – that malfeasance is the only way to advance ourselves. The corollary to this is “Be a dickhead and things will work out better for you.” I submit that both of these sentiments are inaccurate. Being an evil douchebag is toxic in the short-term and often fatal in the long run.
But what about Dick Cheney, that warmongering sack of filth? Or [insert Wall Street CEO whose company stole your house] or [insert baseball player caught with steroids?] Those guys suck and they have a ton of money and won’t go to jail or anything!
Yes, those are excellent counter-examples. But what you are missing is all of the guys you never heard of because their rotten, incompetent nature sliced the Achille’s tendon of their career long before they got anywhere of importance. I’ve seen it enough times to make me fundamentally optimistic about the strategy of working hard, achieving excellence and being good to people.
Here’s why being a bad guy doesn’t work out:
They underestimate the power of the little guy
Once upon a time, there was a Petty, Mean-Spirited Ass. Head of sales of a mid-size company, he delighted in humiliating the staff, especially the new hires coming out of college. One day, as the marketing assistants were stuffing envelopes and addressing catalogs, he popped by the back room to ask, “So kids, how are those college degrees working out for you?” Soon after, he began working toward getting one of the marketing staff fired, just for fun.
What the Petty, Mean-Spirited Ass couldn’t foresee was that the CEO stayed in touch with the young man he fired. The Big Boss continued to ask his former employee’s advice on various matters – which had now become impartial yet highly informed.
Eventually, the Big Boss asked the young man what he thought of the company’s sales manager. The truth came out – that the sales guy was terrorizing the whole place, and that he regularly bragged that “he could just take the client list and bankrupt the company whenever he felt like it.” The ex-employee’s word, combined with the eye-witness testimony of all the other “useless newbies” was enough to make the case for termination.
One day, the Petty, Mean-Spirited Ass walked through the door and was greeted by two attorneys, a box full of his belongings and a severance check. By 8:12 am, he was back in his car, embarking suddenly on finding a new job with no reference from his last employer.
No doubt it never occurred to him that this event was engineered by the series of young nobodies he enjoyed harassing.
They don’t realize how screwing people destroys their reputation
Once upon a time, there was a Horribly Bitter Editor. He worked at a trade magazine, but had his eyes set on a gig at a Really Important Magazine. Having been passed over for a promotion, he decided that he would take out his wrath by screwing everybody involved with his current publication.
The Horribly Bitter Editor sold a Really Important Magazine on the notion of a tell-all “opinion” piece about his industry. He trussed together a bilious, rancid piece of writing about all of his former colleagues – president, managing editors, industry thoughtleaders included. To make it sound more reasonable, he manufactured quotes from various industry figures. When the fetid chunk of written excrement hit the newsstand of every airport on Earth, no doubt he felt pleased. Now, the world could see what fools his former colleagues were for failing to recognize his brilliance!
What he could not have foreseen, blinded as he was by bitterness, was that the overall impact of the writing was not to turn public opinion against his former industry, but to give the world a window into his cruel and faithless nature. He never even won friends at the Really Important Magazine, whose editors were forced to issue retractions and apologies.
Google this person’s name and you will see not a single piece of writing at any publication, major or minor, in the years since.
Their self-serving nature leaves them without friends
Once upon a time, there was a Very Entrepreneurial Guy who decided to make a big move in his industry. Flush with cash in the midst of a Big Recession, he decided to buy a company. For a fire sale price, the entrepreneur got a good portfolio of products, employees with few other options, and a list of paying clients.
The Big Recession was a great advantage to Very Entrepreneurial Guy when it came to cost of labor. The economy was so bad that Masters Degree students were only too happy to work as free interns. Employees agreed to work for a fraction of their former compensation. The strategy worked gangbusters in the short-term, making the firm look very substantial, attracting clients left and right. The rate of growth was explosive!
Finally, a Big Firm took an interest in buying the Very Entrepreneurial Guy’s company. Big firms love the strategy of paying workers nothing and passing the profits up the pyramid. The Big Firm bought this rising star of a company while it was still cheap!
The thing is, what goes around, comes around. When another strong recession hit the global economy, the Big Firm needed to get rid of dead weight. It was more advantageous to strip the Very Entrepreneurial Guy’s company for parts and farm the remaining work out to Asia. Game over.
Instead of being a permanent fixture in the industry, Very Entrepreneurial Guy became a cautionary tale of how to do business fast, cheap and ugly.
Good guys prevail
I have a friend who is a top executive at a giant organization. When I ask about his secret to success, he tells me, “You won’t believe this, but my formula has been to work hard, achieve great things, help out my colleagues, and be a good person. It sounds hokey, but it works.”
Another one of my friends is a Seriously Rich Guy. His companies grow 16% a year in good times and bad. His competitive secret? He has less than 1% employee turnover. His staff would jump in front of a train for the guy. They work their asses off for him. And in return he pays the closing cost on any employee’s first home. He fires assholes. He gives envelopes of cash to high performers, tells them “Go buy your wife something nice.” And in return, they make him rich.
It’s not that being a bad guy never works, it’s just that it has a tendency to end badly. It leaves enemies, slowly corrodes reputations, distracts from other pursuits.
Being a good guy builds over time. It pays dividends and you sleep better at night.
Keep the faith.