How to Succeed in Business Fifteen things you young people need to know about comportment.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – A young reader contacted me recently through the e-mail address provided at the end of this column. "I wonder if you could tell me," he inquired after the mandatory compliments, "what are the things a person can do to get ahead in business?" At first I thought this was an incredibly rudimentary question. I mean, honestly. Hasn't he been reading this magazine?
And then...I considered for a moment. We tend to deal, you and I, with the subtle nuances that attend a career in mid-flight. We seldom contemplate the basic truths that got us here. What harm would there be, I thought after reading this guileless query, in reexamining the fundamental principles?
And so, my young friend, please accept these few building blocks upon which you may with confidence, I believe, lay the foundation of your temple. Some are easy. Some are not. All are appropriate not so much for the practiced campaigner, but rather for he or she who is eager to get a good start in life.
1. Wear a gray or blue suit and a nice red or yellow silk tie with blue dots, or possibly a stripe. This is the way people want you to look in business, whether the rest of your graduating class is wearing that or not. If you're a woman, wear a gray or blue suit and a nice red or yellow silk scarf with a responsible pattern of some sort. Whatever your sex, carry a soft briefcase that attracts little attention--hard attache cases are for weenies--and make sure to wear glasses whenever possible. Do not wear a goatee unless you are pursuing a conscious strategy of being abrasive to those in positions of power.
2. Never say what you really think. Say what people want to hear, with a tiny bit of what you think thrown in. This is tougher than it sounds. To accomplish it you will need to actually listen to other people for a while to ascertain what it is they might require you to say. This listening is good practice for later, when you're in middle management and must be able to hear the secret thoughts of dangerous people before they kill you. Later still, you can stop listening altogether, but that day is a long way off.
3. Be really nice to everybody you can be nice to. If you must be tough with somebody, don't overdo it. And if you have a choice between screwing somebody or helping him get a little bit out of the deal, do the latter. People will come to see you as someone who deserves to win and will rejoice in your success.
4. Never sacrifice friends and loved ones on the altar of Mammon. It's only business, you know. The people you love should be around long after you decide to hang it up and move to St. John. This means pushing back respectfully every time people with no life try to suck yours from you. Meetings that begin at 6 P.M. are to be avoided, for instance, unless they pertain to something of immediate and crucial import. Announce regular vacations, and stick to them. That will be a lot trickier than it may seem. Any office that does not permit its employees to have an independent existence must be abandoned, so establish your personal space the moment you hit ground, starting with weekends and moving outward from there.
5. Be patient with your elders. They have an incredibly hard job to do, most of them, and they're barely up to it. Don't be too disappointed when they fail to get out of the way fast enough for your ambitions. In any event, never let them see you praying for their death. It makes them resent you.
6. Have some insight about what you can and cannot do. That will make it unnecessary for others to point it out.
7. Whatever you can do yourself, do. Do not slough off unimportant or obnoxious tasks to others. There will be time for that later, when you've gotten to the point where other people are the tools you use to get things done.
8. Don't be bitter at the success of others. Their status has nothing to do with you, even though you may feel as if it does. There will always be people more successful than you, many of whom are less talented or worthy. That's the nature of existence. Why worry about it? You'll eat yourself up from the inside out, and it won't change a thing. Be happy instead. I know it seems stupid and impossible, but try.
9. Never take a meeting when a phone call will do. Never place a phone call when an e-mail will do. Never launch an e-mail if 17 words in the elevator will suffice. Don't travel just to show that you're an important person who must be places. Don't surround the activity of business with fruitless jabber and twaddle and rummaging around for no good purpose. Get things done expeditiously and move on, and if you must meet, bring your own pen.
10. Be loyal, even when it is to your detriment. That kind of behavior has a way of getting noticed and appreciated in your target audience. As does the lack of it.
11. Don't blame others for your mistakes. In fact, don't blame others for their mistakes, even when you might avoid trouble by doing so. Just suck it up and never, ever make excuses, even when you have excellent ones. Big macho men and women who move gigantic furniture around for a living absolutely hate excuses, and they hate good excuses even more than bad ones. Everybody makes mistakes. But only losers make excuses.
12. Stay put until you absolutely cannot do so a moment longer. Dig in. Hang tough. Cultures are deep. It takes time to negotiate them. People are the same everywhere. And careers can develop a rhythm only if you give them a chance to do so. Remember this: People who jump from job to job every two or three years from the beginning end up doing that for their entire careers, tinkerers skittering along on the surface of organizations that use but do not love them. Eventually they become consultants.
13. Do not become a consultant.
14. Don't be greedy. You're too young to rate real wealth. If you were meant to be a billionaire, if such was to be your fate, you would know it already. More probably you are destined to work hard, be given nothing for free, and earn every dime you require for the rest of your life. Okay?
15. Have fun. And if you can't have fun, don't. Who said it was supposed to be fun? This is business, not windsurfing.
If none of these rules work...then do the opposite. That should work fine too. Why didn't you tell me you were in new media?
By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.