A few weeks ago we talked about the hiring process being badly broken. I expected a flame war. Instead, large numbers of you wrote to express your agreement and relate anecdotes in support of the article’s premise: that in too many companies, Human Resources screens out those applicants most likely to succeed in favor of those who on paper have the best skill-to-task match.
Here’s the greatest story of them all: a well-known anecdote from the inner workings of the Disney organization, shared by a source I trust. About twenty years ago some enterprising cynic sent Walt Disney’s resume (with only the name changed) through the Disney staffing process. He was rejected.
Walt Disney, it appears, just wouldn’t work well at Disney, and what’s funniest about this is that he may indeed have been a poor fit. You may be a poor fit for your organization, as it happens. Ask yourself how well you would do, if you had to work for someone like you. Are you the kind of manager you’d want to work for?
If not, you have some personal changes to make. Heck, even if you answered yes you have some personal changes to make. Management is a tough, competitive environment. Businesses have to continuously improve just to survive, and so do you because there’s always some hotshot out there who wants your job.
This column, though, isn’t about personal growth and change. It’s about the opposite. It’s about a manager I once worked for – call him “Bill” because that wasn’t his name – who had a reputation for being a maverick.
I liked working for Bill because he didn’t run with the herd. Bill sponsored end-user computing before the PC era, when most DP professionals (this was before DP turned into MIS) thought of end-users as parasites on their systems. Bill advocated prototyping when DP believed in structured design. And he believed in incremental development when DP taught waterfall methodologies – his favorite phrase was, “Every big system that works started out as a small system that worked.”
Being a maverick doesn’t get you ahead in most companies. For better or worse, most companies value getting along far more than they value challenging conventional wisdom. Bill’s career hit a plateau with a lower-middle management title. His boss – the head of DP – told him in no uncertain terms that he’d have to become a team player if he wanted to get anywhere.
So Bill tried valiantly to become a team player. He started to promote the party line in his staff meetings, stopped marketing our services inside the company as an alternative to traditional DP, and tried to get along with his peers.
Within a year he was gone.
Bill’s mistake, I think, was that he ignored who he was and tried to succeed by being someone he wasn’t. Personal growth is one thing. Professional growth is another. There’s a line you should never cross, though. It isn’t clearly marked, and it’s awfully hard to see. That’s the line marking the boundary between self-improvement and self-denial.
There’s a phrase that made the rounds a few years back. Every so often I’d read about some person or other who had “reinvented himself”. This is ManagementSpeak for “became a big phony” I think. Someone described David Letterman in these terms when he went mainstream during his move to CBS. So the guy with “The World’s Most Dangerous Band” became the guy with “The CBS Orchestra”.
I look in Letterman’s eyes and I see a guy who’s lost his soul. I saw the same desperate look in Bill’s eyes when he was trying to succeed at being a team player. He wasn’t very good at being the new Bill because his heart just wasn’t in it. And he’d decided the old Bill had to go. That didn’t leave him with much to hang his hat on.
You should be on a constant self-improvement program. Decide where you’re weakest, and figure out a program for becoming great at whatever it is. During the process, though, understand your essence, and find a career path that builds on it rather than denying it.