Cynics might describe corporate politics as bloodsport, but they’re forgetting that old adage of efficiency: “Work smarter, not harder.” Although some executives have undoubtedly clawed their way to the top through sheer force and ruthless cunning, that’s liable to win you more enemies than allies, making your ascent all the more difficult. For those of us lacking the taste for blood, a more Zen approach may be fitting, catching the prevailing winds to sail to the crest – and one of the best ways to do that is through higher education. To illustrate this point, we examine four different roads to the top, where they start and where they end.
Pride comes before a fall. Pride, arrogance, and hubris are among the causes of the 2008 global financial crisis. Managers need some humility. Prized by classical and pre-modern philosophers from Aristotle to Aquinas, the concept of humility lost its luster in the modern era, probably because it was confused with a disposition not worthy of an individual’s worth and self-reliance. Humility is not a highly rated attitude in advanced Western societies.
So, is there a place for humility in business management, where bold decision-making is key? Does humility square with the vision of the leader as a heroic, charismatic being with exceptional qualities who acts independently and decisively to achieve exceptional results? The humble manager is precisely the person who is best qualified to transform his firm into a profitable, successful, and respected organization. There are many reasons why humility can significantly aid a manager.
Humble managers know themselves and their company. Management decisions begin with knowledge of the internal and external environments, including specific strengths and weaknesses of the organizations and the actors within them. A self-aware, humble manager is less likely to make mistakes and more willing to accept and learn from them. Simply put, managers in the know are better positioned as decision-makers.
Humble managers are stable and reliable. A humble manager will have a steadier character. Confident, but not overly so, in her capacities, she won’t overreach or be excessively cautious in her actions: no dastardly overlords or doubting Thomases here! No: a humble leader is equanimous, and her decisions will remain consistent over time.
Humble managers never stop improving. Armed with self-knowledge, willing to ask for help and accept criticism, a humble manager is in a better place to correct his course and make up for his shortcomings. He won’t find knowing his flaws depressing, but empowering: rather than lowering his ambitions and settling for what has already been achieved, he will use this knowledge as a tool to improve.
Humble managers help their teams and organization to improve. Seeking to improve will inspire others to improve as well. Concretely, humility helps remove barriers and build trust, so that colleagues feel comfortable offering their genuine opinions. They know their leader will carefully listen to and consider their thoughts, even if they conflict with her own.
When employees know they are being heard it can inspire them to do their best work. They know they will receive proper credit for their efforts, because a humble leader shares successes and doesn’t scapegoat others for her failures.
A manager’s humility especially enhances teamwork. By acknowledging people’s experience and merits, and awarding them responsibility and autonomy accordingly, a humble manager helps develop team members. He enlists the whole team’s collaboration to pursue the organization’s goals, which he places before his own. Decisions are entrusted to those with proper expertise, boosting creativity, cooperation, and ultimately the adaptability needed to survive in today’s rapidly changing markets.
You may be thinking that this is all fine in theory, but where does that leave non-humble leaders? Is it possible to learn humility, particularly when working within a hierarchical firm and society that rewards individual achievement?
It’s true that an understanding of humility is usually intuitive and non-formalized. But it can be learned by example. Humility can also be self-starting: equipped with a firm grasp of the value and principles of humility (e.g., “do unto others…” and respect for individual dignity), a manager can then decide the course required by humility in each situation.
Actions — such as, taking responsibility and asking for advice — must be deliberate, voluntary, and genuine — and, most importantly, repeated. Practice, and more practice, is key: it will get easier, but the path to true humility is never complete. In other words, if you want to excel as a manager, it may be time to pause, swallow your pride, and try a piece of humble pie.
Collaboration is a way of working that attracts and involves people outside one’s formal control, organization, and expertise to accomplish common goals. Understanding what collaboration is not is a crucial part of getting better at it.
Collaboration is not a style. Many people naively see collaboration as a leadership style in which relationships take precedence over the task at hand. But collaboration is not consensus. On the contrary, clarity about where the buck stops is one of the most critical enablers of efficient teamwork.
Collaboration is not “cross-selling.” Another common misconception is that collaboration is cross-selling, the practice of suggesting new services or products, usually under another colleague’s purview, to an existing client. But this sort of simple hand-off is a far cry from working across organizational or disciplinary silos to holistically tackle sophisticated problems.
Collaboration is not always the answer. Former Ogilvy CEO Charlotte Beers was famous for saying, “Collaboration is highly overrated when you don’t have the right thing to do.” Collaboration is suitable for certain tasks and unsuitable for others. Too often, people will try to collaborate on everything, and wind up in endless meetings, debating ideas and struggling to find consensus.
It’s one thing to acknowledge the value of collaboration intellectually; it’s another to internalize its potential so fully that you proactively seek more collaboration opportunities and that collaborative skills become central to your professional identity. Neither the true benefits of collaboration nor the required skill set adjustments, however, become apparent until you’ve made a go of it. Here are a few ways to get started.
Contribute to someone else’s project. Coming to know how and when to collaborate is a learning process. Working with old hands before you forge a project of your own helps you pick up the routines, processes, and tools that make collaboration efficient. This insider knowledge can also help you identify future situations when collaboration is smart and most likely to pay off.
For example, one earthquake engineer, Stuart, had a career breakthrough when he joined a large structural investigation project led by a team of senior partners in his firm. He applied his specialized expertise to help this team evaluate the impact of construction-induced vibration on surrounding public transportation infrastructure. In the process, he and the whole team came to realize how valuable his knowledge could be to projects outside his narrow space.
Work on your network. Two of the biggest barriers to collaboration are ignorance about others’ expertise and mistrust in their ability to meet your expectations. Building your network can help solve both problems. A crucial asset is your relationships with “connectors,” people who already bridge specialty domains and organizational boundaries and who can refer you to potential collaborators. Not only do connectors help you identify the expertise you need — they also serve as “honest brokers,” vetting potential collaborators’ competence and character. In much the same way, your network builds your reputation as a trustworthy person, attracting projects and colleagues to you that you otherwise would not have sought out.
Be a good citizen. Most firms have projects that cut across lines of business, hierarchical levels, and functional specialties. These temporary assignments are well worth the time investment. They allow you to acquire new skills, gain a big-picture perspective, increase your connections, and may very well spark ideas for future collaborative opportunities.
Take Maaike, a newly appointed partner in a global consulting firm. Despite having a full plate of client projects, she signed up to work on a massive survey to understand the concerns of chief operating officers. Reflecting on her experience, she says: “I’m astonished by what I learned that I could immediately use to upgrade my own work. I never realized that we have behavioral economists on staff who can apply psychological and cognitive research to help clients with technology implementation projects. Working with them to develop the COO survey showed me how valuable they are, and we later teamed up to pitch — and win — a major new project. I also developed a mutual appreciation with other service lines, like our outsourcing and risk advisory groups, and have been invited onto pitches with them.”
Be strategic about what projects you take on. More isn’t necessarily better — in fact, it’s often worse. Some professionals end up taking on too many small projects, often where they’re routinely applying their specialist knowledge to a small slice of the engagement. They incur the high switching costs of constantly coming up to speed on a new project, but few of the benefits. They’re not a core member of the team, so they get lower exposure to others’ knowledge and therefore are less likely to be in the room when the real “aha” moment happens. And because they’re deployed with such a restricted scope, they probably get less credit for the project’s success.
Many of today’s most important challenges are so complex and multifaceted that they can only be tackled by teams of experts from disparate domains. To solve them, professionals must be able to harness ideas, people, and resources from across disciplinary and organizational boundaries. Finding a first project to work on is the best way to start.