Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Is your boss smarter than you are?

It is worth asking: How do the people who rise to the top of corporate management stack up intellectually, as compared to the general population, and (more to the point) the people who work for them?

Cartoons like Dilbert have fed the comforting populist notion that corporate managers are dimwits. This is not entirely accurate or fair. It is, in my experience, exceedingly rare to find a genuine dummy in a position of responsibility in a large corporation.

That having been said, the boss may not be any smarter than the people below him. (Moreover, it is statistically likely that some of his subordinates are significantly brighter.)

The question, “Is your boss smarter than you are?” is not an unfair question, but it is probably the wrong question to be asking yourself, if your goal is to climb the corporate ladder.

What most corporate work requires is not profound intellect or creativity, but the ability to execute fairly repetitive tasks efficiently and cheerfully.

The real challenge is navigating the “human side” of the organization—otherwise known as corporate politics. Success in a corporate environment is 30% competence and 70% politics.

Here is a specific and well-known example. Lee Iacocca was fired from his president’s position at Ford Motor Company in 1978, even though the company had just posted a $2 billion profit. The reason? Iacocca had a personality conflict with Henry Ford II, the grandson of the company’s founder. This should tell you something.

I should note: Apple-polishing alone is not sufficient for moving up in the company. But once you achieve a base level of demonstrated competence, your relationship with your superiors is probably the most important factor in your future advancement.

Likewise, assuming a base level of demonstrated competence, improving your relationship with the boss is probably more important than making further marginal and incremental improvements in your performance.

In regard to temperament, the person who moves up the ladder is usually not the one who is brutally honest, the one who continually challenges the system and generates good ideas.

That person—if she is as smart as she thinks she is—usually gets fired, or quits. Then she starts her own business.

The person who moves up the ladder in a large organization is the person who knows how to be compliant without being a milquetoast, the person who knows how to demonstrate a common level of smarts and efficiency without threatening the next highest person on the organizational chart.

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