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I turned 32 last week. 2^5, I am 5 bits old. By now in my life I’ve had a few successes and taken a fair share of knock-backs. I’ve worked with a wide range of people, in a wide range of organisations. I’m at that point where I’m young enough to still be exploring, but have got enough experience to see some patterns emerge.
This is all highly speculative with only anecdotal evidence to back it up.
There are three ways to reach The Top in your career. Just three. That’s it.
1) Be born into a wealthy family who have friends in high places
Probability of success: 90%
Magnitude of success: 10 x family’s input wealth
Examples: Donald Trump, Jeremy Hunt
There’s nothing wrong with being wealthy in general. I have great admiration for people who achieve wealth in a non-exploitative way from humble backgrounds. I also have great admiration for those who change the world for the better irrespective of their background. This is not a Class War rant against the wealthy, it is simply a statement of observation.
Who you are born to matters massively. Get born into a wealthy family, and you’ll be put through the best private school money can buy. You’ll be given top-up private tuition in any academic areas where you’re struggling. You’ll make friends with children from other wealthy families and those friends will be a great ally when you reach adulthood. You won’t need to work a Saturday job as a teenager, so you’ll have plenty of extra time for relaxation and studying. You’ll walk out of school with a full board of A*s and into a top university to get a top degree.
Wealth can buy you into powerful social circles. A wealthy family can make donations to the ruling political party. This can gain them access to people in power (just ask Malcolm Rifkind), or even a seat in the House of Lords. In the USA, donations or “lobbying” can influence laws in your favour. If your family’s wealth comes from an active company, you can use this leverage to ensure the political climate is favourable for your family’s company.
With your degree from a top university, you’ll meet the essential criteria for a wide range of jobs. Go for a competitive post in a top company, and your family probably has connections to someone senior on the inside. Maybe they are relatives, or old school friend allies of your parents? The insider can vouch for you, ensure you’re at the top of the pile of CVs. When you get the job, your insider family contact can continue to put in a good word for you, so you’re the one considered for a promotion first. If you’re interested in politics, your family will have contacts there, and maybe your cousin can hand you their safe constituency seat?
If you screw things up, don’t worry! At work, your family’s contact can ensure everything gets smoothed over. If you screw up in life and are prosecuted for committing a serious crime, your family can help. A wealthy family can hire the top barristers (lawyers), and if all else fails and you’re found guilty, your barrister will mitigate well and being an accomplished young person from a privileged background you will get a lighter sentence (see Brock Turner).
At minimum, you have to put in a reasonable effort with studying and a reasonable effort with work. Yes, there are some brilliant people who happen to be from wealthy backgrounds who are so skilled and hard working that they will have succeeded whatever their background. But being outstanding is not necessary for a person born into a wealthy family with contacts, they just need to be slightly above average, then they’ll sail to the top.
2) Work for an established organisation, toe the line, think inside the box and brown-nose repeatedly
Probability of success: 60%
Magnitude of success: £100k’s
Conformance is a great way to get on in the world. When it comes to well-established organisations (large companies / public sector bodies / governments), everything is geared towards maintaining the status quo. Fit in and enthusiastically toe the line, and you’ll do rather well.
Many large companies have codes of conduct which dictate how employees should behave and dress. Conformance is mandatory. They will set employee targets and goals nearly all of which will be based around moving in the direction the company is already heading in. Bonuses are paid for exceeding such targets, and people are fired for missing those targets. People don’t set targets and give rewards for unanticipated achievements. It is rare to see innovation (new ideas) as a target. It is rare for “thinking outside the box” to attract bonuses.
People fear change. If a left-field idea starts getting momentum, people come out of the woodwork to try to block it because they worry that it may cause changes to their role. If a left-field idea doesn’t succeed, any managers behind it usually get fired. But if a mainstream company activity has a mediocre outcome, nobody bats an eyelid, nobody loses their job. It is much safer to toe the line and carry on doing what everyone else around you is doing.
The route to becoming a politician in many countries is similar to the UK. Join a public body and work as a Civil Servant, ensure you crank out the reports as requested which should always support the government agenda in content. Suck up to those more senior, never rock the boat, and after 20 years you’ll be recognised by enough ministers as someone to consider as a parliamentary candidate for one mainstream political party or another. If you criticise a minister, even if backed by evidence, or suggest an alternative course of action, you’ll be out. Once you’re an MP, there will be “Party Whips” whose job it is to ensure you speak to the media in concordance with the party line, and vote the way the party wants you to vote. To get to a position of influence, you have to toe the line.
In heavily established organisations with plenty of candidates to pick from, many people in senior positions got there by peddling the status quo. These same senior people are those who choose which employees to promote. They base their hiring and promoting decisions on the following criteria (in descending order of effect):
- Whether the candidate makes me feel good personally (i.e. needs to agree with me, needs to show they appreciate me / pay me compliments)
- Whether the candidate makes me feel threatened (i.e. needs to be slightly less skilled than me, needs to be less capable than me to do my job)
- Whether the candidate makes me look good to others (i.e. needs to be a “yes man”)
- Whether others will approve of my decision to promote the candidate (i.e. needs to conform to company values)
So with each generation of promotion, the status quo gets more and more embedded. The senior ranks fill up with line-toers, and they promote others on the same values they were promoted on. Alternative thinkers are seen as “troublemakers”, even if well intentioned.
The problem with embedding the status quo is that an organisation becomes totally incapable to react to a changing world. If its direction ceases to be ideal, they are stuffed. Opportunities either side of their path of travel are never seized because that would mean changing direction a little. There is no finer example than Kodak, who were still touting photo film as the era of digital cameras rather obviously came. But with a few years of executive experience bagged even at a failed company, you’ll be able to jump ship to another old fashioned firm who is still sailing.
So don’t go looking for new ideas. Don’t take any risks. Don’t think critically. Just do as you’re told and make others above you feel good, and they’ll let you ascend the ranks. You’ll never change the world, but you’ll get a secure cushy life at The Top.
There are a some large organisations who are exceptions to this. Some have huge hunger for innovation, spend lots on R&D, and have a curiosity to explore new ideas.
3) Be a tenacious maverick
Probability of success: 5%
Magnitude of success: £millions
Examples: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Albert Einstein
The final way to reach The Top is to play a very high risk game… be a maverick who never gives up.
A maverick is someone who isn’t frightened to shun the status quo and go searching for new ideas, new ways of doing things, untapped potential, much bigger prizes.
Mavericks are seen as troublemakers by many large established organisations. That’s because they expose uncomfortable facts, and will readily talk about the elephant in the room. They make senior people doubt themselves and the company. When senior people feel uncomfortable, they tend to block the source.
Albert Einstein changed the world of Physics with his proposals of photons as particles and with the concept of space-time relativity. Years before, his PhD thesis was rejected, largely because his proposals were unorthodox and that he frequently rubbed his professor Weber up the wrong way. He failed to secure any academic jobs whatsoever despite writing hundreds of letters. He left Germany and ended up working in the Swiss patent office.
True entrepreneurial (or indeed intrapreneurial) mavericks don’t shake things up just “for fun”. They do it because they can see a better way, and passionately believe that a company will be more successful if it started exploring to the left and right of the main path. In fact, they are the only people capable of steering an organisation around obstacles in the main path. They don’t fear change. Rather they see it as a mechanism to reach new bigger things. Its because of this attitude that all the massive, world-changing achievements are done by mavericks.
Being a maverick is like trying to shoot the moon. For all the reasons I’ve mentioned in 2), they are constantly fighting against armies of people who oppose change. Mavericks only get appreciated retrospectively: when they actually manage to achieve the colossal unimaginable and world-changing. Then they are recognised and rewarded. But that’s rather hard when the odds are so stacked against you, so you have to be willing to get up and have another go again and again.
So there you have it: be born wealthy, toe the line or chance it as a maverick.