Image vs. Substance

Talk the talk but walk the walk.

In terms of career success, are you better off working to gain true mastery and competence in a particular area or brushing up on the skills needed to give the appearance of competency?

One school of thinking – backed by empirical evidence – says that becoming really good at something gets you noticed and promoted. The more Machiavellian approach – also backed by real-world proof – holds that what really helps you get ahead isn’t true competence but the appearance thereof.

Of course, the pseudo-competent camp would never characterize their strength as phoniness. They contend that they are management generalists who can see the big picture, know how to manage the “narrow technicians” (their term for people who actually know what to do and get it done), and can related to top management. While the competent camp would argue that the appearance-first crowd is a bunch of political fakers who kiss up to get ahead, the “politicians” would say they have the unique ability to “manage up” and “manage down.”

After more than 30 years in the workplace, I’ve seen both approaches work. People probably fall innately into one camp or the other, although it may take years before you realize which camp you’re in. More specifically, I think those in the competent camp are more likely to wake up one day and wonder why their career path is stalled while the political bozo down the hall is being promoted.

I have no answer for that one, either, but only a hunch. My feeling is that management is just as gullible and as easily snookered as everyone else, and they buy into the career politician’s palaver as readily as the next sucker. After all, what boss wouldn’t want an underling who makes sure the work gets done (even if he or she can’t do it personally or doesn’t even understand what the work is), and is totally committed to the success of the boss (even if the devotion is merely play acting).

In a recent interview in, the online service of The Wall Street Journal, executive recruiter Dwight E. Foster of D. E. Foster Partners, says that top candidates for senior positions often are extremely charming. The real challenge, however, is finding out their competencies.

“There are lots of people with good presence who produce lousy results. We look for people with the ability to solve the client’s problem,” Foster said. “It’s the candidate’s competencies and ability to thrive in the culture of the client company that leads us to favor one candidate over another. If you make a bad fit of a competent guy, you aren’t going to have a successful assignment.”

Maybe, the trick to getting ahead is to be both competent and political. That’s a hard combination to nurture, and probably even a harder one to detect in a job candidate. After all, superb politicians are experts at faking competence and at outflanking the truly competent, who sometimes don’t get seen at all. The answer would be for the naturally political to be lured to business schools to teach courses like “Organizational Bootlicking,” “Problem Burial” and “Successful Infighting.” Now that would be an MBA program worth the tuition.

Article – Copyright 2000 Evan Cooper. Syndicated by ParadigmTSA

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