Many young people look at CEO lifestyles -- writing corny rah-rah's for the corporate newsletter, blathering non-sequiturs on CNBC, signing off on the odd budget or regulatory form -- and then ask a plaintive question: John, they say, how can I get a totally bogus job that seems to require twice as much golf and whisky as actual thought or labor?
Let me start by saying this: It's not as easy as it looks. Getting and keeping a highly compensated, completely worthless position is a feat of skill that requires so much guile and conniving that you might as well be working, except, of course, that eyeballing the Des Moines district's sales forecast isn't half as much fun as slamming back shots of Johnny Walker Blue with the boss while you stab deserving rivals in the back. To work less and get paid more you need to remember the Three Keys of Careerism:
What Do We Do Here Again? Nothing will kill your career faster than actual passion for your product, market, company, etc., etc. Oh, sure, your customers and co-workers might love you for going the extra mile, but get real: The only people who can fatten your wallet are your boss and all his bosses, and they couldn't care less about your enthusiasm. So skip the Boy Scout routine and ply your patrons with corporate gifts they can really use: Dozens of detailed, never-to-be-read reports filed on time; beautifully designed PowerPoints that they can fob off as their own; and salacious but useful whispers they can trade for, well, other salacious but useful whispers. In no time you'll be ready for Key #2 . . .
Get Somebody Else to Whitewash Your Fence. Sucking up takes an enormous amount of time and energy; if you do it right, you'll be far too busy and exhausted to bother with real work. But, you ask, won't I be expected, at least early in my career, to do something useful? Yes, but a real player accepts this sad fact as merely an obstacle to be overcome on the path to undeserved riches. What you need is a flunky (or, better yet, a cubicle farm full of flunkies) too dull or straitlaced to have any designs on the executive suite. How do you get one? By inventing a convoluted project that seems so vital to the company's future -- describe it by combining important-sounding words into incomprehensible terms such as market adjacency or strategic co-innovation -- that all the execs above you will be afraid to veto it, on the off chance that it might work, which might get them blamed (fired) later for having missed an important new trend or whatever. They can't be sure, of course, so the budget won't actually fund the full project, but it'll be enough for flunky acquisition. Besides, you'll help them out by working on Key #3...
The 8.2 Effect. Your leadership team doesn't expect the whole truth -- or any of it, depending on the issue -- but they do expect that you'll put a good effort into your cover-up, if only to preserve their own plausible deniability. Remember this: A good lie makes a broad, preferably unverifiable claim, bolstered by incredible specificity about meaningless details. Leading psychologists call this the 8.2 effect, after a study in which 78.6% of participants considered the number "8.2" more convincing in supporting a research claim than an undecimaled "8." (Not really, that's all completely made up, but you get the point). When your bosses ask about the success rate for the market adjacency/strategic co-innovation project, use colorful charts to illustrate how you achieved a 91.6% efficiency rating with a scant 22.3% retention loss, minimizable to 12.5% with transactive interventions post-launch. They'll be pretty sure you're lying, but not certain enough to risk looking like an idiot if you aren't. You'll get your budget renewed and, more importantly, you'll be recognized at last as somebody we can work with.
Isn't that what you wanted?
John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.