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Dr. Mark Powell & Jonathan Gifford: Machiavellian Intelligence; How to survive and rise in the modern corporation

Many successful professionals with good leadership skills fail to maximize their career potential because of a number of instinctive good habits – things that make them highly effective executives, well-liked and respected by their colleagues, but which are not best designed to progress their careers to the next level.

Corporations were created to be legal entities in their own right. They are legal entities. The people who work for corporations are paid by the corporation for the sole purpose of advancing corporation’s interests. Corporations do not exist to employ people and, in general, prefer to employ as few people as possible. The corporation current management can have any other feelings except the ones for company interests.

There is no social bond between corporation and their employees. If we work for corporation our colleagues also do not own us any of the usual social obligation. Because their duty is to serve the corporation, not to be a part of a social community. Work in corporate world has its satisfactions and rewards, but there is a ruthlessness inherent in the battle for corporate survival in a globalized world that drives ruthless behavior by the corporations’ servants.

There are eight core principles of corporate behavior:

Corporations are not social structures

Corporations are not »communities« or »associations of individuals«. Because of this essential disjoint between the interests of the corporation and the interests of the people who work for it, people’s relationships to the corporation and to each other, as members of the corporation, are based almost entirely on self-interest.

Corporations are feudal

Authors is comparing corporations to feudal kingdoms. They believe that a lot of insights into corporation work we can get from reading Machiavelli and his Prince. Machiavelli was comparing Ottoman Empire that was governed by Sultan who divided his kingdom and appointed people to administer various regions. In this system people loyalty was always to Sultan and not to administrators. He contested that structure to structure of 16th century France, where kind gave land to barons and many of the barons in France represented significant power bases, that were very independent. In reality, the modern corporation is a feudal structure with a powerful “monarch” at its head, but with many “barons” who hold significant power and command considerable loyalty from their individual fiefdoms.

In 2015 Fortune magazine reported that CEO in the 500 largest companies in US had a tenure of 4.9 years. In the corporate world, monarchs change frequently. When that change occurs, everything within the corporation shifts: old alliances fall apart; promising careers are cut short; new powers emerge.

In order to be successful in this world, you need to find out power bases, you should think about their strengths, consider who is disaffected or ambitious; you should look for own alliances and supporters and weight very carefully chances of power bases and possibilities of future success and then pledge alliances to them. People are more likely to be maneuvered into roles by their sponsors and supporters than they are to achieve promotions through sheer brilliance. Since there are fewer and fewer roles when you are coming closer to the top, for you to succeed, someone else must fail.

Corporate courts have etiquettes and intrigues

If corporation is like a feudal kingdom, then head office and the executive suite represent the feudal court. If you want to progress in your career in corporation, it is essential to get yourself to court and to get yourself noticed. You have to become »one of the court people« to progress in corporation. It is not actually necessary to sell your soul to the corporation, but it is essential that the corporation believes that you have done so. Once you have mastered the essential etiquettes of court, keep your eyes and ears open for the intrique. Knowledge is power and gossip is priceless – once it has been carefully cross-referenced.

Successful courtiers seek out advancement

The world is full of talented, hard working people; very few of them are CEOs. It is a good plan to think of yourself as a luxury brand. Choose your USP, find opportunities to connect with the people that matter and tell them what sets you apart from the others. Create your brand and promote yourself. Give people a reason to help advance your career. No one will seek you out.

Powerful masters need loyal followers

Every person of power who wants to become more powerful needs supporters. Corporations usually promote people that have them. As a foot soldier, you have a chance to advance with strong sponsor. Your sponsor will let you know that he or she has their eyes on a particular future role for themselves and will make it clear that you would be in line for a particular promotion to a specific role if they can count on your continued support. But be careful, allegiances can shit. That are critical momemnts in any career when ability to spot the moment that a star’s light is beginning to fade is the single most important factor affecting your career progression. Being in the wrong camp at the moment when power is shifting can be a major setback. But backing the wrong horse is ussually a temporary setback, not a career killer.

No one can be trusted

Everyone has their own agenda. Trust no one. When anyone – including your friends – says anything or asks anything, consider what their agenda might be. No question is innocent. As famous French diplomat who server under Napoleon and King Louis XVIII. Talleyard said: »Mistrust first impulses; they are nearly always good,« and«Speech was given to man to disquise his thoughts.«[1] Do not make mistake of giving your natural, honest response to any question. Do not be self-deprecating and avoid irony, sarcasm and wit; they are generaly misunderstood. If you run into problems, don’t admit your mistakes. One way of how to explain failures is: »We did meet some obstacles that no one had foreseen, but a great deal of good was achieved along the way.«

Everyone is disposable

When we are young, we believe we are immortal; when we are at work, we believe that we are indispensable. Corporation, unlike you, really is potentially immortal. It will use up a very large number of successful executives to further its ends over time and it will spit them all out. To be brutally honest, most people do not actually make and truly outstanding contribution to the corporation’s objectives. Corporations are designed to withstand the loss of any individual executive. Middle managers are most of risk. Corporations have a habit of removing whole layers of middle management. Another risk run by middle managers is that they become pawns in the power struggles of more senior managers. Many actions that are based on »redundancy phase« are merely a way of reorganizing the corporation when managements shift. So the best advice for work in corporation is to earn as much money as you can, as soon as you possibly can. Because you are dispensable, you can never be secure. Resign yourself to the fact that this is a game that you are certain to lose in the long run. In the meantime, amass power.

Corporations are constantly on a war footing

The people at the very top of any corporation feel that they are under siege. As a direct result, they see other executives only in terms of how useful they will be in helping to ward off the enemy. So you need to develop and flag up the resources that you have. Create a sense of your own value and currency. Build alliances, but be careful when they change. Your job is to identify weaknesses of your peers and to swoop in on them with your cleverly amassed overwhelming resources. The battle for power in the modern corporation has a great deal in common with the constant minor wars between the principalities of Renaissance Italy.

The Six Habits that are Bad for Progressing your Career – (too Good habits)

  1. Working too hard

People who work too hard can become invisible. They turn into safe pair of hands. People who work too hard often fail to be selective in the work they choose to do. Being well-positioned, in the political sense, to take advantage of any opportunity that may arise is very important for success. Luck has some role too. So, working hard can never be enough. It is important that you deliver the results that impress the people who matter, while still finding the time to advance your career by making yourself known to them. If the people who make the key decisions don’t have any dealings with you, they won’t be aware of your hard work either. Portray yourself as a potential leader. The key is visibility, in the best possible light. But also, be careful who communicate your results, so that you make sure, they are not presented from somebody who will claim them as his/hers.

When choosing your time devotion, decide on a meeting that you need to be seen at; the ones where you will be able to look good in front of the right audience. Little pieces of time here and there are no use to the effective executive: to think clearly and to plan, you need big chunks of time. Try to empty your diary, not to fill it. Even if you think that your job is to do all activities that you are charged with, in the end corporation cares only about results, so deliver them. Work hard to get the job done, but use about twenty per cent of your time considering which aspects of your work are most important to the essential business of progressing your career, and to planning and carrying out the tasks that can have a major impact on your career progression.

Many careers have been founded on a great performance in front of the corporate audience. It shows that you are a great communicator; that you have a leadership skill.

  • Being helpful

In corporations, the exceptionally good – or at least they are perceived as such – get promoted, the bad one gets fired. Jack Welch, was unabashed fan of the bell curve. He called it “differentiation” and he used it to differentiate his managers. He was brutally honest about corporate life. In their constant war for survival, corporations assess every one of their employees and decide the extent to which they are going to help or hinder the corporation’s survival. Helping other people is not the best route to getting onto the A list. When helping bosses, there are also traps, you need to find proper balance if you need to choose between what boss wants and what is good to corporation. Don’t help your junior colleagues, don’t help your peers. You don’t have time for one to one, you need to devote enough of it to this task to be able to effectively manage department to achieve objectives. Since you cannot possibly know that your colleagues are to be trusted, being helpful to your peers is one of the many good habits that you must break. If you identify a peer or a younger colleague that has potential to bet you in the race, you should find a way to be seen helpful. You should give the impression of being thoughtful, compassionate and, indeed, helpful colleague or leader, without actually doing anything that is genuinely helpful.

When helping bosses, the sort of help they really care is the one that will bring result. Other kind of help is nice to have, but not essential. But be careful of what boss of your boss wants to. Your boss wants to hit targets, but boss of your boss may have broader view, outside revenue, sales and other numerical valued targets. Things like opening new markets, winning awards, improve brand image. So, you should work in that direction to, to be recognizable from the more senior management.

One of the hardest tasks in building a career is to distinguish between opportunities that are certain to advance your career from those that are, at best, a long-shot an, at worst, can even set your career back. Do not help organization at the expense of your career; try to avoid dangerous assignments.

  • Being generous

Don share your unique resources. Doing so you can undermine your own career interests. In community it is natural, that you help others. There is very natural temptation to do the same thing in the workplace: to share best practice and co-operate; to try to be »fair« about allocation of resources; to assume that we are all working towards the same commomn goal. That is not the route of your career progression. The skills, abilities, knowledge and other qualities that you bring to the corporation belong to the corporation, as do all of the fruits of your labours.

Your most important resources are:

  • The information that you have and the things that you understand
  • Your personal skills and abilities
  • Your expirience
  • Your network of contacts

Leveraging your assets is about planning and politics. You need to work for you in corporation. People who support each other in the race for the top know that there comes a point at which all bets are off and it is every man and woman for themselves. When leveraging your assets there are two views, one what can you offer to corporation and two how you can use them to compete with others. Being clever is a good start, but it doesn’t give you a real competitive advantage. It is the same with emotional intelligence and hard work. You need knowledge, skills, experience and they all are combined into expertise. Knowledge + skills + experience are what make you expert. They develop insight and it is insight that matters. Proving your value to the corporation, you must use your resources, but as you use your resources, your value to the corporation declines. It is essential to keep replenishing your resources as you go along: to acquire new information; learn new skills; to broaden your experience and widen your network of contacts.

Your ideas are assets that must be leveraged in order to progress your career. Having a brilliant idea may well win you some short-term recognition. But turning good ideas into career progression is not a simple matter, and is far from inevitable. Choose your moment well before you release any details; try to make this a very public occasion that is well branded with your name. Aim for maximum impact; make every effort to own the concept. Remember what Tacitus said: “The unfair thing about war is that victory is claimed by everybody, while failure is ascribed to one person alone.”[2]

One asset that is only yours are your contacts. They are sum of total of your network of potentially useful people, inside and outside the corporation. Your “outside” contacts are particularly valuable. Your key relationships are your key assets. Don’t lose control of them.

Choosing when to earn money or to save it for the corporation is an asset in itself. There is no point in being generous to the system if it will not reward you in terms of your career progression.

  • Going it alone

In corporations, what matters is power. Corporation is effectively an individual and a selfish one. It acts in its own self-interest, and not in the interest of the people who happen to work for it. This does not mean that there is no social structure within corporations; there is a kind of social structure but it is not like those in normal human communities: the social structure within corporations is based entirely on power and influence, not on mutual help and support.

Building a successful career requires a clear-eyed view of where power in the corporation lies and who is best-placed to help you to advance your career. Believing that you can advance your career without the right sponsors is highly dangerous. Choosing the right sponsors is one of the key differentiators between the people who get to the very top and the “other runners”. The wrong sponsors can be absolutely toxic. You can get dragged down with them. It is important that you know organizational chart of corporation, but it is also important that you know the real organizational chart that shows who actually has power. When identifying those connections, it is good to see who are “children” of power sponsors, their favorites inside organizations, you can benefit from gossip, but do check them. Conferences and who is key-speaker can give some insights. You can pick up some insights through meeting behavior and e-mail conversations. And almost the most important task. Always be nice to the personal assistant of senior people; they will form an opinion of you, and it will be passed on.

When you are looking for a sponsor, if your immediate boss will not take that role, you need a sponsor who are more senior than your boss, who can ensure that you move into your boss’s role when your boss moves on.

In corporation you need self-confidence. Looking like a winner is a big step forward on the path to becoming a winner. But you also need to present yourself to right people. You need to get onto people’s mental maps. You need them to have an opinion about you. But first, you need to connect with them. Make a good impression.

  • Being different

Corporations say that their employees should bring their unique personality and interests to work with them to add to the diversity and vibrancy of the workplace, but it doesn’t work like that. Every corporation has its own distinctive culture. If you want to win, play by the rules. Fit in. Successful executives not only play by the rules of their current corporation, they are adept at changing their behaviors to suit the different cultures they encounter when they move to other corporations.

A corporation’s culture is what it is. It is never a good career strategy to imagine that the corporate culture will change to suit you. The same way that corporations have distinctive cultures, they also tend to have favored activities, often sparked by the interests of senior staff. But corporations don’t really like employees to have outside interests. The corporation wants to have your full attention; it likes to feel it has first call on your time and energy. If the corporation does have a favored activity, join in. Keep your other interests quiet.

  • Sticking things out

In career terms, the role that currently occupies your time has only one function: to allow you to shine, so that your career can move on to the next stage. Conscientious executives tend to feel that once they have committed themselves to a project, they should see that project through to completion. If a project is taking too long to deliver and is not advancing your career or, worse, if it looks as if it might be deemed to be a failure in the long run, it is vital to leave at the moment when your CV has benefited and before things begin to stall. There is literally no time to waste. Timing is everything. You cannot afford to waste any time on any project that is not advancing your career.

You can do some experiments with projects and jobs in earlier phases of your career, but in middle and later stages, you need to first do a biggest move in your career and then capitalize on your position. The objective of working is to get promoted as quickly as possible at every stage, not to spend long years working on the same project through a sense of duty or obligation. All corporations are playing game of optimism. Be optimistic at work: play the game; but be brutally realistic with yourself about the real situation. At every stage of your career, focus on maneuvering yourself into a position where you can take credit. Every career has a trajectory, and there are key moments in any career when a person’s stock is high. It is important to capitalize on these moments and make some kind of career progression.

Machiavelli favored strength over weakness and fear over love. Some corporate animals go for the same philosophy.


[1] In the book on page 41

[2] In the book on page 117

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