Career Limiting Moves: Are You Kidding?

Perhaps the most toxic thing you can hear in the arena of people management is “That’s not my job.” It should be grounds for firing. But at least it’s a declarative, first-person statement.

Unlike another leading candidate for management poison: “That’s a career-limiting move.” A passive-aggressive statement if there ever was one.

Let me be clear about my point of view on this: if you work in a company where “that’s a career-limiting move” is part of the vocabulary, you work in a career-limiting company. And if your company has acronymized it to CLM, then you probably have those stupid round-figured laughing cartoon characters saying “You want it when?” in the coffee room too. Bad signs all.

What “Career-Limiting Move” Really Means

In my experience, the term doesn’t get applied to dumb stunts like mooning the chairman or emailing your bookie on the company’s email server. It gets used when you’re talking about doing something very right, that feels personally risky. Things like speaking the truth about an abusive partner; or about taking advantage of a customer; or about skating on thin legal/ethical ice. 

Usually there’s just enough truth in “career-limiting moves” to make it a scary proposition. After all, whistle-blowers often do get fired. But that’s not usually the case. Usually, “career-limiting move” just means speaking the truth where most people prefer to let things be unspoken. And more often than not, truth-tellers are appreciated, not punished.

Why People Don’t Speak the Truth

Human beings demonstrably mis-assess risk all the time. We are more afraid than we should be of doing the wrong thing; and we are less afraid than we should be of failing to the right thing. We constantly avoid the clear and present discomfort of speaking some truth, in favor of the faint hope that maybe someone else will speak up, someday. Meanwhile, things get toxic because of our failure to speak up.

Why ‘Career-Limiting Move’ is a Disastrous Concept

Every time someone invokes “that’s a career-limiting move” to justify a failure to act, their company sinks a little deeper into the muck. It means an organizational shortcoming has been fed, not stopped. That shortcoming will metastasize, since the more you refuse to speak the truth, the harder it is to do so the next time.

It means someone has put their own perceived self-interest ahead of the organization, and selfishness is the death of collective behavior. It means a failure to lead. When “leaders” invoke “career-limiting move” to justify their failure to act, it makes hypocrites of their claim to be leaders. 

It means a stake in the heart for collaboration, transparency, and innovation, because it punishes the risk-taking that is the fuel of those virtues. 

I can hear some of you saying, “But Charlie, you don’t appreciate the real-world situation; people have families, they have to earn a paycheck, they can’t afford the high principles you like to talk about. Get real.”

Fair enough. But we all have to live with our consciences, too. And we each have to draw that line by ourselves, for ourselves.

Where’s your line? When would you invoke the CLM clause rather than speak the truth? And are you sure about that?


Who’s Minding the Store in Corporate America?

Sometimes you get one of those, waddya call ‘em, iconic moments.  Bush standing at the Twin Towers with the megaphone.  (Bush standing next to “heckuva job” Brownie).

We got a classic on the evening news today.  The Chief Executive Officer.  Of the Bank.  Of America.  Saying with a straight face the most amazingly truthful truth in front of Congress: namely that he didn’t run his own bank—his securities lawyers did.

First, the facts, as reported by the Wall Street Journal:

[lawmakers] pressed Mr. Lewis on why Bank of America did not inform its shareholders of its growing concerns with the losses at Merrill Lynch if the issue was serious enough for Mr. Lewis to fly to Washington and speak with federal officials about abandoning the deal by invoking the "material adverse change" clause.

"If there is an event that you consider so significant that it may allow you to invoke the [MAC] do you not think that same event is of interest of shareholders and requires you in your fiduciary duty to disclose it?" Rep. Peter Welch (D., Vt.), said.

"I leave that decision to our securities lawyers and our outside counsel … I’m not a securities lawyer," Mr. Lewis said.

As one Congressman pointed out, the deal was approved by shareholders in December and cost the US taxpayer $20B the next month.  But, as Mr. Lewis implied, his lawyers advised him what to do, and of course, like a good little CEO, he took his lawyers’ advice.  Don’t tell.  After all, you might get in trouble for leading.

Who’s minding the store in corporate America?  CEOs or lawyers?  Or–is it even worse than that?   

This is a veritable Where’s Waldo book of things wrong: I’ll just focus on one.

Where is Accountability in Business?

Nowhere near Mr. Lewis, that’s clear.  But as we said, he is iconic.  An avoider of truly Madoffian proportions does not achieve that status alone; he stands on the shoulders of previous avoiders and a system of avoidance.

It starts with a “mistakes were made” kind of attitude. (See Charles Baxter’s classic 1994 essay here). 

Lack of accountability gets reinforced by a subtle shift from “ethics” to “compliance,” as brilliantly described by Harry Markopolis, the Madoff whistleblower: “The SEC’s main focus is to mindlessly check to see if registered firms’ paperwork is in order and complies with the law as written.”

But it’s business programs too.  The lack of accountability ironically traces back to a great intellectual achievement—the multi-industry success of business process re-engineering.  In industry after industry, business processes have been broken up into pieces and stitched back together by contracts linking outsourcers to purchasing departments.  All done by lawyers.  And all lacking a sense of commercial commitment or relationship between buyer and seller.  (And taught proudly in business schools as "best practices" and "benchmarking").

I’m fond of quoting Phil McGee’s dictum: all management problems boil down to two: a tendency to blame, and an inability to confront. 

An inability to confront the truth, facts, accountability, responsibility, obligation, fiduciary duty.  All these are terms that are far too visceral and human to be captured adequately in the cold rational phrases of the law.  Which is why the best jurists always know the “rule of law” should leave a lot unsaid.

I am painfully aware that our only MBA president will almost certainly appear more inept at management than the lawyers who preceded and followed him.   But I’d argue that Clinton and Obama each know what Bush—and his contemporary, Mr. Lewis at B of A—did not.  That the law should have limits.  "Leading by the law" is nearly oxymoronic; perhaps it even takes a lawyer to fully appreciate how foolish it is. 

It’s galling enough that Mr. Lewis, I suspect, is being disingenuous.  He doesn’t really follow the opinion of his lawyers in managing the company.  He employs them to provide convenient cover.   What’s really galling is that the lie he tells—that he does manage by following their advice—is a lie that has become socially acceptable.  No one calls him on that lie.  Invoking "MBL" (management by lawyers) has become the unassailable high ground of management and leadership. 

We have moved from a “buck stops here” standard of leadership to one based on “I didn’t commit a crime,” a standard now smugly on display by our corporate leaders.  

Where’s the shame?

Great Moments in Marketing Fear

I may not be a marketer by profession, but I doubt I’d get much argument from the pros about what sells best—reliably, dependably, year in and year out.

Sex. And fear.

Maybe sex is number one. But if so, it’s not by much.  Fear of fill-in-the-blank. Being left behind. Being left out. Not getting the joke. Looking dumb. Dressing wrong. Knowing the wrong people. Doing the wrong thing. Not doing the right thing. Being stuck with something that smells. Having a house that smells. Being the smell.

Identifying the right “pitch” or “hook” is, I suspect, even more important for fear-based products. Case in point: a particularly clever new product.

Introducing Slydial—see the August 2 New York Times article, Don’t Want to Talk About It? Order a Missed Call, by Matt Richtel:

When Alexis Gorman, 26, wanted to tell a man she had been dating that the courtship was over, she felt sending a Dear John text message was too impersonal. But she worried that if she called the man, she would face an awkward conversation or a confrontation.

So she found a middle ground. She broke it off in a voice mail message, using new technology that allowed her to jump directly to the suitor’s voice mail, without ever having to talk to the man — or risk his actually answering the phone.

The technology, called Slydial, lets callers dial a mobile phone but avoid an unwanted conversation — or unwanted intimacy — on the other end. The incoming call goes undetected by the recipient, who simply receives the traditional blinking light or ping that indicates that a voice mail message has been received.

Genius. Elegant in its simplicity. The sweet relief of being able to plausibly lie and avoid conflict at the same time.  It’s calling when you know someone will be out—squared.

Where does this fit in the pantheon of problem-solving inventions? It’s gotta be up there with Get Out of Jail Free cards, the morning-after pill, the hangover pill (slot as yet unfilled), homework-eating dogs, and the deus ex machina plotline.

Because almost all our worst fears involve other humans. Fear of being eaten alive in the forest by bears? Chicken——, compared to the mortification of a teenager shunned by peers. Hearing Sister Mary say you’ll rot in hell for doing whatever it was you already did. Receiving a dear John call. Calling dear John.

Slydial is unique only in one tiny detail. You already have access to voicemail. You can already send digitized voice messages. Slydial’s tiny tweak is the shortcut straight to voicemail, unbeknownst to the receiver. It is the caller’s equivalent of caller ID or spam filters. One small step for technology—one giant leap for Freudkind.

Because this permits the caller to lie. Plausibly.

The caller’s lie is this: “Hey, I tried to call you, but you were out. So I guess I’ll just have to leave this message on voicemail—not that I want to, gosh I hate to do this kind of thing so impersonally. Sorry about that, but—well, it wasn’t my fault. So, anyway, hey—I’m breaking up with you. I couldn’t make it into work today. The dog ate my homework. About your party, you know, pre-existing commitment. We’ll do lunch another time. Sorry I missed your birthday.”

All without that distaste that accompanies having to talk to the Other.

Seinfeld’s George Costanza—the patron saint of avoidance—would have loved Slydial. His spiritual progenitor, Larry David, would know just how to market it. Perhaps Slydial’s owner, MobileSphere, should hire David to consult, based on this from the article:

MobileSphere’s co-founder, Gavin Macomber, said the tool was a time-saver in a world in which conversations could waste time, whereas voice mail can get directly to the point. Part of the reason people are so overwhelmed, Mr. Macomber said, is because they are connected to devices and streams of data around the clock.

Puh-leeze. Alexis Gorman knows better. She works in marketing, and says of her Dear John slydial, “I can do without the drama…I wanted to avoid an awkward conversation.”

So does Manny Mamakis, also quoted in the article as finding it a time-saver. But then Manny speaks the Truth:

“It does make you more cowardly,” he said.

Slydial’s effectiveness—like Borat or Punk’d—depends on being relatively unknown. It loses power once it goes mass-market. “You rat, don’t think you can Slydial me!

I predict a meteoric—albeit short-lived—success for Slydial. Anything that feeds fear of other people will sell well. Sex it up and the sky’s the limit.

Sometimes fear sells you what you actually do need—say, the morning after pill.  But other times it sells you the illusion of what you need.  What you need is usually closure, not avoidance.