Can Good Guys Finish First?

You work hard, try to do the right thing, and frequently put the interests of others ahead of your own. You’re a good guy. But does that mean you’ll be a success?

“Nice guys finish last” is an adage we all know, and it suggests that not only do nice people do poorly in the competitive world of things sports and corporations, but apparently can even finish badly in the dating game.

But what about a corollary? Can good guys finish first?

An earlier post – The Trusted Advisornoted that in the world of executive teams, punches can get pulled and frank words disappear as people become guarded and disinclined to rock boats. It’s the distillation of an environment – as the May 2007 Harvard Business Review notes – where the operating conclusion is “When in doubt, keep your mouth shut.” Those places too frequently are where Oliver Goldsmith’s rule applies: “Silence gives consent.”

A note from former McKesson colleague Chuck Woods this week reminded me that in those environments people who did best were people with sharp elbows evidencing their sharper political chops. Aristotle once said “Man (and perhaps woman too) is by nature a political animal” so that fact that the ability to be political might be just as important as other skills and experiences people bring to the party should be no surprise to anyone.

In the world that Chuck and I inhabited, where I worked as a senior vice president of HR for a $13B business, many of the “good guys” got whacked or nudged to the sidelines. Same was true when I headed up HR for a couple of Chiron’s business units. If someone was competent and a good guy you had the sense that their termination clock was ticking away.

Why? As Steve Jobs – who co-founded Apple and got sacked in his first stint at the firm might observe – things get pretty ugly at the top. People get competitive, and in a world of constant restructuring and business change, the role you hold today may be someone else’s life raft to avoid being laid off tomorrow. And sometimes being a good guy means that you hold off decapitating someone else only to learn that they’ve manage to put the whack wheels in motion on you.

But living well is the best revenge, and sometimes getting fired and asked to go elsewhere in those type of environments can gift you to places that are much better, and significantly more rewarding.

For example, what did Jobs say about the aftermath of his dumpting?  “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

After being nudged from my senior suit role at McKesson (where I was regarded as one of the good guys) I had a similar experience (albeit not as spectacular as Steve Jobs). It  freed me to do some of the best work of my life – work coaching executives and teams that I’m still doing to this day.

And it’s not all doom and gloom for good guys. While I’m not as optimistic as J & J CEO Bill Weldon, my experience from working with execs and leadership teams across a broad section of organizations for over 25 years is that good guys can finish first in corporation and organizations if some of these following conditions exist:

  • You may not be political, but you’ve got political smarts. Ignorance is not bliss in this case. It helps to see the maneuvering and gamesmanship even if you don’t want to play it.
  • If you’re not using political chops, you need to bring something else of great value to the party. Being really good at what you do helps, or having certain domain skills or client relationships can help. While I have seen people kill the goose – in this case fire the employee – who lays the golden egg, it’s usually done very reluctantly.
  • You own the shop. As many a CEO has learned, if you own the company it’s tougher to be fired. It’s not a guarantee – it’s just a lot harder.
  • If you don’t own the shop, the boss loves you. One of the reasons many people suck up to the big cheese is for air cover. Bosses usually don’t fire people they like. If your boss really values what your bring such as candor and the lack of political gamesmanship by you, it’s really helps.

Two examples of good guys finishing first crossed my radar this past week. This weekend former US professional football player Jerry Rice will be inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame. And 7 X  7 Magazine called out Craig and Annie Stoll for their work starting their restaurant Delfina and its follow-on restaurants. I don’t know Rice (but 20 years of press reports have been pretty consistent regarding his great work ethic and high personal values), but I do know Annie and Craig.

Good guys can finish first. At least sometimes.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.