[Land O’Spin] Cheat Your Way to the Top

Dick Cheney, Vice President of the United States.

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Cheating – a less polite way to say exaggerating facts and misstating the truth – is rampant.

While the name of the Dreamgirls song was Fake Your Way to the Top , it might as well be Cheat Your Way to the Top. As Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. – author of a weekly column and the book Forward From This Moment –  said in a recent NPR interview ,” This whole idea that you can cheat your way to the top and it doesn’t matter – and it’s the same as if you’ve worked your way to the there is one of my pet peeves.”

He should know: one cheater plagiarized several of his columns word for word.

A cheater’s tactics range from the mild (Hillary Clinton on a trip to Bosnia: “I remember landing under sniper fire”) to the murderous (Dick Cheney, August 2002: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction”).

The trend in business is unfortunately not much better whether it be executives who are lie on their resumes or from companies engaged in deceiving consumers .

In this decade scrum of style versus substance, substance is taking a beating.

I still remember an online photo CEO introducing himself to me as “almost a VP at Excite@home” – the paperwork was in process when I decided to leave.” Now a partner at a name brand venture capital firm, it was a mild case of spinning your way to the top. Or the colleague who talked endlessly in staff meetings about the great work she was doing with a team on a diversity initiative but three months later couldn’t remember 2/3rds of the people who were on the eight person team or if they met 3 or 30 times.

One prominent blogger whose moniker is “Gen Y expert” appears to have as background that consists of two ingredients: looking young, as befits someone in Generation Y, and a few years of work and self-promotion. His resume shows no background of study or research that might typically qualify someone as an expert, and his work career three years out of school is thin.

The game, it appears, is that if you say it often, loud, or opportunistically enough, people will believe you.

I thought of all this when I had breakfast with Humberto “Bert” Galleno earlier this week [Disclosure: Bert and I sit on the board of the children’s museum for the San Francisco bay area, the Bay Area Discovery Museum]

Bert is one of those people who has good style and tons of substance. An investment banker in the past with Goldman Sachs, he has the type of background, experiences and skills that in his late 30’s / early 40’s that most people still lack in their 50’s. Bert got his skill set the “old fashioned” way – he earned it through hard work, astutely being in the right place (Asia) at the right time, and a willingness to do what it ethically takes to take care of a client.

But Bert, as he builds up his own strategic planning and corporate advisory services practice, has the challenge of showing up on people’s radar when there are so many people over selling – and over spinning themselves.

So what can do somebody like Bert, or somebody like you, do in this type of atmosphere where you compete with folks who – to put it mildly – exaggerate? Here are three thoughts:

1 – While I like modesty a lot – and accuracy and truth even more –  you must be able to articulate your accomplishments to the people that count (supervisors, clients, etc.) on a routine and regular basis. It does not have to be the lead sentence, but it needs to be part of the paragraph. Other people are doing it, and many are mostly likely exaggerating: you need to learn to toot your own horn.

2 – In the “short attention span”, “what have you done for me today” world, be able to mention 2-3 recent accomplishments that you weave into conversations on an occasional basis. This does have to be “let me tell you how great I am” but rather in an “aw shucks” sort of way, be able to tick off two or three recent things when people ask you what you’ve been up to.

3 – Out of the conversation means out of mind. If you don’t tell people the whole story, you’re- to crib a line executive coach Jackie McGrath used with me – not being accurate. Just the facts are fine, but be able to tell them – which includes your accomplishments.

In a world where some people believe in cheating to get to the top, you must play within the rules, but be prepared to play hard.

If you don’t look out after yourself, who will?

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.


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