Commentary: How To Succeed: Same Game, Different Decade

I will be here year after year after fiscal, never take a risk-al, year.

--Twimble, the mail room boss

Twimble has worked the mail room year after year, but he has never sorted a Federal Express package. His young charge J. Pierrepont Finch, the consummate corporate climber, wouldn't know an Armani power suit from a seersucker job. These are characters solidly rooted in the 1950s--that comparatively stable era when American business enjoyed the profitable luxury of a less global world.

No matter. It is a measure of the inevitable, fallible humanity of business organizations that How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the exuberant 1961 musical parody of corporate life whose revival opened on Broadway Mar. 23, still hits the mark. Finch, played by Matthew Broderick, is a timeless character in an equally timeless endeavor: Getting Ahead. His employer, World Wide Wicket Co., is the stodgy, bureaucratic archetype of all that still remains wrong with Corporate America.

BACKSTABBER. Anyone who has ever worked in an organization--that is, almost all of us--will feel at home watching How to Succeed..., which was inspired by the title of Shepherd Mead's whimsical screed of rules for executive success published in 1952. The man who gets ahead at World Wide knows how to ingratiate himself with the boss, how to pick the right teams, and how to stab the right backs.

The lesson in Broadway's revival? All the hierarchy-busting of the past decade hasn't put an end to office politics. It simply has changed the nature of the game. We snicker at Finch's obvious, elbows-out machinations, such as dispatching his secretary to speed his rivals' demise or buttering up the boss by pretending to share his alma mater. But we see the same tricks on the job every day--just camouflaged better.

How to get promoted? Read and write memos, Finch is told. "You will soon find there is little information of any value in them, but they are mighty handy" because they afford you the chance to compliment the memo writer--especially if he's a more senior executive than you. "Write them on any subject," goes the advice. "Small matter what you write them about, as long as you write them often. No one will read them, but someone will notice your name at the top." So it is now--only, electronic-mail is the medium of choice.

Granted, there's something quaintly antique about the advice Finch follows in his climb from mail room clerk to chairman of the board. The right employer "must be big," he is counseled. "In fact, the bigger the better. It should be big enough so that nobody knows exactly what anyone else is doing." At World Wide, an employee's success depends more on risk avoidance and lucky breaks than on brainpower and diligence. The company's managers relinquish their identities to become little more than yes-men (only men, of course), ever in search of the next step on the corporate ladder.

A COUP. World Wide, in other words, is exactly the sort of company ripe for a boardroom coup and an outside chief executive eager to shake things up and diversify its workforce. Today, obviously, big no longer is beautiful. And service companies, far from the dead-ends Finch is instructed to avoid so studiously, are where the economic action is.

And today's business world surely depends more on genius than on form. "Never take a risk-al?" Let's hope not. Yet, much of How to Succeed rings frighteningly true. We know it's a joke; in this global market, it has to be. But in our gut, we wonder why so little has changed.

How to Choose an Employer

Sage counsel from How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying


The bigger the better. It should be big enough so that nobody knows exactly what anyone else is doing.


It should be in a big city. New York City is best, but Chicago or Los Angeles will qualify, too.


Be sure yours is a company that makes something, and that someone else actually has to make it. Beware of service organizations. They will give you few opportunities to relax or to plan your future.