What the Incompetent Executive Can Teach You

If your career experience looks anything like mine, you’ve probably spent more time than you’d care to admit wondering how less competent people around you appear to get ahead with ease, while you seem stuck in perpetual career stagnation.

At first I bemoaned the unfairness of it all. But then, I began to see corporate dynamics and career upward mobility in a completely new light. Many of the qualities I cherished as my strong points were, in fact, the very attributes holding me back. I was:

• Passionate about my work and ideas;

• Demanding of my employees and co-workers;

• Fastidious about delivering monthly and quarterly results.

On the surface, these seem like great qualities. But if these attributes were so strong, how could I be stuck in middle management when these seemingly incompetent managers continued to rise up the ranks?

And so I committed, right there and then, to study the species of the Incompetent Executive. Not to mock or criticize them, but to learn from them. Here are seven lessons that are not predicated on talent, work ethic, or skill to be successful. When combined with your natural talent, they’ll make you unstoppable.

Embrace the changes everyone else hates
Your best chances for career advancement come in times of uncertainty and disruption, as in an acquisition or management shake-up, when the opportunities are at their greatest and your rivals are at their worst. While other managers are rebelling against the change and worrying what the future may hold, incompetent executives are capitalizing on opportunities. You should too.

Don’t be part of the herd
It can be therapeutic to gripe and gossip with peers at work. Never do it. We also tend to network with people at our own level or below in the company, because it’s comfortable and easy. It’s a waste of time. To get ahead, you need to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Gravitating to the herd has the opposite effect.

Never be passionate about your ideas
Many of us have dreams of being “transformative” figures. We are drawn to icons, such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, for their passion and tenacity. But for every Jobs, there are hundreds of bodies lined up along the road that tried and failed. A reputation for objectivity is much more useful than a reputation for passion. Focus on helping your company evaluate ideas objectively and avoid passionate pursuits.

Avoid the farce of results orientation
Results orientation may be one of the most universally accepted business mantras, but it serves everyone’s interest other than your own. Incompetent executives understand that when we obsess about short-term results, we are choosing to ignore what will actually get us ahead in the long run. When viewed through a longer term, multicompany lens, it’s a much better investment to focus your time expanding your skills than delivering results.

Find big problems to solve
When it comes to career advancement, small wins and reliable performance won’t put you ahead. Managers who play a game based on reliability tend to become known only for their mistakes. Mistakes, unlike small wins, reverberate across the company. So when mistakes inevitably happen, the reliable player hasn’t put up enough points to make up for them. Incompetent executives choose to pursue a big win strategy even at the expense of making more small mistakes. Big wins are memorable, they build attention outside your department, and they’re like bait for promotions.

Learn to promote your projects
It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming your work speaks for itself. But it makes the false assumption that other people define success the same way you do. So we get blindsided when our hard work gets criticized, often irrationally. Incompetent executives know that showing how your work will benefit key influencers in the company is actually more important than the work itself. Effective promotion can act as an insurance policy for project failures and inferior quality.

Don’t hold people accountable
Holding people accountable is a management principle we’ve allowed to spiral out of control. While it makes perfect sense why the corporation benefits from managers holding each other accountable, it makes almost no sense for your own career advancement. In my experience, much more is to be gained by being seen as a mentor than as a task master. Mentoring is a powerful leadership quality, and in practice, we gravitate to, hire, and promote mentors over people who demand accountability. The incompetent executives I’ve known are almost universally benevolent and helpful.

If these tactics help mediocre minds get to the top, imagine what they’ll do for you.

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