Be an SOB 1% of the Time

If you don't manage your career, no one will.
Ian_Heller

Don’t be an SOB. SOBs don’t care about other people, they’re selfish, demanding and are probably as miserable inside as they are on the outside. You definitely shouldn’t be an SOB.

The opposite of an SOB is a pushover. Pushovers are really nice people all of the time. They won’t confront others even when circumstances call for it and, unfortunately, they get run over by SOBs who view them with contempt. Pushovers are also miserable because they lead what Henry David Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation.”

So don’t be a pushover, either. Not if you want a happy and successful career.

If you can’t be an SOB and you can’t be a pushover, what should you be?

I think the answer lies in what I call the “1% Rule,” which I’ve taught to my direct reports for many years. Here’s what I tell them:

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, the way to succeed in a corporate career is to be considerate, thoughtful, highly collaborative and good-natured. But if you’re not 1 percent SOB, some people will walk all over you.”

Before I get to the 1 percent, please note the 99 percent since it’s critically important:

  • Most of the time, people are not out to get you.
  • Most of the time, people don’t have hidden agendas.
  • Most of the time, your coworkers act in good faith and are sincere in what they say and do.

If you’re naturally suspicious or an SOB a lot of the time, you will misread these people, screw up your team’s dynamics and generally create interpersonal mayhem that kills morale and productivity. There are certainly executives who get promoted to senior positions through being all-around SOBs but people secretly hate them. People turn on SOBs when they get into a bad spot – which we all do at some point in our careers.

Most of us know someone who is just too nice to get ahead at work. At one of the distributors I consulted for, my primary contact was a guy I’ll call Dave. Everyone liked Dave; he’s smart, has a heart of gold and smiles all the time. Unfortunately, the people with strong personalities had figured out that Dave would tolerate just about anything and so they took advantage of him, which is bad, or took him for granted, which is worse.

I liked Dave and I bristled when I saw people disregard him. In fact, I thought Dave had so much to offer that the company would benefit if he was more assertive in the organization. I didn’t think Dave lacked courage – he either didn’t see what was happening or his personality allowed him to tolerate it to his own detriment. Or maybe he just didn’t know how to deal with his pushover-ness and needed some coaching. So, I decided to coach him.

Dave and I had some long conversations about how he came across in the company, about situations where he was ignored or someone took advantage of him and we role-played how he could respond to certain situations in the future. Not surprisingly, Dave completely understood what was happening to him and was frustrated by the way he was treated and his inability to get promoted.

Dave was a great student and a quick study. I remember the day I knew his development was coming along because I was in a meeting with the executive team (Dave was not there) and one of the VPs said, “What’s up with Dave? Man, that guy’s been on fire lately.” He used a tone of respect and begrudging admiration and since he had been one of the people taking advantage of Dave, I smiled. Inwardly.

Dave was a manager when I met him several years ago. He had all of the capabilities to be a VP somewhere except the 1 percent. Since then, he has been promoted to director and is now a VP. I still talk to him and he says that coaching was a turning point in his career. But Dave deserves all of the credit because he listened, learned and acted. Not everyone does, even with coaching. Dave got his 1 percent and used it sparingly but effectively.

You may be wondering what I mean by being an SOB. I’ll admit I use the word in part because it’s startling (particularly to those who don’t have any SOB in them). However, I mean an SOB in terms of standing your ground, being willing to say “No,” and not necessarily agreeing with people just because they outrank you or are very assertive. I do not mean being a jerk, acting immaturely or unprofessionally.

And never lose your temper – that’s akin to becoming 100 percent SOB, at least temporarily, particularly if you’re doing it around people whom you outrank. There’s a big difference between exercising your 1 percent and being a bully.

People with 1 percent SOB find they don’t have to use it much. Once you show you have it, people figure out that there’s a line you won’t go past, so they tend to respect you more and you rarely have to pull out your 1 percent and use it.

If you’re a manager, having the 1 percent is particularly important because your people expect you to stick up for them and be someone who matters in the organization. That’s necessary to get budgets, headcount and projects approved. If you regularly fail to get resources while other managers succeed, your employees will lose respect for you and your best people will want to work for someone else. They’ll get frustrated because it’s hard to get anything done when you work for a manager who has no real influence.

Some people are born with their 1 percent but its something most people can acquire if they work at it. It takes practice, determination, trial and error and some courage. But it’s hard to advance your career without it and life is a lot more fun when you have the strength to get things done.

Good luck developing your 1 percent. But don’t lose your 99 percent along the way. Remember: nobody likes an SOB.

This is part of an occasional series on managing your career. If you have suggestions or comments, I’d love to hear them. You can reach me at ian@mdm.com.

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