Risk and Reward

Successful career management is largely about properly balancing risks and potential rewards.

The clever, upwardly-mobile manager attempts to limit her exposure to high risk  projects (or other responsibilities), and make sure those projects accepted with moderate risk at least have a large potential reward.  Successfully doing this requires being able to accurately assess the long-term riskiness of any project up front, and the ability to actually influence where those undesirable projects are ultimately assigned.

Politicians of the "power-player" persuasion (see my article on Power and Politics in the Corporationtake this lesson a step further -- they actively seek ways to thrust risk onto other shoulders, while still keeping all (or at least a substantial portion) of any reward for themselves.  They do this through two techniques I'll call "avoidance" and "scapegoating."

Avoidance is similar to the basic technique of the clever manager, but takes it one step further.  When a risky responsibility comes up, the clever manager hopes for an opportunity to refuse acceptance.  The avoider actually acts proactively to oppose the project, betting that the person in charge is unlikely to hand it to someone who already thinks it will fail.   This also puts the avoider in a position to take "credit" if the project does ultimately go down the tubes or significantly under performs.

In one example I recall well, the corporate "hot potato" project was consistently handed to other executives, and not the most "logical" choice because he loudly proclaimed his doubts about the sensibility and workability of the entire undertaking.  This allowed him to successfully avoid this particular high risk project for many years.  Of course, he ran the risk of being labeled a "negaholic," because of his public opposition, and that designation was tossed his way on occasion.  But in the process he did manage to avoid a project that took more than one executive's career down with it.  Sure there was a cost, but it was far less than the terminations some of the supporters were faced with. 

Scapegoating is actually more insidious, but also more effective than avoiding.  The Scapegoater makes sure there is always a "sacrificial lamb" between any high risk project and himself.  If the project begins to flounder, the scapegoater can offer up the "lamb" to take responsibility for the failure -- usually an involuntary act on the "lamb's" part, of course.  In the worst projects, there may be a series of "lambs" that are slaughtered as the project continues to perform poorly, with the skillful scapegoater carefully maneuvering each into position as a buffer between himself and the growing disaster. 

Scapegoating avoids the negative labeling of avoiding, but it does require that at some point, a person be assigned to the project that can actually fix it.  Either that, or there is a price to pay when the disaster is ultimately written off -- often blame for not having realized the situation was untenable far earlier in the process.

One master scapegoater I worked with assigned no fewer than five executives to a disaster acquisition he made, each of whom was ultimately fired when they couldn't do the impossible and turn a rotten business into a success.  Eventually, the acquisition shrank to the point where it could be folded into a larger business unit, and it effectively became invisible.  I'm sure it continues to under perform even to this day, just not in such an obvious venue. 

Learning to balance risk and reward, and manipulate events to control one's position along the spectrum, is key to successful career management.  Masters in this subject become experts at diverting undesirable projects, and avoiding blame for failures.  Making deliberate decisions here is critical to long term success, or in some cases, just to basic career survival.  18.4

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If you are intrigued by the ideas presented in my blog posts, check out some of my other writing.  

Novels: LEVERAGEINCENTIVIZEDELIVERABLES and now HEIR APPARENT (published 3/2/2013) -- note, the Kindle version of DELIVERABLES (a prequel to HEIR APPARENT) is on sale for $2.99, as are various eVersions of LEVERAGE.

 Joel Smith returns to solving corporate crimes in this murder mystery, after uncovering the motives behind the corporate spies in "Deliverables."

Joel Smith returns to solving corporate crimes in this murder mystery, after uncovering the motives behind the corporate spies in "Deliverables."

To the right is the cover for HEIR APPARENT.   In this tale, someone is killing corporate leaders in Kansas City.  But whom?  The police and FBI pursue a "serial killer" theory, leaving Joel Smith and Evangelina Sikes to examine other motives.  As the pair zero in on the perpetrator, they put their own lives at risk.  There are multiple suspects and enough clues for the reader to identify the killer in this classic whodunnit set in a corporate crucible.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.