Deep Thinkers Need Not Apply: How To Get Ahead In the Modern Business World

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If you ever fall off the Sears Tower, just go real limp, because maybe you'll look like a dummy and people will try to catch you because, hey, free dummy. — Jack Handey

Jack Handey, author of the popular deep thoughts, would have a tough time making it in today's business world. Why? Because it's not what you think, it's not how good you are, it's ultimately who you know.

I first began to realize that in 1995 when I was an electrical engineering student at the University of Kentucky. I applied for a co-op position at Lexmark, and never heard anything back.

I applied every semester for two years. Still nothing. Then one day an accounting professor or mine gave the class an assignment – go interview someone in your industry.

I found someone at Lexmark to interview about engineering, and we kept in touch after the interview. At the end of the semester he sent me a note saying that their co-op was leaving, and asking if I wanted to co-op in his department. Two years of following the rules got me nowhere. One hour of meeting with a real engineer got me what I wanted. He never asked for my resume. Never asked about GPA. Never asked anything except whether or not I wanted the position. It was my first taste of a major life lesson – it's who you know, not what you know.

Fast forward to my first real job out of college. It didn't take long for me to realize that management's perception of who should be promoted was heavily biased by who they liked. There was one engineer in particular who was highly skilled and detail oriented, but was one of the last to be promoted to the next level. Why? Because he was always working instead of schmoozing. As a result, it was thought that he "didn't have good people skills," when really, he was an excellent communicator, but simply didn't waste time with frivolous talk and schmoozing.

Fast forward to today. I sit in meetings with strangers and say things that are deep and insightful (at least, I think they are), but no one pays attention. A friend of mine in the group says "Rob has a popular business blog…" and suddenly I can say nothing wrong. My ideas are the same, but five minutes earlier, no one cared. Now I'm perceived as popular. Now my ideas matter.

The point of all this is that, in business, you really do get ahead more by being liked rather than by being brilliant. Sure, you need to have some minimum level of competence, but if people like your personality, they will let mild transgressions slide. And deep deep down, they really don't want to work with someone disciplined and demanding, because it might make them look bad. No one likes to be held accountable.

We wonder what is wrong with business today. I will tell you what is wrong. Corporate executive teams are unbalanced. They are heavy on the popular, but light on the deep thinkers.

I'm not saying that the deep thinkers should replace the jovial people-oriented executives. The latter bring a lot to the table, and are an important component of a well balanced team. I'm simply saying that corporate hierarchies should have both, and that my (admittedly limited and anecdotal) evidence is that corporate hierarchies heavily favor schmoozers.

People often ask me what I'm good at or what I love to do. They want me to say "finance" or "marketing," or some business discipline that has nice clean borders. That makes it easier to put me in a box with the others. For a long time I felt lost, because I would recite a long list of things that I enjoyed and felt qualified to do, and it came across to people as "this guy is unfocused." Eventually I figured out what they all have in common, and now I tell people "I'm good at holding complex models of systems in my head, and optimizing them for certain outputs." To me, designing a circuit, teaching a college course, starting a business (I have done all three) all have this trait in common – they are complex systems that need to be understood and manipulated to attain certain goals. By understanding how the parts of a circuit fit together, I can create the voltage I need at the output. By understanding the interaction of variables in a business, I can move them around one way to maximize cash flow, another to maximize market share, or a different way to maximize profit. It depends on what is needed.

I fancy myself a deep thinker, but the truth is that I've gotten ahead primarily by schmoozing.

I guess what I really want to accomplish with this post is two things. First, to those of you who hire regularly, I want to encourage you to look beyond minimum qualifications and how much you like someone as a person, and to probe for deep intuitive thinkers. They can bring a creative problem solving touch to your organization that may otherwise be lacking.

For those of you that are deep thinkers and feel like you sometimes get overlooked, I want to encourage you to suck it up and network as much as you can. The world works a certain way, and it makes no sense to fight the system until you have a position of authority that allows you to make a difference.

Just last night I was on a phone call explaining to someone that I was worn out from "meeting with people." She said that it didn't sound too hard. But she's not an introvert. It's not hard for her. We discussed that for a second, and then I explained that, even though I don't enjoy it, it is something I have to do to be successful.

Ultimately, a business that only promotes one type of person is like a car that without a steering wheel. It's fine as long as there are no curves on the road. Long term success comes from being flexible, and for that, you need a team of people who don't all think and act the same way. Embracing the deep thinkers in your organization is a step in the right direction.

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Comments

  1. Jason's Gravatar Comment by Jason on June 27th, 2007 at 6:48 am

    I’ve worked at two tech companies that had the opposite problem. Lots of deep brilliant thinkers, but couldn’t network their way out of a paper bag. One ended up with a cool product, but weak sales and very little investment money. Needless to say they aren’t around any more.

  2. Chris Posey's Gravatar Comment by Chris Posey on June 27th, 2007 at 7:09 am

    Rob, I agree with you 100%. I recently finished up my MBA at a state university, thinking it would be the key to my career change out of education. Unfortunately, as a former (current?) English teacher, I have no business network, and that has killed me. I do not know a soul at most places I apply, and getting an interview is a nearly impossible feat. The lesson I’ve learned is (to be cliche), it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. (Or more accurately, “whom” you know.)

  3. Richard's Gravatar Comment by Richard on June 27th, 2007 at 7:27 am

    “Corporate executive teams are unbalanced. They are heavy on the popular, but light on the deep thinkers. ”

    Yes corporate execs have deep thinkers, they are called consultants!!

  4. Berislav Lopac's Gravatar Comment by Berislav Lopac on June 27th, 2007 at 8:19 am

    Actually, as someone once said and my experience (as well as the examples in this post) confirms it so far: it’s not whom you know, it’s who knows you.

  5. Jay's Gravatar Comment by Jay on June 27th, 2007 at 8:59 am

    You just partially wrote a post that’s been pending in my head, waiting to be ported from neurons to electrons. What I planned to say about my own peculiarity is close enough to:
    “I’m good at holding complex models of systems in my head, and optimizing them for certain outputs.”

    To be almost uncanny, if less verbose.

  6. laurence haughton's Gravatar Comment by laurence haughton on June 27th, 2007 at 9:22 am

    Rob you write, “Just last night I was on a phone call explaining to someone that I was worn out from meeting with people. She said that it didn’t sound too hard. But she’s not an introvert. It’s not hard for her.” I have met with over 5,000 entrepreneurs and executives and it was hard work. Not because I am an introvert, I’m not. But it was head work because I really listened in every meeting. Listening takes a lot of energy, and if you listen hard enough to hear what’s meant as well as what is said, it’s exhausting.

  7. Mike's Gravatar Comment by Mike on June 27th, 2007 at 10:22 am

    Being a quite recent graduate this strikes me mostly as true. My experience however is that bigger companies are more like this than the smaller ones. I’ve been to two smaller companies and they were both quite though on testing my knowledge. At the big ones I’ve interviewed at (and I’ve skipped working at them) I always felt that the interviews were much more about my “social” skills than my actual engineering knowledge. But it’s not just for jobs, it’s also for projects. I’ve seen the clueless IT manager contracting his friend of a friend company to do something a few times already.

    I hear the “we have very talented/the best people” mostly everywhere and it strikes me that in reality most companies are filled with mediocre people doing something they don’t really care much about. How many people actually love their job? And what drives many management types? My experience tells me the answers are respectively few and money/status/power.

  8. Rob's Gravatar Comment by Rob on June 27th, 2007 at 10:47 am

    Jason,
    Are you in the Valley? I can see that being a problem there.

    Berislav,
    Nice point. If the right person knows you, that goes a long way.

    Laurence,
    I agree. Active listening is tough because our (at least my) natural reaction is always to cut people short and blurt out what I want to say.

  9. jeremy's Gravatar Comment by jeremy on June 27th, 2007 at 11:31 am

    From the Illustrator/Graphic design standpoint this holds true as well. People always want to hire someone they think they can work well with. No matter how great the portfolio, if you are even slightly contrary, you’re kicked to the curb. Everyone in the Graphic design world seems to think they can teach anyone to be a great graphic designer so they rarely look at portfolios.

    However, if you’re a freelance graphic designer, then you have nothing but your portfolio, and your previous clients to lure jobs in with. I haven’t yet, but I’d like to do a study and see how many potential clients breeze through my artwork and go straight to the previous clients page. That’d be something.

  10. BossX's Gravatar Comment by BossX on June 27th, 2007 at 12:05 pm

    Your article is very true – people also make more deals with people they like – and sales is really about selling yourself, not the product.

  11. Penguin Pete's Gravatar Comment by Penguin Pete on June 27th, 2007 at 12:41 pm

    Whoa! A business blog with something real to say! I’m a cerebral geek, and I got something out of that.

    That being said, there’s a third option: quit office politics for good. Work from home as a freelancer. Deal only with clients, only through the computer, so that people skills barely matter at all.

    By the way, I have a popular computer blog… (-:

  12. John's Gravatar Comment by John on June 27th, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    “there’s a third option: quit office politics for good. Work from home as a freelancer. Deal only with clients, only through the computer, so that people skills barely matter at all. ”

    Definitely, if you want to remain a 3rd rate freelancer.

    As a business owner I hire a lot of freelancers, and most important, more than their technical skillset, is their ability to communicate honestly and credibly.

  13. Alex Tolley's Gravatar Comment by Alex Tolley on June 27th, 2007 at 7:18 pm

    I’ve workd in organizations with deep thinker CEOs and people CEOs. The former are far better. The problem with people CEOs is that they fall into the same trap of surrounding themselves with similar people. Since none of the CEO clique actually thinks well, they steer the business badly, making all sorts of poor decisions. Ironically, whilst the business fails, their people skills get them rehired elsewhere, to repeat the same mistakes, so this strategy works well for the individual, but not for the group (the employees of the business).

  14. Lord's Gravatar Comment by Lord on June 27th, 2007 at 7:35 pm

    The irony is these are the first to say they can’t find anyone because they haven’t met anyone that have the skills they need. Then, when they really need someone, they then dictate every last skill they want rather than looking for someone with enough intelligence to learn what is necessary.

  15. Terry's Gravatar Comment by Terry on June 27th, 2007 at 7:40 pm

    I hear you. There is usually a power thread in a company and it includes lots of schmoozing. I’ve see some wicked E-mails amongst schmoozers…it’s like an old boys club. And yer not invited.

  16. Roger's Gravatar Comment by Roger on June 27th, 2007 at 8:12 pm

    Rob, interesting and provactive post. I agree with many if not most of the points with one notable exception: Wall Street and investing. People are principally focused on one thing: money. How do you make lots of money? By hiring the best. The might be shitheads, and frequently they are. But if they can make you a ton of money, either because they are great at getting client-driven deals or are excellent investors, you hire them. The rules on Wall Street are different because while politics are at play (of course), greed is the overwhelming motivator which tends, in general, to lead to more rational decisions on the HR front. At least in my own experience. But this is clearly an artifact of the linkage between production and compensation; this relationship is less clear in most other industries, leading to the disconnect between the mantra of “hiring the best” and what you ultimately settle for. Thanks for raising such an interesting and important topic.

  17. Roger's Gravatar Comment by Roger on June 27th, 2007 at 8:13 pm

    Rob, interesting and provactive post. I agree with many if not most of the points with one notable exception: Wall Street and investing. People are principally focused on one thing: money. How do you make lots of money? By hiring the best. They might be shitheads, and frequently they are. But if they can make you a ton of money, either because they are great at getting client-driven deals or are excellent investors, you hire them. The rules on Wall Street are different because while politics are at play (of course), greed is the overwhelming motivator which tends, in general, to lead to more rational decisions on the HR front. At least in my own experience. But this is clearly an artifact of the linkage between production and compensation; this relationship is less clear in most other industries, leading to the disconnect between the mantra of “hiring the best” and what you ultimately settle for. Thanks for raising such an interesting and important topic.

  18. Dave's Gravatar Comment by Dave on June 27th, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    Actually, my experience is that those who tend to be more talkative and friendly also tend to be more creative. I also know people who have good ideas, and are able to communicate them to me, as their friend–but stay quiet in meetings because they don’t want to stir the pot. Creativity, communication skills, and WILLINGNESS to communicate are all essential.

    It’s not necessary to be an ass-kisser to get ahead. Everybody recognizes it and my experience is that it never works. Be real. Be honest. Think. Communicate. That’s how you get noticed. That’s how you make contacts. That’s how you make friends. That’s how you get ahead.

  19. the baldchemist's Gravatar Comment by the baldchemist on June 27th, 2007 at 10:32 pm

    I reckon you guys watch Trump’s “Apprentice “too much. People who make decisions about who to hire would never hire anyone who did not have a contribution to make.
    How difficult is it to tell people
    what you do in two visceral sentences? Hers mine for what its worth- “I arrest the human intelligence long enough to, with magical design,pictorial narrative, words of grace and beauty showcase the essence and aspirations of your company” Works every time – just leave your card and walk politely away. Just wait for the call.
    the baldchemist.

  20. glardo's Gravatar Comment by glardo on June 27th, 2007 at 11:33 pm

    A Unisys employee long in the tooth taught me the unforgettable American Haiku:

    “It’s who you know and
    who you blow:
    Shit always rolls
    downhill.”

  21. glardo's Gravatar Comment by glardo on June 27th, 2007 at 11:35 pm

    A Unisys employee long in the tooth taught me an unforgettable American Haiku:

    “It’s who you know and
    who you blow:
    Sh** always rolls
    downhill.”

  22. Colin's Gravatar Comment by Colin on June 28th, 2007 at 3:47 am

    Well you see. Deep thinking and thinkers give you an understanding of a problem.

    Understanding the problem gives you a strategy for solving it. The tactical stuff falls automatically from the strategy.

    The shallow thinkers are all tactical, they always have plenty of “off pat” answers but they never really bother to understand the problem so have no coherent strategy to solve what’s really going on.

    The result is short termism. The next quarter or the next year. Then they’re all out of ideas and eventually products.

    btw, Pretty much all of our politicians are shallow thinkers.

  23. Jay's Gravatar Comment by Jay on June 28th, 2007 at 7:32 am

    Terrific insight. I couldn’t agree more.

  24. Miklos Hollender's Gravatar Comment by Miklos Hollender on June 28th, 2007 at 8:03 am

    Rob,

    I just can’t agree with you because you are overlooking an important question: why do you assume that deep thinkers WANT to “go ahead”? Maybe you want but most of us don’t because we feel success or money quite pointless. I mean the only important things to buy are books and they aren’t that expensive. In fact I’m deliberately behaving even more in the “morose, distant geek” way than I’m actually because that way I can be left alone and bothered less. What’s the use in becoming successful? It’s just a waste of capacity on worthless things. I’m perfectly happy being a plain programmer until pension. Why the heck would I want to go upwards? That would mean taking responsibility for somebody else’s work. But as I don’t often see people who are up to my quality standards I don’t want to manage them. Of couse it’s questionable whether one can actually hold plain programming jobs indefinitely, or it’s more like “up or out”. I think one can, because the thing is, shit happens. And managers know shit happens. And they always want to have somebody around, who they know can fix even the worst kind of shit. So I think the role of morose, distant geek is sustainable practically indefinitely if you are good at what you do.

  25. Brennan Ryan's Gravatar Comment by Brennan Ryan on June 29th, 2007 at 11:48 pm

    People like to buy from people they know!

    Great read, thanks

    Bren

  26. John W. McKenna's Gravatar Comment by John W. McKenna on July 7th, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    Rob,
    You hit a real nerve with this one. I have to agree with you. I just got back from a conference in Orlando and to be honest, I would rather work a month in a desert clinic than a week at a conference. Working the room is easily the most difficult thing I have to do but like you, more often than not, working the room is were the rubber meets the road. By the way, I much prefer your longer format posts. I guess that’s because I appreciate a thinking (wo)man’s post over twitter-sized servings.
    Take care…
    JWM

  27. Bryan's Gravatar Comment by Bryan on February 7th, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    What a flashback into my own lessons in business. Thanks for sharing!

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