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


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.

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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.