The Courage to Rise Above
To achieve greatness, you have to make some people mad.
(Business 2.0) – A lot of my Stanford MBA students seem to want, above all, to be liked by their peers. They avoid arguing too vigorously with one another in class and tell me their goal is to build a network of supportive friends. They seem convinced that they'll have great careers if only they can develop reputations for getting along. In a class called "The Paths to Power," I try to disabuse them of that simplistic notion. And one way I do it is by introducing them to Keith Ferrazzi.
Currently running his own consulting firm, Ferrazzi earned his MBA at Harvard in 1992 and quickly became a star at Deloitte Consulting. Starwood Hotels hired him as its chief marketing officer at age 32, reportedly making him the youngest CMO in the Fortune 500. In 2000 he became CEO of YaYa, a marketing and entertainment company, where he more than doubled revenue each year--even during the dotcom implosion. He sold the company to American Vantage in 2003.
Ferrazzi makes no attempt to hide his ambitions, and advises others to be equally forthright. When I invited him to speak to my class, he audaciously asked that I make his new book required reading. (He now denies doing this.) Then, in a talk sprinkled with expletives, he encouraged students to sort the people they knew into A, B, and C lists based on relevance to their career goals--and to spend more time with the As. With regard to their future jobs, Ferrazzi advised them to focus on activities they do well and stop worrying about being so well-rounded. Although he had promised to stay for two classes, he left halfway through the second to have lunch with a client.
My students are usually put off by Ferrazzi at first, but they eventually see how an overwhelming drive not to offend can hamper a career. Take what Ferrazzi did when he graduated from Harvard. With offers from both Deloitte and McKinsey, he accepted the Deloitte job on one condition: that he could dine with the firm's CEO, Pat Loconto, three times a year. Deloitte agreed, and Loconto became a valuable mentor. By the time he left for Starwood, Ferrazzi sat on Deloitte's executive committee and had been nominated for partner. When asked how he dared to make a request that might threaten peers and shock his future boss, Ferrazzi says, "It gave me visibility and a leg up on my competitors." With all the talk about teamwork so in vogue in business education, he reminds us that colleagues aren't always on our side.
Those early days in Ferrazzi's career--before he had the power that comes with fancy titles--illustrate the advantages of being willing to make waves. Though he joined Deloitte as an entry-level consultant, Ferrazzi behaved like a senior partner from the get-go. Rather than spending all his time on detailed analysis--the bane of most junior consultants--he drummed up new business. He founded the Lincoln Award for Business Excellence (modeled on the Baldrige Award) in Illinois, making himself president and persuading top Chicago CEOs to serve as judges and board members. Few people can summon that kind of courage so early in their careers, but actions like those put Ferrazzi in a position to be appointed partner, even though, by his own admission, he was not the world's best nuts-and-bolts consultant.
Of course, some people might say that if you anger enough people on the way up, they'll eventually take you down. Maybe, but it's also true that people like to associate with winners. When Ferrazzi first joined Deloitte, he would make a big deal at cocktail parties about what he had done and what he wanted to do. Fellow new hires were put off, but most of them eventually came to like him--or at least to understand that it was in their best interests to be on his A-list.
Many of us achieve modest success by being a standout in, but remaining one of, the crowd. Going beyond that means dealing with the inevitable consequence that some people will dislike you. Perhaps Steve Spurrier, the former Florida football coach who compiled a 122-27-1 record and won a national championship, puts it best. "If people like you too much," he says, "it's probably because they're beating you."
Business 2.0 columnist Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business.