General James Jones, Obama's national security advisor, seems to think so. But will this approach work for your career?
In an interview with the New York Times, Jones presents his case, arguing that low profile does not necessarily mean low impact.
“You can be a leader that takes charge of every meeting and takes charge of every issue and rides it to its conclusion and plays a very, very dominant role,” he said. “For me, that has the effect of muting voices that should be heard.”
There's no question that the best creative decision making comes from a team of experts. Contrary to conventional wisdom, innovation is not necessarily a personal gift. It's a contact sport, and so Jones' use of his team is spot-on.
What's not clear from the interview is the backstory. However, I'm quite certain that you don't get to be a four-star Marine general without knowing how to work the system, make significant contributions to the Corps, get buy-in to your ideas and become an expert at managing up. The Marines are just as political as the White House or any American corporation, but they believe in team-building and--almost uniquely--practice it. Richard Holbrooke, now working with Mrs. Clinton at the State Department, confirmed my suspicions about Jones' team-building and said that Jones had produced "a sophisticated, multilayer decision structure at the National Security Council that did not exist before."
I assume Holbrooke means Jones has an extensive network of smart colleagues, regularly interacts with them, creates and makes the necessary policy adaptations to gain his team's long-term support. As a result of his "teeing up" activities, you can be certain he's got an impeccable knowledge of all the issues, able to assess both the competency and policy insights of his team members to determine their real value. The reports on Jones’ style indicate that he’s not afraid to delegate, and does an exceptional job of it. With that base of support, speaking up is not as necessary, especially with a president as highly deliberative as Obama who likes to ask the questions.
Well, can you fly below the radar and still be successful?
I doubt it.
Jones comes to his position with a great reputation already in place. He has had long and obviously successful experience with teams, making it possible for him to bring ideas that are already vetted to his president.
Contrast that rich background to your own and to corporate America. In the early years of your business career you’ll be devoting the majority of time to your basic business expertise, finance, marketing, technology or whatever. At the same time you’ll be figuring out your role, how to work with different and sometimes difficult people more effectively, building a network of intelligent colleagues and developing the street smarts to manage the whole system.
On top of all that you’ll need to develop an image as an able and competent thinker and strategist. Of course, to build that reputaiton you’ll need to demonstrate that you deliver well and meet job expectations. But image is also tied to your ability to make important contributions to the thinking and deliberating of managers and execs, and that can only be demonstrated by speaking up. For millennia we’ve known that your image is the strongest persuasive tool you have. The enduring value of this information is that we know that our image is created through communication with important managers and their teams. The content or substance of your informal/formal messages, the justifications you provide for your recommendations and the values you espouse all affect your image or reputation. Whenever you find yourself in a new setting, you will have to re-create and re-mold this image. It will be built on your “upward voice,” and you can’t do that below the radar. Especially in the early years of your career, it’s a fact that in American corporations you’re going to have to speak up, gain a hearing and have impact if you want to be successful.
That’s a lotta stuff for the first few years of your career.
But image management has shown itself to be a continual task in the global economy. I’ve been surprised at how often executives as high as EVP in major corporations have asked for my coaching in this matter. Curiously, all the eight or ten execs that were specific in their requests for help in image management wanted to be seen by their managers as a “strategic” executive. Lack of that reputation was holding back their future and they understood the importance of their upward voice.
So, can you succeed in business below the radar screen?
In the first four to six years of your career? Absolutely not. In the rest of your career? Maybe. General Jones is a very unusual animal and the success of his model has not yet been proven. He will not be a useful model for 99% of us business professionals.
So, what has been your experience with this issue? And how have you resolved it?