How to Get Ahead In Business

By: MikeJan 7, 2016

Some Necessary Background

Long long ago, in a city not too far away, I was a cog in the corporate wheels. I worked for various government agencies, usually through the auspices of third-party contractors. However, unlike many corportate drones, I have a bad habit of noticing things. I can't help it, it's how I'm wired.

I've noticed things all my life. Growing up in the dark, remote forests of Montana, it pays to notice things. Things like the car being nearly out of gas before driving into a blizzard, or that there's a mama bear in the backyard, for example. People who don't notice things tend to encounter what my mother termed "tribulations" —other people call it freezing to death or getting mauled by a bear. Not wanting tribulations, I got pretty observant.

But corporate culture is stranger than Alice's wonderland. One of my first jobs said they didn't really care what schedule you worked, as long as you worked at least eight hours. I decided 6:00 am to 2:00 without a lunch was a dandy schedule, which left me a little time to enjoy the afternoon. Turns out the boss left at 5:00 every night, and assumed that anyone not still working was a slacker. I learned two things. He who leaves before the boss is soon to be unemployed, and never trust your boss.

Later I took a job in a secure computer facility. There were lots of elaborate security protocols. Fancy locks, electronic logs, all the trimmings of a good Hollywood cyber-espionage flick. They repeatedly stated that if any employee could find a security vulnerability they would offer a pay-bonus. Now, as hackers go, I'm about a three out of ten; just a little past script-kiddie first class. However, beneath the window dressing, this company had terrible security (which was sad, because they had a lot of sensitive data). So, I started filling out security vulnerability forms, documenting dozens of flaws, holes, and gaps in their coverage. I ended up getting summoned to a meeting with the high-muckitys, who were skeptical of several of the vulnerabilites I had highlighted. Thinking it would be illustrative, I hacked into a secure server to prove my point. Sitting there, with a root prompt quietly blinking on my laptop, I suddenly realized I had made a terrible mistake.

Not only do bosses lie about workplace rules, companies dedicate whole departments to things like ethics and security, when in fact they don't really value those things. They just want to be seen to value them. Also, pointing out that the emperor has no clothes will get you fired, and truth is no defense at all.

So eventually I learned to play along. Pretend-clap politely when the golden-boy in web development gets another giant reward for some bug-ridden javascript app. Attend your annual sexual harassment training (hey, that's what they called it!), and get yelled at for being male. Go to diversity training to learn about your evil white privilege. Return to the overwhelmingly white, male work floor scratching your head. Listen to bosses talk passionately about the ethical use of the corporate internet, apparently not realizing that the sysops have all seen their server logs. Don't say anything. Never say anything. In fact, it doesn't pay to think too much.

I made mistakes, but I seldom repeated a mistake. My salary went up, my job titles improved, and I even got to add cool initials after my name. Like I said, I notice things. And now I would like to share what I've learned.

A Summary of Findings

A quick glance at the career management section of any bookstore will show there are a lot of people charging good money for career advice. Hundreds of pages devoted to being a proper toady and achieving total buzzword compliance. As a hint, saying "Can we leverage our intangibles to achieve synergistic growth while exploiting hyper-local analytics to fully enable granular marketing?" doesn't really impress anybody over the age of ten. Honest. Those books are balderdash.

For years, I watched senior executives, looking for common factors. Every scientist knows that identifying variables with high covariation is the first step to establishing causality. What traits do senior executives share with one another, but not with middle-management or lowly employees? Everyone assumes it's intelligence. Obviously those dark-suited figures are smarter than everyone else, which is why they make the big bucks, right? Sadly, I ended up in a position where I routinely attended meetings with these folks, and I can assure you that their intelligence is generally underwhelming. Yeah, I was pretty disillusioned by that finding, too.

My next thought was education. And there's a correlation there. I mean, a lot of very rich people have ivy-league degrees. However, it's an incomplete correlation. Maybe half of the high-muckity's have ivy-league creds, but there's also a lot of ivy-league paper floating around the working-grunt cubicles. Still, if you've got the money to add a Harvard Business degree to your portfolio, it's not going to hurt your odds of success any. If I were a betting man, I'd say that ivy-league contacts are probably a better predictor of success than anything you get from the classroom, but I don't have the data to back that up, and as you'll soon see, it doesn't really matter.

There's something that's far more strongly correlated with success than ivy-league credentials, and it's easier to obtain: a great haircut. That's it, the great unifying commonality that virtually every senior executive shares. Great hair. They can be as dumb as a post, eat with their fingers, and have an associates degree from a school whose entire campus is a post-office box, but they all have great hair. Even the nearly-bald executives have a handful of perfectly-groomed hairs that never vary in length by more than a few micrometers.

I remember, years ago, all of the technology staff were invited to an 'all hands' meeting with the chief information officer of our giant multinational corporation. She would dispense words of wisdom from on high, and all of the high-priests of the server rooms were to be in attendance. The meeting was in a huge conference center. People had flown from all over the country, and the drinks and gossip flowed freely for hours before the big event. Finally the CIO ascended the podium. She was a beautiful woman, and could easily have been a Miss-America contestant from a prior decade. But her hair— her hair was spectacular. An elaborate coiffure of shining tresses that framed her face in a veritable proscenium of architectural impeccability. The summa perfectionis of the hairdresser's art. . .

And then she spoke, and it became inescapably obvious that she knew absolutely nothing about information technology or cyber-security, and that lack hadn't hampered her career in the slightest.

Concluding Thoughts

Great hair completely obviates the need for education, intelligence, or even a good golf game. It is the sine qua non of success in business. And that, dear reader, is a simple truth more valuable than all the buzzwords and mail-order MBA's ever printed.

Oh, and here's one additional thought. All the time I was enmeshed in the machinations of corporate America I was warned about workplace romance, particularly between boss and subordinate. This, I was assured, was of the devil, a wickedness that would draw the very fates to oversee one's downfall and destruction. For the past eight years or so, I have been married to my boss. She's the author, I write the web page. She's the horse-mistress, I build the fences. I am romantically involved with my boss. All doomsaying to the contrary, we've never been happier. As Jaimie and Adam would say, "Myth Busted!".

Now, get out there, get those follicles stimulated and your hair styled to perfection. And don't forget to bring some flowers for your boss. You can thank me later!