How to get ahead in business without really lying

So the big news this week in the technology world is that the CEO of Yahoo has been caught lying on his resume. While many in silicon valley could be found guilty of fibbing a bit on something, the fact that he said he had been to engineering school and had not seems to have incensed people with many calls for his removal.

Let me first say that I would favor his removal for lying. Simply put, there is no wiggle room when someone makes a demonstrably false statement a number of times and evidence that has popped up over the last couple of days has pointed to that being the case. Spoken of more broadly, however, is the question of what lies are.

Who’s lie is it anyways?

Once lesson I learned from the corporate world is that truthful and honest behavior is substantially rarer than one could expect it. I’ve always worked hard to be truthful in my statements, whether they were positive or negative but have been often told that some things are better left unsaid. So if one thinks that an idea is going to fail and can demonstrate how it’s going to fail, that message can only be delivered if the political conditions are right (ie. the messenger is powerful enough to make the comment or is endorsed by people who are and will give him/her coverage). My personal view is that this less-than-forthcoming view of the world is what’s rotting many companies from the inside.

However, what happens when such truths emerge? Are the reason behind something making its way through the public opinion fully clear or are they obscured by other deeper motives. The facts in the Yahoo case seem to point to two different things: it seems pretty clear that Yahoo CEO Scott Thomson is guilty of lying on his resume and in interviews about his background; it also is pretty clear that Dan Loeb, the activist shareholder who first levied the charge, has for a long time looked to get some changes in the way Yahoo is lead so one could argue that his motives are less than pure in exposing this information.

However, the bigger question, and the one that makes this story particularly interesting, is how often does this happen? I’ve encountered tons of resumes over the year that provided not necessarily as big a fib as this but smaller, easily challengeable one. In fact, it seems that over-inflating one’s achievements, whether academic or work-related is that unique talent that is required to get ahead in a number of fields. When working on Wall street, I learned that many people in banking had gotten ahead not on the weight of their deliverables but on their ability to “massage the message.”

A lie is a lie, plain and simple

I’ve often been asked why I still carry my association with, one of the biggest failures of the dotcom crash, as a badge of honor. My answer is generally that I want to ensure that people are aware that I’m not infaillible and that I’ve also learned some very hard lessons from the process. The truth is actually a little deeper in that I would not be able to sleep as well as I do if I lied about who I am and what I’ve done.

The path to success is riddled with errors and mistakes but as one moves up the chain, a lot of one’s previous failures get airbrushed and surgically removed. Look at the short biographies most leaders in today’s business, political, sports, or art world and you generally see the picture of an arrow that moves up and to the left, with no in betweens, no setbacks or mistakes made along the way. The truth, however, tends to be substantially more complex: very few people move forward in a perfect path (and no person I’ve ever met has had a perfect career) but few talk about the mistakes or errors they have made. In a way, these are lies of omission and they are a darn shame as they fail to reveal some more important truths about people.

In a time of crisis, the most salient points of individuals come out and the lies that have been told along the way fall off by the wayside, revealing the true nature of the individual. I use to counsel counterparts of mine in Asia, where to admit to a mistake is to lose face, that errors happen and that admission of error does not make you weaker but stronger. When one is forced to admit a mistake, one must look deeply into his/her soul and find the personal reason that has led them astray.

I’ve always been fond of Esther Dyson’s words on mistakes “always make new mistakes.” Implicit in that permission is a willingness to fess-up to the old ones, analyze them and ensure that they are not repeated. But, by contrast, mistakes that are lied about don’t get fixed and sometimes turn into major crises.

A culture of lying

But in our current culture, lies seem to be increasingly accepted and tossed as “honest mistakes”. When the financial crisis happened, many were surprised by the magnitude of the damage that derivatives could do. However, along the way, many in the banking sector knew that CDOs were not a great deal and that someone would eventually be left picking up the pieces. As long as money was being made, however, bringing the risks up was not considered polite conversation and failing to pretend that everything was OK was seen as an unwillingness to be a team player. So small mistakes that could have easily been prevented became big crisis that took us to the brink and left our whole economy in tatters. Should the lies have been accepted? Should the people who were involved in willfully turning their heads the other way be rewarded or punished? To date, the signal we appear to have sent is that the later is OK.

How would we establish a different way? My view, and the view of my co-founder at Keepskor, is that the best way to deal with this is to create a culture of ownership. When one owns the product and company that produces the product, one has a responsibility to ensuring the longer term prosperity of the enterprise and that means highlighting problems before they become crisis and admitting when a mistake is made.

In today’s corporate world, many employees are so disassociated from the actual impact their work has on the company (they do not see rewards if the company does well nor see punishment if the company fails) that they just look out for their own advancement, sometimes taking risks that are dangerous to the ecosystem and often covering up the negative things that have been done. Until that is resolved, we will see more cases like that of Scott Thomson and unless severe punishment is meted out at all organizational levels in the economy for lying, we will continue to encourage the development of a culture of lying. Maybe our industry, the technology industry, as it is assessing greater power over the economy, can start looking at itself and beginning that transformation. If it does, it will impact the world in an even greater way than it has to date and that would be just amazing.

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