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Leadership Moments

Want to Get Ahead? Focus on Business Impact, Rather than On Office Politics

December 18, 2019

Jim Buckley’s experience includes roles as president of Apple’s $7 billion Americas business and head of Spencer Stuart’s global technology practice. He is also a colleague of mine at Merryck & Co. In our conversation, he shared some of the most common themes that arise in his mentoring work with senior executives.

Q. In your work advising senior executives, what are the themes that come up most often?

A. One consistent theme is that executives are often concerned about what they need to do to get the next promotion, whether that’s a CEO role or a senior management role. They want answers for that. And that’s one of the tougher things to mentor them on because the way you get to those senior levels is to execute effectively on what you’re doing now.

So I try to get people to stop thinking about the political relationships – who they need to impress and score points with to get to the next level – and think instead about what they can do to help the business. How can you grow the business, improve the business, improve its profitability, manage the people more effectively? You move forward by developing great people who execute well, and those people will carry you to where you want to go next in your career.

Q. One CEO I interviewed said that he felt people typically managed in one direction well – either up, to their bosses, or down, with the people who report to them.

A. People find their comfort level where they believe they’re adding value. It can be either that they think they’re making an impact by spending most of their time managing up and hoping it’s noticed as opposed to managing the people who are responsible for the business metrics and getting them to perform. I believe that the second approach is more important.

Every environment does have a certain amount of politics, but I would say that the time spent playing politics needs to be tempered. It becomes obvious when people spend too much time trying to do that.

Q. Other themes?

A. Two that seem to trouble everyone are time management and prioritization. In this 24-hour work cycle we live in, there’s no time off, and I find people struggle with managing their time and how much time to spend on different priorities.

I see managers who think that because we have instant connectivity, it’s okay for them to be texting and emailing people in the middle of the night, and then almost feel neglected when people don’t respond to them right away. There are always going to be crises and things that require instant responses, but this constant interrogation and constant questioning of what’s going on in the business can be dangerous.

“You have to build a fence around the job.”

When I first joined Apple in 1985, a guy I worked with told me, “At this place, you could work seven days a week, 24 hours a day. But you have to build a fence around the job. You have to say this is when I’m going to work and this is when I’m going to stop working and try to live to that.”

I see too many executives who knock down the fence and they want to prove themselves and work all the time. It’s not healthy for their business, it’s not healthy for their personal relationships and their family, and in some cases, it’s not healthy for their customers and clients.

The second thing is time management and prioritization. Many senior leaders have a tough time figuring out where they need to spend their time and who they need to spend time with. As a result, they over-schedule, they cancel, they’re constantly running late, they’re constantly pushing people off who they really need to meet because they’ve overbooked.

I tell executives that you need to take time for yourself to think, as well. It’s okay to put an hour on your schedule to think about the strategy and what’s next. It’s also okay to say no to those activities that just aren’t going to impact the business in the short-term or in the long run. That helps empower people. If they can’t see you and ask you for your opinion on every issue, it gives them a chance to come up with their own direction and decisions.

I used to try to empower people by telling them that they could do anything they needed to do to help the business and I would back them. My only requirement was that whatever they did had to meet three criteria. It had to be professional, it had to be ethical and it had to be profitable – not on Day 1 necessarily, but over time it needed to be profitable.

Frankly, that mitigated the need for us to meet quite as much. About 10 or 15 years later, I was in O’Hare airport, and I ran into a guy who had worked for me way back when, and he came up to me and he said, “Professional, ethical and profitable. Got it.”

Q. In all your different roles, you’ve had a window into different corporate cultures. What are the patterns you’ve seen?

A. The main one I’ve noticed is that the companies that succeed best are the ones who are acting on behalf of their customers — they’re building strategies that will impact their customers’ businesses or meet their customers’ requirements, and they’re thinking one, two or three products out.

The companies that struggle with culture are the ones that absolutely believe they know what the customer wants. The problem, of course, is that when the customers’ needs and requirements change, these guys are left holding the ball. That “we know better than you” culture generally fails over the long-term. The most cancerous environments I’ve seen are those companies that really disregard what the market’s saying to them.

Q. What were early influences for you personally?

A. I grew up in New York City and my father was a cop for over 30 years in New York. We were a middle-class family, with six kids. I went to college in New Rochelle, New York, and I stayed there because at the time, my father was in very bad health and I needed to be home to help my mother.

When I was in college, I had three interesting jobs. I drove a school bus before and after class. I delivered food on Friday and Saturday nights, and on the other nights, I worked in a funeral home. I wouldn’t say that my college experience was like life at a big state university and going to football games on Saturday. But those jobs and that time of my life helped prepared me for my career.

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