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Harnessing Workplace Horsepower


How to position superior performance as an asset, not a threat.

In my last dispatch, I challenged Minyanites to separate the thoroughbreds from the plow horses in their organizations. Unfortunately, such segregation is already under way - but not for the right reasons. As an executive coach and organization development specialist, I see too many thoroughbreds being put out to pasture or sent to the glue factory while plow horses continue to fill mission-critical positions and pack away hefty compensation packages.

My challenge should be more accurately stated: "Showing organizational preference to the thoroughbreds when cutting the herd." It appears daffy at first blush to drive the movers, shakers and power makers out of an organization in favor of desk jockeys who neither move, shake, nor generate any power. But the reason for this phenomenon is just as looney. Thoroughbreds are sacrificed to preserve the comfort zones of the plow horses, thus preserving the placid, bucolic environment senior executives (senior executives, that is, who have too much time on their hands to sabotage thoroughbreds) prefer on the executive floors and C-wings.

True to their Minyanite core values, my challenge immediately returned to me from the thoroughbreds wanting to know how they can fight back, swim against the current, defy the odds and generally reverse the trend. Take heart. There's good news: Thoroughbreds have what it takes to beat the plow horses at their own game.

If the game was a 9.5 furlong sprint to the finish line at the Preakness, the outcome would be a no-brainer. But the game is more cagy than that. Thoroughbreds need to harness their sheer horsepower in favor of more horse sense. The way to get you and your agenda promoted over your plodding colleagues is to become the boss's thoroughbred.

Study the Big Kahuna's habits and preferences in food, wine, sports, ballet, theater, hot cars or whatever. What magazines does the big boss subscribe to? How is the big office decorated? That tells you which language, vocabulary and metaphors will resonate with the Big One. Then you study his or her business philosophy and vision for the company and go on a campaign to become the champion for that vision.

Don't blow your own boss out of the way in the process, but if you're a Ford (F) employee, study Chief Executive Allan Mulally. At eBay (EBAY), study Meg Whitman. At Procter & Gamble (PG), put Alan G. Lafley under the microscope. At Ogilvy & Mather, Shelly Lazarus. At Costco (COST), study James Sinegal. At Xerox (XRX) do your research on Anne Mulcahy. At the end of the day, it's their will, not yours, that will be done.

Make sure that your proposals and daily, weekly and quarterly activities are considered in alignment with the agenda as it's handed down from up high. When someone inquires how you know so much about C-suite philosophies, credit your boss with "keeping you in the loop."

As corny and contrived as all this seems, the point is to have your superior horsepower seen as an asset to the corporate agenda rather than a threat to the comfort zones of your less zealous colleagues. Keep your thoroughbred status from being marginalized or even outsized by keeping your horsepower between the company's navigational beacons as the most senior management calibrates them.

You might consider yourself a thoroughbred thundering across the 10 furlongs at the Kentucky Derby, but if the chatter in executive circles portrays you more as a bull in a china shop, you'll face extinction. When you align your mind and muscle with the corporate vision and your boss's comfort zone, you will be fed and watered and protected and pampered like an endangered species. Most of all, you'll be allowed to run.
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