It's kind of icky, but I know--as you know--that kissing up works. Only the very naive think that talent and hard work propel people to the top of the heap. Look around you: Are those partners sitting in those big offices or the senior execs in your company really the brightest lights in the neighborhood?
The answer is obvious, but everyone needs reminding about the efficacy of brown-nosing. The legal profession, with its obsession with grades and unreadable law review articles, loves spewing that "cream naturally rises to the top" nonsense. Don't believe it.
Yes, sucking up builds careers, especially if you're just passably smart, as most of us are. But the big question is how to do it well.
Thanks to two business school professors--Ithai Stern of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and James Westphal of the University of Michigan--we now have some guidance. For the last few years, they've been studying how executives gained coveted seats on corporate boards. And guess what: Brown-nosing got them there! (Their 2008 study, which surveyed 350 companies and over 1,000 managers, concluded "that ingratiating behavior was the strongest single predictive factor for obtaining board appointments.")
The Kellogg School came out with a synopsis ("Corporate Sweet Talk") of Stern and Westphal's latest findings on the subject, which include pointers for effective brown-nosing:
1. Pretend you're seeking advice. Example: “How were you able to close that deal so successfully?” Mentoring is very in--so let that incoherent partner think that he can actually teach you something.
2. Argue a bit with the kissee about his opinion or approach. Do not agree immediately. But, needless to say, ultimately agree. Remember, lawyers love a good argument--especially if they think they've won.
3. Tell the kissee's friends or family how much you adore/admire her. Just pray that word ultimately gets back to the kissee--otherwise, you've wasted a lot of time.
4. Flatter the kissee by pretending that you're actually a reluctant flatterer. Example: “I don’t want to embarrass you, but your presentation was really top-notch. Better than most I’ve seen.”
5. Agree with the kissee’s values before agreeing with her opinions. The goal is to convey how you both share the same big picture--that vision thing.
6. Tell people in the kissee’s social network that you really share those values. Again, you are counting on word getting back to the kissee that you are kindred spirits.
7. Finally, hint that you are part of the same circle, such as a religious organization or political party.
Interestingly, the research puts lawyers in the league of sophisticated brown-nosers, like politicians and salespeople. These professions, Stern says, "routinely take part in flattery and opinion conformity to complete their jobs, similar to those operating in an upper-class social environment. Ingratiatory behavior is a form of interpersonal communication that is acceptable and expected in both arenas.”
The lessons aren't complicated: As a junior lawyer who needs to advance to the next level, focus on kissing up to the people immediately above you. But to get ahead in the long haul, you'll need to kiss up well beyond your circle; so get a head start and start brown-nosing clients and management committee members now. Do it early and do it often.
Pucker up now.
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