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Corner Office vs. The Last Cubicle on the Left

I have written previously on my Five Rules for Survival in the Workplace, along with an adaptation of the Fourteen (and a few extra) Marine Corps Leadership Qualities for the office.

I would like to share now a short series of insights that don’t guarantee anything except solace in an age of shrinking opportunities. And it’s a reality check.

Famous faces and corporate conquerors all have certain leadership qualities that they are encouraged to share, either on the speaking circuit or in book form. Some of it is true, much of it is an exercise in ego, and all of it is unoriginal.

For the vast majority of us “salt-miners,” those key qualities to someone else’s vaunted accomplishments are interesting reading but never a guarantee of our future success.

There are exceptions to this. If you want a quick read on business leadership, I offer two timely and educational books: “Tighten the Lug Nuts” by Rocky Romanella, career UPSer and former CEO of a global communication company, and “Fortitude” by Congressman Dan Crenshaw, retired US Navy SEAL. Both are enlightening and memorable.

Here's the point of this series:

The corner office vs. the last cubicle on the left.

Anyone with a scintilla of ambition would love the corner office, headaches and all, for the paycheck. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Only Ivy League grads with trust funds can afford to try to save the world. The rest of the unwashed masses work for money. The perception is that the higher you go up the ladder, the amount of work is inversely lower. Not true, of course.

Have you ever witnessed two or three well-meaning individuals laugh too loud at the boss’s lame jokes? Or fight over who brings him coffee? Sad, but amusing. What is even sadder is that the boss is actually striving for your approval, to appear like a regular guy or gal. It is painful to observe and not fully appreciated. Remember also that the person in the corner office is working hard to keep what he or she has intact, with an eye on the next rung of the ladder.

Face it: the numbers don’t lie. Only one in a million will get the corner office, and as each year goes by that gap will widen, for two reasons.

On day one, after you find out where the restroom is, you are either going up, or out, or you just keep breaking rocks. Let’s assume you want more, whether you call it responsibility or challenges, though it comes down to more money for more meaningful work.

A thumbnail look at the terrain tells you there are at least ten people who want the next rung on the ladder. You are competing with the dude who has been there 5 years, or the doctoral candidate, or the boss’s golf buddy’s neighbor, or the HR acronym requirement. Any way you look at it, you have to be the best of the ten to get the next promotion. To get the job after that? Well, the best of THAT ten, or one in a hundred. And to get the job after that?

You get the picture. To rise six levels is a one-in-a-million shot at best.

The second reason for the widening promotion gap is that leadership tasks of oversight, communication, and planning are being replaced by smoother analytics and a greater capacity to organize salient information. Machines, heck, one excel spreadsheet, can do much more of this quaint notion of “management.” Now that we are all hunkered down and working remotely, the raw ability of a leader to draw people to his or herself naturally is vanishing. The promise of an expensive education has also gone in the morning mist and required a data driven automaton to work its way to the top.

One in a million shot at the corner office. That last cubicle on the left is looking better all the time, especially if it’s in your home.

Let me close with a quote attributed to Ronald Reagan: “There are simple answers… just not easy ones.”

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