Holmes’ 10 Rules of Corporate Life

This is a parting offering after 20 years in corporate employment. I’ve taken down my tent and moved downstream. An exciting new chapter of life. I’ve lived and loved corporate life. Well, not always but it’s been a good innings. These are some of the lessons learned.

Rule 1: Choose your boss.
Should be obvious but many lured to the corporate playpen fall into the trap of playing the ball and not the man. I’d venture to say that choosing the best boss is infinitely more important than signing up for what looks like a great job. Selecting a good corporate employer is assumed but once there, make certain to choose the best boss. The best boss for you. Don’t get hooked by an apparently wonderful job and end up reporting to an absolute plonker. Such pitfalls exist, so beware. I can almost guarantee that if after a year you hate your job, the real issue is that you hate your boss.
Most corporate jobs have less difference than one imagines. The primary job purpose is solving problems and / or exploiting opportunities. Picking a specific functional job is akin to choosing between playing chess against a genius cousin or tackling an evil Sudoku puzzle. Provided you follow the rules, have half a brain and enough EQ to order a beer in a smoky bar, you should do well in any corporate job. All require a similar set of basic skills. The three R’s, inter-personal, and communication skills. The key issue is your boss. He or she will have a fundamental impact on your life. Positively or negatively, so pick someone who is going to inspire, motivate, challenge, teach, and reward you for your toil.

Rule 2: Do what your boss says.
I shared this with a touring MBA class from the US. They were horrified, interpreting my meaning as subservient and anti-innovation. I explained that unless recruited as Chief Maverick reporting to the CEO, then doing what your boss says is priority number one. How you do it is a different affair. Bring individual flair but your great new boss didn’t employ you to paddle your own canoe. He employed you to bring home the bacon. His bacon.
I’m a pacifist but to use a military analogy, when the General orders you to blow up a bridge – you blow it to smithereens. As the debris floats downriver and the boss is patting you on the back, share with him – as a bonus – that you also took out enemy communications. Your little cherry on the top. This is also time to suggest land-mining Bridge No 2. Good crossing for later. But remember priority number one. Do what your boss says.

Rule 3: Understand the business and your key measures of success.
How does the business work and make money? In fancy terms, an analysis of the business model. Obtain a deep understating of the business. The key levers and the ones can you influence. What’s the target? How many bridges to be Top Dog in the bridge blowing-up department? One a day, Monday to Friday? Or five by Thursday, and Friday for strategy, planning, and beer. That’s the ticket. Know the measures and deliver them. Units of sales or production or money in the bank. Makes no difference. Set the measures yourself – if you can – and achieve target on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. The full-year target will look after itself. Opportunities, accolades, and riches flow to those who deliver the numbers.

Rule 4: Find out who holds the keys.
It’s usually the finance dude but may be the tough-nut techie who controls the flow of technology innovation projects. If the Tech Exec doesn’t like your game-face she’s going to hide the keys. The Master of the Keys may be the head of credit who approves the deals you bring in. If so, make friends and understand how he likes to play. Most credit geeks like their ducks in a row, so deliver his ducks in a well-drilled military platoon. The bottom line. You need support for anything and everything in corporate so understand who controls the financial and human capital as well as the means of production.

Rule 5: Plan, action, report.
I once asked my team what it would take to get our colleague Dr Phil on the Top Achiever Boat. Dr Phil is an eccentric chemistry PhD. Now retired, he is the best trainer of banking staff encountered in my career, but not a candidate for any Top Achiever awards. To the question at hand. Every answer provided by the team was an action. Do this. Do that. Blow up the big bridge up-river. That’s all well and good. However, every corporate action must be part of a plan and reported upon. Get that great idea included in the group strategic plan. It’s called a mandate. You’ve grown up, know the business, and your boss likes your great idea. He likes your bacon and eggs. Now you’re cooking, Corporate Warrior!

As importantly, once you’re dashing about blowing up bridges and slaying the enemy, report back to the bosses at large. Don’t expect others to do it on your behalf. There are numerous tactics to employ and the monthly executive report is the most obvious. A succinct executive summary and a carefully constructed set of graphs and tables detailing your bridge-blowing exploits. Compile a report of poetry and aesthetic beauty. The CEO should think, “Hullo, hullo, this looks interesting”. Few things are more important to a successful corporate life.

Rule 6: Recruit for attitude, values and diversity.
Refer Rule 1. Same applies to direct reports. Recruit the best. Focus less on skills and expertise and more on attitude, values and diversity. Diversity of age, gender, race, skills, expertise, experience, and world-view. Hire people with a great outlook and attitude towards life. A great attitude towards work as part of life. Hire people who see potential in themselves and others and give their best to most things. Avoid candidates who ask about work / life balance, they are intellectual peasants. Welcome candidates who’ve sailed around the world, read for a degree at Oxford, or won the national wake-boarding championships. Hire very clever people who grew up in poverty with an alcoholic father and a strong single mother. Repel super-confident job-hoppers who look like movie stars.

Hire people who enjoy camping, writing poetry or have criminal records for possession of recreational drugs. Hire resilient people. Hire people who would shrug their shoulders and move on if retrenched. They know they may be better off outside anyway. Hire people who have the potential to take over your job or become a colleague. For goodness sake, hire people who you’d be happy to have as your boss one day. These stories are not uncommon.
A senior executive approaching retirement relayed his story. “If you’d said to me 20 years ago that my boss today would be a 45 year-old black man and he would be the best boss ever in my career, I’d have said you were crazy”. So hire great people with great attitude. They will make you shine. What’s more you’ll have fun and gather life-long friends.

Rule 7: Build and maintain network.
This starts with your boss, immediate colleagues, and direct reports but should spread like wildfire from there. Be yourself but be cautious. There are strange cats walking the floors of the corporate world. Many will be suspicious of the new kid on the block. Why is he here? Is he a threat? Nevertheless, network is vital for understanding the business, exchanging ideas, harnessing support, poaching great people, and learning where the political power sits. Best of all is the wealth of interesting people available for coffee, tea and beer.

Rule 8: Play politics.
If this leaves you cold, perhaps you’re not a Corporate Warrior. You may be a sheep. Alternatively, you need a proper understanding of the meaning of politics. Whatever, if you don’t play politics don’t bother with corporate life unless you’re happy to be the lamb on the spit.
Politics means power and influence. Politics exists in every family, church, car-pool and running club. Politics is who gets served the first cup of tea. Politics is wild in corporate so work it out and play. By this stage of your corporate life you have a great boss, broad network and you know who holds the keys. Your great ideas are being implemented and appearing in despatches to the group executive committee. You know the flow of the river and who controls the taps. So, for Pete’s sake, don’t swim upstream or pee in the river. Play the game and paddle your canoe down the stream. Acknowledge others where credit is due. Let the stream take you and avoid the eddy’s. Once risk and compliance have approved your scheme, don’t re-enter their province unless the potential exists for a lengthy prison sentence. When someone with power and influence wishes to jump aboard, make space and paddle together. That’s corporate politics and once you’ve got the hang of it you can use it to align the stars.

Rule 9: Align the stars.
I’d been working on a brilliant idea for years. Suddenly, and seemingly out of the blue, it found favour. The finance exec thought the business case was a no-brainer, the tech exec loved my game-face, and the head of credit couldn’t fault my platoon of ducks. Opponents disappeared into the night and my canoe was positively flying the gorge.
I delighted in this alignment of the stars. I soon realised that aligning the stars was core to my job. Otherwise nothing works. Put differently, the world of work – in fact the whole economy – is one big system. A machine, a socio-technical network. People and technology. All components of the system in synch for the machine to function optimally. It is the job of the Corporate Warrior to make the system work. So, get out there and align the stars.

Rule 10:Have fun and become famous.
Golf in Mauritius, Paris in the spring, jogging in Central Park, and fishing a beach in Ghana. I’ve visited twin statues of Queen Victoria. One set in manicured lawns in Wellington, New Zealand. The other in the dusty square of King William’s Town, South Africa. The Springboks wining the World Cup in France and partying with the team afterwards.

I’m on first name terms with Cyril Ramaphosa (a great story) and made many lifetime friends who’ll testify that the part I’ve enjoyed most is the work. The intellectual challenge. The collaboration with colleagues and partners. A complex problem clearly articulated, analysed and solved. A board presentation that goes off like a Broadway play. Something implemented with guile and discipline. That’s the business. And when fortune arrives on the wings of fluke it’s called management brilliance. Claim it.

I tell people, “I wanna be famous. I wanna be a Rock Star”. I encourage others to do same. Not famous as in Trevor Noah. Just regular famous amongst family, friends and colleagues. A highlight of my corporate career was the young manager who hugged me and said, “I also wanna be famous and I’ve worked out how.” Something about finding a jolly important needle in a haystack. She was awarded a Top Achiever boat ticket for her efforts. I’ve had fun and become a little bit famous. Blown some big bridges for the Generals in my time. It’s been real but time to hike. Follow the rules, be safe and have fun.

The Author is an Independent Payments Consultant. His work embodies the world of how we all pay for stuff. He was formerly an Executive at Nedbank Card & Payments.