1. I see others commit unethical or even illegal acts to get ahead. Why shouldn’t I?
If you’ve been reading my Breaking Bamboo column for a while, you know that I’ve always been 100% clear about never doing anything illegal to get ahead. You know why? Because it is not only the right thing to do, but also the best business decision. Nothing ejects you from the corporate game and short circuits your career faster than being stuck behind bars.
Now some of you may be tempted because the law keeps changing and so you think that all you need to do is stay one step ahead. That’s true. The law does change but don’t be stupid. Even if you know something is not illegal at that very moment, if it feels illicit and dirty, then run it by the next test – the ethical one.
The obvious challenge is ethical boundaries can be moving targets. What exactly are ethics other than a set of moral rules that are shaped by society and change more than your underwear? Staying on the ethical straight and narrow can be the difference between remaining a stooge or making it big. Since many in corporate America already think of ethics as applicable to that other person what’s an ambitious climber like you to do? You may even be tempted to think ethics are just stunting your growth, but shake off that notion.
The world is a very small place, and your reputation precedes you everywhere you go. Before you act, think about whether it would pass the cover of TMZ Test (or New York Times for you older readers). If your antics were declared publicly how would society judge you? Savior or pariah? I hope I don’t need to spell out the answer for you.
Don’t ever do anything to sell your soul even though others may have done so to get ahead. It can get you fired or, even worse, arrested. Now a few of you may say, “But this is America, baby!” Impeached presidents, convicted financiers, and misogynistic executives have all lived to fight another day.
True, the world is filled with comeback stories, but the media has survivorship bias. Redemption stories make for great page views. You know what doesn’t? The countless untold stories about ex–Wall Streeters who died penniless, politicians who never got elected again after those salacious pics, and insider traders who didn’t get a movie deal with Martin Scorsese.
Bottom line: Don’t do it. It’s simply not worth it.
2. Keeping up with the Joneses seems to be what everyone does? Why isn’t that good motivation?
Peer pressure can be massive and the biggest morality test is seeing your neighbors (aka the Joneses) get rich and powerful around you. They will commit unethical, and even criminal, antics throughout their careers and be rewarded. Even so, don’t be tempted. Hypocrisy is a fact of life and you’ll see others get ahead by practicing from the altar of “Do as I say, not as I do,” as they cheat their way to success.
You’ll be tested at every stage of your career and the biggest ones come when really big money is at stake. There are no silver bullets, but ask yourself “What Would [Insert Your Favorite Deity or Hero] Do?” Unless it’s Lucifer, you have your answer.
A good rule of thumb is not to compare yourself to anyone. I know this is really hard to do because it’s actually hardwired into our species. We need competitive benchmarks to measure our own progress and, in many cases, motivate us. But acknowledge that all comparisons, both positive and negative, are not healthy.
By lamenting about how far behind we are versus the Joneses we pull ourselves into the abyss of temptation and misdoings. Conversely, if we boast about how well we’re doing against them, then we’re just being petty and rotten.
The only person you are competing against is yourself. Find motivation in self-improvement and fight the temptation to keep up with the Joneses. Otherwise you’ll be subjecting yourself to a lifetime of misery.
3. How can I stay grounded in the face of all the peer pressure?
Temptation and slippery slopes are everywhere. Cheating can be contagious, and big lies are really just snowballs of little ones. I stayed out of trouble my whole career largely by going back to basics.
Just like preventing an electrical device from blowing, I would take the time to reground myself. I’d go home, talk to my mother, my wife, and other loved ones. They’ll help you realize that oftentimes at work, you’re surrounded by colleagues who may not fret over moral dilemmas the same way you would and after a while, end up not just drinking the Kool-Aid, but bathing in it.
I definitely could have made a lot more money being less ethical. I could have screwed clients on fees or lied to sabotage competitors. I could have retaliated against other firms’ bankers who did all of this to me and worse. Even though the world isn’t completely black or white, I’ve learned that there are really only a few shades of gray that separate them.
Work is a game, and some people are much better at playing it than others, but I never wanted to win by breaking the rules. In the end, that had one tremendous benefit: I sleep well at night.
About the Author
Dave is a seasoned executive and entrepreneur who founded several companies in entertainment, investments, and technology, and worked on Wall Street for almost 25 years.
He started his career by joining a fledgling investment bank, Jefferies, when it had less than 200 employees. Today, Jefferies is a multi-billion dollar diversified public company (NYSE:JEF). He rose from the entry level position of Analyst to Group Head of Internet and Digital Media and was one of the youngest Managing Directors in firm history. As one of the only managing directors of color in the firm, he successfully broke through the Bamboo Ceiling. He not only worked hard but also played the corporate game. Hundreds of bankers have worked for Dave during his career. He has mentored many of them who have gone on to some of the best business schools and companies in America. He is eager to share his knowledge with Asian Americans and other disadvantaged groups seeking to maximize their potential and achieve their career goals.
If you want some great career tips and insights check out Dave’s book, The Way of the Wall Street Warrior.