Jeff Schmitt: From the Bottom Up

Do You Believe Your Own Hype?


Come one, come all. Step right up. Don't be shy. You're just in time. Behind this curtain, you'll witness a once-in-a-lifetime specimen. Watch in amazement as he juggles five mission-critical projects while walking across burning coals. On wits alone, he'll tame a deceitful boss, a blood-thirsty client, and a fickle vendor. And for the finale, let me direct you to the straightjacket dangling a hundred feet over us. That's right: Our hero will perform a career-defying feat. He'll balance the books and appease panicky stockholders, all while hanging upside down. Imagine: no nets, no escape, and no second chances.

We've all seen shooting stars whose careers for a time resembled a carnie's breathless hype. In fact, you may be among the anointed ones who came a long way in a short time. Your clients line up to hire you and the brass has been laying out big plans for you. Whatever you've touched has succeeded. Movers and shakers all gravitate toward you, hoping to learn your secrets. These are the good times; you're on the fast-track. Everything you crave—respect, security, power, and perks—is within your reach.

That's how it looks on the surface. In the past, you challenged conventional thinking. Now you're the one who quashes your peers' ideas. Your colleagues whisper that the golden boy who could do no wrong is slipping. A few even claim you hog the spotlight. You'd like to dismiss it all as a bad streak or jealousy. More likely, they sense that you're losing those qualities—curiosity, openness, humility—that made you so formidable. They say you believe your own hype and have grown soft and arrogant as a result. Think they're wrong? Ask yourself if you do any of the following 12 misguided things.

1. Dismiss questions. You believe that reputation and power bring immunity. "I don't need to justify myself," you reason. "Take my word for it, questions and cautions will just slow me down." So you do it your way, barreling into the unknown with complete certainty. And you take everyone with you. Only time will tell if your path leads to paradise or perdition.

2. Feel there's no need for change. "You want me to reexamine? Seriously? The status quo is exactly what I envisioned. And it's working so well. Customer tastes, markets, competition, technology, delivery, regulations … I have it all figured out. What could possibly happen to disrupt all this?" Just the same forces that thrashed everyone from Pan Am to Circuit City. Nothing of value lasts unless it evolves.

3. Quit asking questions. You're no longer an upstart working from a garage. Now you're the establishment and you're determined to act like it. That means you're doing all the talking. Unfortunately, the only counsel getting back to you is an echo of your own voice. You've moved away from imagining, investigating, and experimenting, convinced that you've absorbed everything you'll need to know. But the expectations, choices, and questions change as you race through your life cycle. Can you adapt, knowing that today's answers are tomorrow's confines?

4. Don't reach out. From a distance, you survey the action. High above, you discern the patterns and plot out the future like an all-knowing seer. Your troops never see you; you're a shadowy figure who hands down decrees. And that's how you like it. You have more pressing matters than dealing with employees or customers. We know how that story ends. Yesterday, you didn't know their names. Today, you don't know what they do. Tomorrow, you won't know what you've become.

5. Fall into a routine. The brass has quit examining you, confident you'll continue spinning your magic. Insulated, you've quit rethinking and testing your assumptions. Unchallenged, you fall back on paint-by-number solutions while expecting to produce a Picasso. "Why reinvent the wheel?" you ask—forgetting that the wheel was the starting point for the roads, commerce, and cultural exchanges that followed.

6. Look down on peers. "I'm the brains of this operation," you muse in unguarded moments. "These people are a means to my ends. They could never do what I do." You invest little in relationships, taking your people for granted. But you're among the elite now. They have to earn your respect, not the other way around. Your people have taken your cue and know their place—and it's away from you.

7. Lack self-awareness. You have 360-degree vision, able to conceive dimensions, deconstruct intricacies, and connect disparate entities. You have just one blind spot: yourself. Like many whizzes, you're oblivious to your behavior and how it shapes the way others view you. Of course, no one will dare speak up. Would you care anyway? If they're unhappy, that's their issue, not yours. Naturally, this mindset is your biggest failing. Talent may be the province of individuals, but greatness is borne on the shoulders of committed followers. Treat them well.

8. quit pushing yourself. You're untouchable. It'll take years for the competition to catch up, you predict. "I can coast on my reputation and what I've built." So you turn to enjoying the fruits of your labor. You dismiss your rivals, unable to picture the day when they surpass you. But complacency—not competition—is your biggest threat.

9. Grow sloppy. It's always the small things that add up. Like an athlete, you peaked, achieving whatever drove you. Now you're investing less time, diligence, precision, and effort. Maybe you think it doesn't require as much work, that you found all the answers. In reality, you're stumbling upon life's harshest lesson: It's harder to stay on top than it is to get there.

10. Focus on producing hype. Years ago you had a pioneering, valuable message. It drew others to you, earning their admiration and trust. Somewhere along the way you became a one-person publicity outfit. Now you devote your time to broadcasting your accomplishments and furthering your own ends. You're a personal brand with an identity separate from that of your company. Just one question: Are you still producing something of worth—or just empty hype?

11. Fixate on status. Remember what used to keep you up at night? Maybe it was being outflanked on a key account or losing a competitive advantage. Now what scares you? Chances are, you fear being knocked off your pedestal. So you labor on warily, terrified of taking risks that could expose you to failure. You're always looking to knock down anyone who could potentially eclipse you. You've shifted from pushing boundaries to playing politics. Everyone's performance is suffering as a result.

12. Become dismayed when something's amiss. "This isn't supposed to happen, not to me." You're stunned, almost speechless, when something falls apart. Fortunately, this may serve as a wake up call. You never know someone's character until it's tested. Question is, how will you respond? Will you deny, cast blame, or push forward regardless? Or will you reassess, fine-tune, and make another run? Alexander Graham Bell was fond of saying: "When one door closes, another opens. " Are you committed enough to swallow your pride, let go, and see where your disappointments take you?

Jeff_schmitt
Jeff Schmitt is an online columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek. He has spent 17 years in sales, marketing, project management, training, legal compliance, and recruiting. You can reach him via e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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