Making Your Mark at the Office

When you score that big promotion or killer job, your first order of business should be some showstopping, tone-setting power play—even if it means stepping on a few wing tips.

One of these days you’re going to become the big wheel in the office. When you do, here’s some advice: Go back and reread Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

As you may dimly recall from high school, it’s the story of young Prince Hal’s ascent to the throne. At first he’s just another slacker partying with Falstaff and his gang of pre-Renaissance yahoos. But as soon as he’s crowned king, Hal transforms himself: He disavows his former posse, banishes Falstaff, and—for good measure—starts banging the drums for a war with France.

The lesson is that even when you’ve snagged the most powerful job in your office, you need something more: Respect. Loyalty. Maybe even a bit of fear. And it isn’t enough merely to slap the brass BOSS nameplate on your door. To establish your mojo, you’ll have to perform one powerful, symbolic act—ideally in the first few days on the job-—that will instantly prove that you are not to be trifled with. Consider it the art of the bold move—and if you really want to hold the reins at work, you’ll need to master it.

Top-shelf CEOs do this all the time. Last March, Mark Hurd took control of Hewlett-Packard after the long-serving CEO, Carly Fiorina, was forced out. Right out of the gate he canned nearly 15,000 people and announced that HP would no longer ship iPods— reversing one of Fiorina’s most high-profile deals. New IBM head Sam Palmisano’s opening gambit was to shred the upper management of Big Blue, a company notoriously resistant to change.

But let’s look at some more mortal leaders who’ve mastered the sort of corporate jujitsu you’ll need to pull off. One guy I know—we’ll call him Richard—needed a bold stratagem to stave off a workplace crisis of confidence. He’d been hired to launch a splashy new magazine, but the preexisting art director was an incompetent flake. The problem was, Flaky was also a dear old friend of the magazine’s founder. The staff were in a state of nervous despair, and when they’d walk past Richard’s door whispering, he could see the doubt in their eyes: Who wears the pants in this office?

There was only one way to answer that question: Whip it out. Richard hauled the art director into his office and axed him. When he gathered his staff together to announce the execution, Richard could see that his employees regarded him with new respect—that combination of admiration and fear that forms the calculus of all workplace loyalty.

“When you’ve got a situation and everyone’s looking at you, you’ve got make a move,“ he says.

What you’re trying to do, ultimately, is change the way other people see you. That can be particularly difficult if you’ve slimed up the greasy pole inside a company, because then you’re put in charge of guys you used to grab after-work martinis with. So when you become the big kahuna, experts say, one crucial symbolic move is psychological: transforming yourself from friend to boss.

“You’ve got to stop going for drinks,“ says Leo Hindery, who has been the head of five different corporations and is the author of the forthcoming Leadership 101 tome It Takes a CEO. “You are the boss. You’re no longer their pal.“ Other authorities are less extreme: Scott Lochard—a leadership consultant who works with companies like Nike—says you can still go for drinks, but only if you set boundaries. He recommends that in your first days you have one-on-one chats with each underling. “That way, you can figure out what everyone’s goals and dreams are, which is crucial if you’re going to lead them,“ he says. “And it also lets them see you standing alone.“

For sheer Shakespearean drama, there’s nothing quite like helping someone hang himself. Another guy I know—we’ll call him Victor—was working for an international media conglomerate and was put in charge of a large Web site. One of his workers was a woman who refused to obey his authority but was doing a good enough job that he couldn’t justifiably fire her. Instead, he assigned her weeks of brain-dead tasks until she finally went so berserk that she cracked and screwed things up. He canned her—and cemented his reputation as The Man.

“You don’t get to be top dog by your brains,“ says Victor. “You have to figure out your approach—who you’re going to assassinate, and who you’re going to give a bad idea to and hope they run with it.“

Of course, bloodshed isn’t always desirable, or possible. In some cases you have to gain loyalty by pulling off a big creative move—and blowing minds with your sheer genetic superiority.

This was the approach of a now-well-known young designer who at age 28 was put in charge of the biggest account at an international design firm. He was leading a team of far older and more experienced workers—who, needless to say, resented his ascension. On his first day at the office, the designer saw he was going to have to out-skill them all. He brazenly scrapped the team’s entire product line, then barricaded himself in his office while he redesigned everything from scratch. “I put it on the table a week later and said, ‘This is how it’s done,’“ he says. “They all hated me instantly. But I gained respect.“

You can be even more calculating than that. At one company I worked for, a beloved founding CEO retired. He’d been famous for being an endearing slob and encouraging employees to hang out for late-night bull sessions in his cluttered, junk-strewn office. The new CEO came in, sized up the situation, and made his mark—by behaving in precisely the opposite fashion. He refused to chitchat, would meet you only in an arid conference room, and kept his desk so neat I never saw even a piece of paper on it. A year after I left the company, I met him at a cocktail party and he explained that it was all one big judo move. “The staff wasn’t used to anyone behaving the way I did, so they couldn’t read me. And when they can’t read you, they often think you’re incredibly talented and worry about impressing you.“

As the Bard put it: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.“ If you want to win the fealty of your minions-—fight bravely.

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