Career advice from the corner office: Résumé lies, new boss tips and more

“Executive Z” as he prefers to be called, is a 30-year veteran of the corporate battlefield. In exchange for his anonymity, Z agreed to answer your tough career questions with honest truth.

How much does a résumé lie matter?

Q. Recently, it came to light—only to me—that one of our star employees lied on his résumé six years ago to get the job. Our organization has a zero-tolerance policy on dishonesty, so I’m in a real bind here. This person’s production is really off the charts. Any advice?

A. I’m especially interested in your zero-tolerance policy and the dangers of using that phrase. Does that mean, for example, that any dishonesty of any kind, in any circumstance, results in termination? If someone obfuscates the reason they’re late for work one day, are they fired? What if they know a project will be late but don’t tell anyone? Are specific penalties outlined in the policy? You can see how such harshly worded ideals are guaranteed to lead to problems down the line.

What this company policy is saying, in essence, is that an employee is defined by the worst thing they do, not the best, and that’s the end of the story.

As a leader, you can’t suddenly rise above an agreed-upon way of doing things just because there’s pain in following procedure. If the policy states harsh discipline, you’re in a bind; respect it. What you cando is use whatever wiggle room the policy allows you to hold onto that star employee; and when the storm subsides, rewrite it to reflect the real world of business and human psychology.

MGR Handbook D

I see the value in zero-tolerance policies for things like violence or harassment. But by applying it to trespasses of a more subtle nature, you may well wind up in regrettable corners like this one.

Meet the new boss, humbler than the old boss

Q. I’m taking over a company and soon I’ll have to get up before 400 people, greet them and explain my vision. But what is the very first thing I need to say up on that podium?

A. Tell them a personal story about humility. People you’ll be leading, whom you’ve never met before, want to know one thing above all: that you’re a human being with faults—faults that you recognize and acknowledge.

Show them that you’re ready to be humbled by what’s to come because you’ve looked at yourself in the mirror before and realized you have to get better.

When it all seems so empty

Q. I recently had a health scare, followed by that moment of realizing how meaningless so much of the pursuit of business success is. Now I’m looking for a way to care again about work before my performance slips further. What should I do?

A. It can help to remind yourself that you’re not the only one with a profound stake in that success.

Write out a list of everyone who has a vested interest in it—family members, co-workers, friends. Write down every single benefit that your career gives you, including not just the money but what that money specifically buys. You shouldn’t end the list until you have at least 20 or 30 items.

Then make one more list: this time include what you feel you’re truly capable of doing if you weren’t at this job. Looking at these lists will give you a better sense of the true reality of your career and its place in your life.

Best flop ever!

Q. What business failure was the most educational for you?

A. When I was first starting out as a CEO, I was frankly way too young and was surrounded by people even younger. Few of us had gotten bruised yet by being too daring, so we took risks that would never tempt us now in this era of supercharged information gathering and data analysis. We once launched a product after a furious 12-week development plan without doing nearly enough market research, and we bombed—but I have still never seen such enthusiasm for such a relatively boring product. Youth, inexperience and reckless optimism made it all very exciting—and I learned that I always want someone who displays those characteristics in every major project, surrounded by calmer heads.

It’s a conference, not a vacation

Q. Our company is liberal with sending its people to various conferences around the country. They all come back seemingly rejuvenated and flush with new ideas. Some of it is useful; most of it is not. What can I do to ensure that these costly training trips don’t turn into junkets?

A. If you’re ever tempted to make employees collect business cards or document the sessions they attend, don’t bother—that’s empty administrative business that sends a message of distrust. Instead, focus on that one keyword you put out there—ideas. Have a meeting a week afterward in which each person reveals two or three things they were unaware of before they went to the conference. That encourages them to watch and listen carefully.

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