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What a Threat Begets

Written by Jeffrey Steele - 13 Comments

What a Threat Begets

One of the greatest things that ever happened to me was being born of Depression-era parents. Because both could so clearly recall the deprivations of the 1930s, I began hearing about the need to save early. Very early.

How early? My folks rarely missed a chance to pontificate on the merits of interest-bearing passbook savings accounts while pinning me into a fresh diaper.

Their message was that you saved for all the expected things, like taxes, down payments on a house, a new car, and college educations. What’s more, you saved for the unexpected developments, things like a sudden leak in the roof, the untimely demise of a furnace or the surprise need for a root canal.

But because they believed in truth, justice, and the American way, they weren’t well equipped to school me in a third, more insidious, reason to save.

That third reason comes about when all signs point to you being able to finally blow some hard-earned cash. But the justification for doing so is the very reason you should be — that’s right — saving, saving, and saving some more.

Confused? Read on. I think you’ll not only see my point, but recall events in your own lives and careers paralleling those I’m about to describe.

Meet Ned

I’ve got this friend we’ll call “Ned.” I’ve known him for years, and can vouch for the fact he’s smart, talented, industrious, all the traits you’d most want in an employee. Married, burdened with a mortgage and the father of two kids rapidly approaching college age, he decided to shutter the business he’d helmed for a number of years and take a full-time job for the bennies that would accrue.

Drawing on experience that included earlier stints as both an employee, and as the boss of his own shop, he quickly proved himself an outstanding team player in virtually every task he touched. And indeed, his performance reviews reflected that status, identifying him as a real up-and-comer in the enterprise.

Then came a true watershed moment. A colleague within his organization left on a sabbatical, and Ned was tabbed to cover both his own responsibilities and the sales functions of the departing co-worker. The following weeks proved pivotal.

Ned not only shouldered his own duties with his customary aplomb, but injected fresh new insights into the sales position. Under Ned’s stewardship, sales and revenues climbed to levels never before tallied by the firm.

That’s when Ned’s boss “got it.” Not only was Ned good, he was too good. Any more brilliance from him, and she might be leapfrogged on the corporate ladder by the very man whose job performance she graded.

When Ned’s next job review came around, he had reason to expect an even more glowing appraisal. Instead, his boss tore into him, ripping his decision-making skills and marginalizing his contributions to the company. And from all accounts she managed to pull it off with a straight face.

Maybe she thought he’d get mad and quit, but that didn’t happen. So she began hinting, first subtly and then more baldly, that Ned should look elsewhere for employment.

Ned finally was forced out, his boss kept her post and large paycheck, and the firm lost a vital contributor. Karma being what it is, Ned may actually do better financially in his next job. But this unexpected turn of events cost him thousands of bucks in benefits and the expense and hassle of a job search.

Meet Paul

Are the events I just recounted unprecedented? Hell, no. They happen every day, and have happened every day since the dawn of time, in every kind of organization worldwide. An earnest, hard-working and talented employee shows too much ability for the boss’s comfort, becomes a threat to the big kahuna’s continued employability, and the up-and-comer is out. The company sags back to its former mediocrity, and a talented rising star is now the sadder and wiser.

One of the most telling, and side-splitting, examples of this phenomenon played out in a big city with which I have more than a passing acquaintance.

The former mayor anointed a new schools chief we’ll call “Paul.” Paul hit the ground running and got the very results the mayor sought. Then he got results even better than the mayor expected. Standardized test scores soared, and bad schools began turning out grads just shy of Rhodes Scholar status. The press noticed and began slobbering over Paul’s phenomenal achievements, predicting much, much bigger roles in city government could be his reward.

The mayor then called a press conference. Did he say Paul was the greatest schools chief in city history? Did he offer Paul a new, better position? Did he suggest Paul could stride atop the surface of a nearby Great Lake?

No. As press corps members snickered up their sleeves, and even wise-to-the world four-year-olds rolled their eyes, he fired Paul’s ass, right out of town.

I can’t recall the flimsy reason given for the firing, but it was set forth with a straight face, as if the mayor figured no one would see through his conceit. What was as transparent as the plate glass windows on a downtown department store was that Mr. Mayor viewed Paul as a potential threat to his next re-election.

We can debate at length the crippling effect this phenomenon has on organizational effectiveness at every strata of business and society. But for our purposes here, the takeaway should be there’s no limit to the reasons to save.

It’s not just the expected and unexpected reasons my parents enumerated as they shoved a pacifier into my mouth, but a third category that should especially concern you if you’re a highly capable employee with a less-than-secure boss.

You see, as we’ve learned from the stories of high-achievers Ned and Paul, sometimes one of the biggest potential risks to your personal cash flow, one of the biggest threats, is that you yourself are a threat.

Published on April 12th, 2012
Modified on April 15th, 2012 - 13 Comments
Filed under: Saving & Investing, Working

About the author: is an independent writer in Chicago who has written over 2,000 articles appearing in publications such as Barron's, Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, LA Times, and more.

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13 Responses to “What a Threat Begets”

  1. 1
    Modest Money Says:

    It is unfortunate that some bosses react that way to potential threats. They’re more concerned with covering their own ass than what is best for the company.

    Most people wouldn’t really think of this other reason to save. Basically you never know when you could get into financial trouble, even if you thin you’re the best employee. So you really do need to be prepared for the unexpected with a healthy level of savings.

  2. 2
    Bob Says:

    As I read this, I was stunned. Because as I looked back at a pivotal point in my long employment timeline I was derailed by the very subject of the article – knocked out because too much an achiever so I was undermined out of my job.

  3. 3
    noname Says:

    All I can say: If that continues, that boss will end up without a job. If everyone that is smart or promising under them is fired, they’ll have no one to do their work for them.

    That’s what all bosses want right? minions to do their work so they can fuck around.

  4. 4
    Bill Says:

    Same here. 13 years with a company completely rebuilding my division from a cash sink to the most promising sales tool in the company. Fired by COO for “not sharing his vision”. Apparently, his vision was the same old mediocrity with him at the helm.

    And no, most of the time they won’t lose their jobs. They make friends on the board and among other C levels and continue to bleed the company of profits until it’s dry. Then they jump ship. Happened at the aforementioned company.

  5. 5
    Y Says:

    Wait…your advice for this is just to “suck just enough at your job (because if you are too good you’ll get canned, so you need to be “just okay”) and save money”?

    No advice for how to excel despite foolish supervisors? How to see these signs and then avoid them? What to do if you have been fired unfairly?

    Don’t stand up against the jerks in your life, basically? Just take it?

  6. 6
    G Says:

    The takeaway is when you realize your boss is like this, you look for exit opportunities and do everything you can to make them feel secure and happy. While simultaneously looking for laterals or positions outside your division in the company.

    This is why I like the partnership model of law and consulting and the like – there are not a limited number of slots and you’re never in direct competition with a senior (i.e. if they are two years ahead, their window is 2 years earlier). When there’s someone sitting in the one and only seat to progression, there’s an issue.

  7. 7
    bruce (pmtoolsthatwork.com) Says:

    I had used a prior experience to explain to my boss why we needed to go in a certain direction. She had not known of my experience and her reaction was “you could do my job!” (Yes, she said this out loud). Within 2 weeks I had been resubordinated one level further down in her organization. I survived her, but it set me back a few years.

  8. 8
    Karen Says:

    How are Ned and Paul doing now? I hope both of them were able to land on their feet.

  9. 9
    ScroggSaidIt Says:

    This is spot on where I work. We are being “phased out” regarding position title, but the very job we’re being “phased out” of is being done by others and will be done by the new people who replace us. All because we have held our leadership’s feet to the fire. I’ve learned you can’t save people from themselves and if they want to suck at what they do and take the company down that path, who am I to get in the way. Oh, and by the way, I work for a “Christian” organization. That adds a crazy unfair layer to the whole mix as they are doing things “in the name of the Lord”…

  10. 10
    Don Says:

    My boss drove me to quit — he was totally intimidated. Refused to even consider me for promotion, preferring instead to hire from outside or promote people who I had trained. He’ll have his job forever, because he’s the board’s golden boy. But he’s so afraid of failing it’s not funny. A walking definition of “inferiority complex.”

  11. 11
    Diane Says:

    I feel for Ned as this has, sadly, happened to me twice in recent years. I have an MBA from a top school, am pretty smart and am good at what I do, but unfortunately, most of the managers for whom I have worked are not as educated or as talented as I am (or, for that matter, as many of their other reports are) and because I refuse to “dumb” myself down and kowtow to their insecurity issues, I have had a lot of these problems. Insecurity and mediocrity is pandemic in corporate America and I have become incredibly bitter and disillusioned from the egregiously horrible treatment I’ve received from so many managers over the past 15 years. I am currently unemployed and it makes me cry to know that in order to pay my bills, I will have to take another soul-sucking, demoralizing job with another company that is likely filled with the same type of incompetent, insecure and just plain hateful managers. I pray for the day I can open my own business and leave that all behind and I hope Ned and James(?) come out on top, too!

  12. 12
    Jon Smith Says:

    @G: The biggest takeaway for me is; genuinely befriend anyone who seems like they could act in this way.

    There is almost always a way to get someone onside. Even if you have to disguise your achievements a little bit to make yourself seem less threatening than you are. Office politics is fairly inevitable, but you can at least make it cuddly and nice, and make it clear that you’re trying to genuinely help (rather than compete with) the people, not just the company.

  13. 13
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