Blam! Maximum Success

James Waldroop and Timothy Butler, directors of the career center at Harvard Business School, have identified the character traits that get in the way of success.

Blam! Maximum Success

Knowledge workers have met the enemy, and it is us. More than ever before, people have opportunities earlier in their careers to start companies, lead business units, run projects, and make a difference. So why do so many of us seem to blow it? As business psychologists and directors of Harvard Business School’s MBA Career Development Programs, James Waldroop and Timothy Butler have helped some of the best and the brightest wrestle with that question. Cofounders of the executive-coaching firm Peregrine Partners, the two men have also provided career counseling to leaders at such organizations as Citibank, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, McKinsey & Co., and Sony.


In their new book, Maximum Success: Changing the 12 Behavior Patterns That Keep You From Getting Ahead (Doubleday, 2000), Waldroop and Butler explore the habits and perspectives that they’ve seen jeopardize people’s success. “We work with people who are being groomed for positions at the very highest levels and who need to go from grade A-minus to A-plus,” Waldroop says. “We’ve seen a lot of high achievers who have career Achilles’ heels, and we’ve put together our thoughts on how most people blow the chances that they get.” In an interview, the two sketched out five character traits that get in the way of success — and what to do about them.

The Impostor Syndrome — Don’t Be Afraid of Heights

Timothy Butler: Acrophobia — fear of heights — is a metaphor that we apply to professional life. If you’re an acrophobe, you feel, in your unconscious mind, that you don’t belong where you are — that you’re up too high. You believe that you’re an impostor and that someone is going to figure out someday that you don’t really know what you’re talking about. It’s sort of like having your feet stuck on one floor of an office building and having your head pulled up 10 floors. It’s an awfully uncomfortable feeling to have to bear.

James Waldroop: Several years ago, I worked with a guy who was super smart, articulate, charismatic, well trained, and good looking. Yet in his job as president of a company, he had made unbelievably dumb decisions and had gotten himself fired. I looked at the decisions that he’d made, and then I looked at him. I thought, Man, there’s something off here. So we did some digging, and it became clear that he had been incredibly uncomfortable with his role as president. There was nothing that he could do to make himself feel that he belonged there. He told me that when he was in meetings with the company’s board members, he felt like a kid in his father’s suit. He literally felt like his suit was too big on him. He would look around the table and think, “Oh, no. Look at all of these grown-ups. What am I going to do now?” This was really the unconscious cause of the management mistakes that were his undoing.

Butler: Professional acrophobia often surfaces if you received messages during childhood such as, Don’t get too big for your britches or Don’t stick out too much. At the root of such messages is this: It’s dangerous to think too much of yourself.

The story that you usually see in the press is about an arrogant 26-year-old multimillionaire who thinks that he knows everything. You see this spin most often, but there’s another spin too: There’s this really bright 26 year old who’s been quite successful and who’s scared. “Oh, my goodness, I’ve got to run this meeting,” he thinks. “I’m going to have to meet with this team, and then I’m going to have to go to dinner with them. I’m terrified. I’m just pretending to be the chief technology officer. I’m really just a computer hacker who got sucked into this world.”


Waldroop: There is a solution to this problem, and the first step is to identify it. The problem, at its root, is that you’re so wrapped up in feeling like an impostor, you can’t see that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. If you went around the room and analyzed each person’s credentials, you’d find that every individual would be more knowledgeable in some areas and less knowledgeable in others.

Don’t blame yourself. Buy yourself some time. Fake it — that’s fine. It’s what people do. Act as if you’re going to win, do your homework, and the rest will take care of itself. If people look at you and don’t see you sweating and wringing your hands — even though you might want to sweat and wring your hands — they’ll gain confidence in you. They’ll express that confidence, you’ll begin to feel more confident, and it will be an upward spiral from there.

The Meritocrat — Life Isn’t Fair

Waldroop: Sometimes the world operates in wonderfully rational ways. The team that scores the most wins; the one who spells all the words right gets an A. And sometimes the world operates in ways that are irrational. Someone’s nephew gets the job instead of you; the incompetent employee gets the promotion. The meritocrat is the person who won’t accept that life isn’t always fair and who insists that all proposals, ideas, and products be thought of rationally. The meritocrat insists on fighting the “good” fight until everyone is out of patience.

Butler: I once worked with a really sophisticated quantitative analyst. His manager couldn’t understand some of the more basic equations that this guy put together for building his models. The analyst thought that the equations intimidated the manager. He felt that he couldn’t put up equations on the whiteboard because of his manager’s fear. The analyst simply couldn’t believe that this manager was running the department. Clearly, there’s merit in being able to build a sophisticated, elegant formula. But another observer might say, Wait, there’s merit in being able to manage the 15 narcissistic, cowboy analysts who make up the department; there’s value in running meetings smoothly and in making sure that deadlines are met. The analyst’s point of view was, “The key to this business is getting the analysis right, and I can do it and he can’t. So why is my salary lower?”

Waldroop: Meritocrats may have great ideas, but they are ineffective at implementing them. It’s frustrating not to see your ideas acted upon. But there’s a difference between being right and being effective, and those feelings of annoyance and anger can end up being a roadblock. Such emotions can prevent you from seeing how to achieve the outcome that you want. People fall into this trap more often than they realize. If you know deep down inside that you occasionally slip into such rigid black-and-white thinking — beware. Life isn’t fair. If you never come to terms with that fact, then you’ll never figure out how to use your powers of persuasion to make the scale tip in your direction with the right people.


When we work with someone who suffers from black-and-white thinking, we often suggest that the person take her ideas to a manager and present them as if they were not yet fully formed. “This is what I’d like to do,” you should say. “But I want your thoughts as well.” That approach gives the manager a sense of investment in your idea. There are also certain phrases that we suggest our clients use, such as, “I wonder if there is another way to look at this situation.” By using words and phrases that show that you see the shades of gray in a situation, you are more likely to avert battles.

The Hero — Success Has a Price

Butler: The hero is someone who constantly tries to do too much and push too hard. Ninety-nine percent isn’t an acceptable score for the hero. Setting ambitious goals and working hard to achieve them isn’t a bad thing; it’s the hero’s compulsive nature that is the problem. It’s hard to visualize heroism as a roadblock to success, because heroes so often seem successful. And the new economy is a macho culture in so many ways. Sleep is for wimps. You’re supposed to work hard and play hard — but mostly you work hard.

Waldroop: The issue for the hero isn’t the success, it’s how she goes about achieving that success. A hero does whatever it takes to get where she wants to be. She’ll expend whatever resources are necessary and make whichever sacrifices have to be made. She storms the castle, takes out the bridge, and blasts through the wall — when 100 yards away there’s a door that she could have taken instead.

But a hero doesn’t see the cost of “taking the hill.” She looks around and thinks, “What a great team we are! Let’s celebrate! We did it!” She doesn’t notice that nobody has fun at the party. They’re sick, and they’re exhausted. A lot of people at this party have bags under their eyes, and their spouses are pretty angry with them, because they haven’t been home very much lately. The costs of success don’t appear on any spreadsheet, but they are very real.

Butler: Part of the problem is that the hero is a commander, not a leader. The hero leads the charge instead of saying, “Okay, we’re going to move forward together. We’re all in this as a group. We can work together to accomplish this goal.” There are times, of course, when leaders make tough decisions, because they have to be made, and there are times when leaders stretch people. That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a person who charges straight ahead assignment after assignment — not because he wants to offend those around him, but because he doesn’t know how to take the group’s temperature. It’s like driving everywhere with the pedal to the metal. If you did that, you’d burn out the engine. Even machines aren’t meant to run that way. Being a hero can work for a while, but organizations that are run by heroes hit barriers. Companies can’t run on adrenaline alone.


Waldroop: The big challenge for the hero is recognizing the symptoms of burnout when they appear. One symptom is under-performance by subordinates. Team members under-perform when they are asked to do too many different things at once and when they are feeling discouraged because they’re struggling to keep their heads above water. If you look back carefully at the path that the hero took to get where she is, you’ll find burned-out, exhausted, and disgruntled people — people whose work has not been acknowledged. You’ll see important people both inside and outside of the company who have been alienated — perhaps permanently. You’ll hear things such as, “I worked with that person once, but I don’t want to do business with her again. I don’t like the way she operates.” You’ll find that key people who have been strong, steady performers in an organization are looking for new jobs.

The Peacekeeper — The Case For Conflict

Waldroop: If the hero pushes too hard and sees herself as the commander of the unit, the peacekeeper sees herself as a diplomat, the glue that holds everything together. If you’re a peacekeeper, then people often perceive you as being calm. You’re not a big fan of conflict. You’d rather not argue about it, whatever “it” is. Conflict, when it isn’t out of control, can be a really good thing. Conflict can keep a bad product from going to market — or onto the space shuttle, for that matter. Conflict can create new ideas. “No, you’re all wrong,” is often followed by, “What if we did this instead?” Conflict becomes a thesis/antithesis/synthesis, where friction creates new ideas. Peace isn’t necessarily as good for the organization as a peacekeeper thinks it is. A peacekeeper is really afraid of conflict. He’s just not comfortable with it.

Butler: People who are afraid of conflict also tend to fight inappropriately hard when they do fight. They don’t have a gradient scale. Either it’s no conflict, or it’s all-out war. Conflict avoiders don’t have much experience in managing conflict. They don’t know how to disagree constructively or how to make suggestions.

Fear of conflict is about fear of power and fear of your own strength. It’s fear of doing irreparable damage, fear that the display is going to escalate. It’s, “I’m so mad, I can’t imagine what I’d do.” You might yell at someone and deeply regret it 10 minutes later. Then you’ll think, Oh my goodness, I’ve said those things, and they’re out of the bottle. There’s no way of putting them back now.

Waldroop: There’s an old joke about Freudian slips that goes, “I meant to say, ‘Please pass the salt,’ but it came out, ‘I hate you, you’ve ruined my life.’ ” The peacekeeper’s fear is that she’ll lose control — that she’ll jump across the table and throttle the other person. She’ll annihilate or be annihilated.


People who handle conflict well are those who have worked with it a lot and who aren’t afraid of it. Conflict is not something that you can get comfortable with in the abstract. You’ll never feel comfortable with conflict without engaging in it. Try desensitizing yourself systematically. Start out by having a small conflict with someone who overcharges you in a restaurant — someone who you probably won’t ever see again. Move up step by step to prove to yourself that you can handle conflict. No one will end up dead, and you can even talk with the person you’ve challenged afterwards.

The Procrastinator — (No) Shame on You

Butler: I’ve worked with a lot of people who procrastinate, and I’ve come to understand that procrastination has a lot to do with shame. You’re putting off doing something because you feel — rationally or irrationally — that completing the task will lead you to feel shame in one form or another. Your shame will either come from not being able to face the challenge, from being exposed to the public as a fraud, or from somehow having your expert status in the organization compromised because you failed to deliver.

Waldroop: Procrastinators do finally get the work done, because a deadline looms or the shame of not completing the project outweighs the shame of their work not being good enough. Whatever procrastinators do, they feel that it’s not good enough. They envision themselves at the top of the mountain, but they don’t want to learn how to climb. They imagine that everybody is watching them learn how to climb a hill. The idea of being in an introductory class is humiliating. They would do anything to avoid that sort of shame. So they never get started, they never learn, and they never take those early steps. Other people take those steps and eventually learn how to climb mountains. The procrastinator’s defense is “Well, I could have done that.” Or “Well, we lost by a score of 34 to zero, but we didn’t do too badly, given that we didn’t practice.” Since procrastinators feel like they fail all the time anyway, it’s less painful to fail if they never really try.

Butler: The first step toward overcoming procrastination is recognizing that shame is the demon in the closet. It’s not that your skills aren’t up to par. It’s that you’re avoiding a very particular emotion that has grown out of proportion within your unconscious mind. The way to cure that shame is to stay with it and to experience it. Pay attention to how you’re feeling, and catch yourself when you’re rationalizing in order to make yourself feel better. Don’t say to yourself, “Well, if I complete the project and it’s not perfect, that’s okay, because no one is perfect.” Stay with the shame for 45 seconds. Then do something else. Turn away from it. You’re gradually inoculating yourself against the pain. You have shame in your bloodstream now, so it doesn’t seem so foreign or so demonic. Now you can tolerate a little shame. Feeling embarrassed is part of being alive.

Jill Rosenfeld ( is a Fast Company senior writer. Contact James Waldroop ( and Timothy Butler ( by email.


Sidebar: Job Interviews — The Dark Side

Behavior patterns that get in the way at work can also trip you up during a job interview. How should you prepare in order to avoid such a blunder? “Go through the questions that the interviewer is likely to ask. If you find yourself dreading a question, then stop,” says Timothy Butler. “Pay attention to the images that the question conjures up for you. You may find yourself thinking, ‘I don’t even want to remember. That was such an embarrassing moment.’ That’s how you’ll begin to learn about yourself and how to deal with the interview question.”

Several years ago, a graduate from a top MBA program came to James Waldroop for advice. “Right out of school, she decided that she wanted to start a chain of pizzerias that were of better quality than California Pizza Kitchen,” Waldroop recounts. “So she spent six months on the idea, raising capital and talking to some consultants. She finally determined — and I agreed — that her idea wouldn’t work. So she pulled the plug. She had an interview coming up for a marketing job that she wanted to land more than anything in the world. But she felt this great embarrassment over the pizzeria experience. I walked her through the questions that the interviewer was probably going to ask, and she realized that pulling out of the venture was actually a very mature decision — which was a great point to make in the interview. The weight was lifted from her shoulders, and she got the job. The point is that even just discussing things that you feel embarrassed about can be enormously relieving. It doesn’t have to be a therapist; it can be anybody at all. It’s a great relief to find that other people don’t find your burdens as loathsome and horrible as you do.”