Winning the Career Tournament

To add additional context to Linda Tischler’s feature story, Fast Company offers two edited transcripts of interviews with Professor Charles A. O’Reilly at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Catherine Hakim, a sociology professor at the London School of Economics. What factors account for career success?

To add additional context to Linda Tischler’s feature story, Fast Company offers two edited transcripts of interviews with Professor Charles A. O’Reilly at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Catherine Hakim, a sociology professor at the London School of Economics.

What factors account for career success? And how can those factors help explain the continuing dearth of women at the top of American corporations? Professor Charles A. O’Reilly has been fascinated by those questions for decades. We sat down with him in his office at the Stanford Graduate School of Business to discuss the results of his recent study, which followed a group of MBA students from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Management for eight years after graduation.


Fast Company: What differences did you notice between men and women MBAs when you interviewed them for your study?

Charles O’Reilly: As part of the assessment we would ask, “Where do you see yourself in five years, and in ten years?” Typically, the men would have a vision of where they were going to be and what kind of job they were going to have. The women were much more diffuse. What I came to understand is that although these women are ambitious and good at playing the game, they still know that, say, 10 years after graduation, they’ll have a choice to make about work and family. While they’re in the MBA program, the last thing they want to do is spend a lot of time thinking about it.

The first generation of women, like Carly Fiorina, who made it to the top, succeeded by playing by the rules of the tournament. In some sense, they were more masculine in how they approached the game than today’s students.

FC: You mention the tournament model of careers. Can you explain how that works?

O’Reilly: Edward Lazear, an economist here at Stanford, came up with the idea. If you think about a typical tennis or golf tournament, it begins with a bunch of people in the first round, whose winners then advance to the second round, etc. until you finally get to the end. In the initial rounds, you’ve got some people who are really good and some people who aren’t. By the time you get to the higher echelons of the tournament, the people who aren’t very skilled have been weeded out.

If you think about performance in organizations as being a function of motivation times ability – how smart you are and how hard you work – what makes a difference at the top level is effort; ability has been equilibrated. If somebody does 500 backhands a day and somebody else does only 100, then in the long-term, the person who does the more backhands is more likely to win.


In one of our studies, we found that effort and ability by themselves don’t appear to explain much, but the combination really matters. In other words, people who work harder, who are smarter, are going to have greater success.

FC: In your study, then, who did you find plays this game best?

O’Reilly: What we call ‘masculine-identified men,’ who really want to play the game, are doing better. So there is some evidence that the stereotypic male, what the feminists would call ‘hegemonic males,’ are doing well. What’s interesting, though, is not all men fit that category and anybody who doesn’t is doing less well.

FC: So what you’re saying is that the top jobs in any organization will generally go to the people who work the hardest by conventional measures: the long hours, the willingness to relocate, etc., whether they are male or female.

O’Reilly: Right. Look at it from the organization’s standpoint: if you have a group of employees who are all equally competent, but some are working harder, who do you want to promote?

Of course, that approach also presents a conflict because, if you’re talking about intellectual capital, it’s stupid to throw away half your workforce because of some atavistic rule about how people get ahead. On the other hand, if I’m running the organization, and I’ve got people who are working harder than others and they’re all equally skilled, I guess I’d like to reward the people who are willing to work hard.


FC: But are face time and willingness to relocate the only values that count? Don’t organizations also benefit from a diverse workforce?

O’Reilly: True. If we have diversity as a social value, then we need to figure out (a) how to have heterogeneous groups, and (b) how to make them effective. I guess if I were going to be optimistic, I would say the more we can be clear and honest about the way the world works, the more likely we are to find reasonable solutions for this. And the extent to which we pretend that things are different from what they are, then just makes it harder.

FC: Many people say that women would succeed if only workplaces would be more accommodating, particularly for parents. Do you think that could really work?

O’Reilly: The HR director at the SAS Institute, which is a pioneer in this area, always asked one particular question when people came in and asked for special consideration: Will this policy disadvantage some other group? I think that’s the hard issue because clearly you want to do the right thing. If nobody had babies, we wouldn’t be in business. But on the other hand, getting that balance right on not disadvantaging other groups is, I think, the tough part.

FC: Is it easier for a women to step off the fast track than a guy?

O’Reilly: If a woman wanted to scale back or leave, most people would say, gee, that’s too bad because she was so successful, but we understand and having kids is important. If a man did that, I think the interpretation would be less flattering. It would be, what? Mid-life crisis? What’s going on here? There is less social stigma attached to a woman making that decision.


When women reach a point where they don’t like what they’re doing or it’s getting too hard, they have this choice: is this job really interesting, or can I be doing something else that’s more fulfilling? A man in the same circumstances puts his head down and says this is a miserable time, but I’m just going to gut it out.

FC: Now that young guys are more involved with their families, are work-life balance issues going to be important to men as well?

O’Reilly: I’ve heard our male MBA students at Stanford say that they want to go to work in places where there’s more to life than just being successful in your career.


About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.