In 1988 Newsweek ran an article titled ‘Mimic your way to the top’. In it, they asked their readers to visualise the scene as the top executives of Microsoft met with co-founder and CEO Bill Gates. “Bill Gates is talking. As he grows intense he starts rocking and bobbing back and forth in his chair, the rocking and bobbing speeding up as he continues. Seated around him, several of his lieutenants soon are rocking and bobbing, rocking and bobbing.
Gates periodically pushes his glasses up on his nose; his associates push their glasses up. Whether done consciously or not, subordinates show a relentless tendency to copy their boss’s mannerisms, gestures, way of speaking, dress and sometimes even choice of cars and homes.”
You might think that bosses – and clients – want you to think and talk like them. To an extent they do. But they want you to stop short of actually becoming a clone.
So let’s look at the negatives of becoming a clone.
As bosses, most of your clients have enough people in their own organisations that are masters of mimicry. One chip off the old block is tolerable. A management team comprised entirely of chips off the old block is pulp. Pulp isn’t the stuff you use to build big strong empires.
What you’ve got with a bunch of yes men is a management team that’s predictable and compliant to the point of being dangerous.
Mimicry indicates that everyone in your client’s organisation is preoccupied with watching his or her back. And if they’re watching their backs, then they won’t be looking out for the really bad stuff that lurks out there in the shadows – the iceberg, the crocodile, the hostile takeover bid.
Your clients need someone like you to be their quality controller, their scout, their minder, their conscience and their alter ego. I wouldn’t mind betting that Bill Gates didn’t benefit from any of these skills from the henchmen seated around his boardroom table in 1988.
Apart from rendering you superfluous, cloning has another fairly serious side effect. To illustrate this danger, let’s consider Dolly the sheep. You’ll recall that Dolly was the first mammal cloned from an adult cell. Dolly was born in Scotland’s Roslin Institute in 1996. (She was named Dolly because the starter cell came from a mammary gland and this fact led researchers involved in the project to think about country singer Dolly Parton – a specific part of her anatomy, to be precise.)
Scientists decided to end Dolly’s life at the age of six when they discovered she was suffering a progressive lung disease – something associated with much older sheep. What Dolly’s creators (or, more accurately, recreators) discovered with time was that because Dolly was cloned from a mature sheep, she had signs of premature aging – arthritis amongst them. She was born old.
So where’s the relevance for us? Well, if you’re going to become a clone of your client, be careful what you’re cloning. By the time you’ve mastered the mannerisms, the culture, the history and the jargon, your client might have moved on, transformed or re-invented him- or herself. Or died. If that’s the case, you’re dead yourself. Just when you think you’re a spitting image, your dead client’s colleagues now see you as a ghost.
On the other hand
There’s another school of thought. This one believes that when you become a Yes Man, you can go anywhere. For an insight into just how far you can get as a Yes Man, consider the Yes Men.
The Yes Men are Jacques Servin, Igor Vamos and friends. Their mission is to “agree their way into the fortified compounds of commerce, ask questions, and smuggle out stories”.
In one instance, they set up a fake World Trade Organization website. It looked like the genuine WTO website. Invitations to future WTO-relevant events then started arriving via email. The Yes Men accepted one of these invitations – to address a Wharton Business School conference on business in Africa. The audience included the Director of the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Director for African Affairs at the Office of the US Trade Representative. At the conference, bogus World Trade Organization representative Hanniford Schmidt announced the creation of a WTO initiative for “full private stewardry of labor” for the parts of Africa that have been hardest hit by the 500 years of Africa’s free trade with the West. Somehow overlooking the obvious fact that “full private stewardry of labor” is simply a euphemism for slavery, the plan was warmly received.
The Yes Men have also managed to inveigle their way into other events. On another notable occasion they appeared as representatives for Dow, where they introduced Gilda the golden skeleton. Gilda was the symbol for the newly launched Dow Acceptable Risk Calculator, a Dow industry standard for determining how many deaths are acceptable when achieving large profits. Their suggestion received warm applause from the assembled bankers and industrialists.
It seems to me that this is the only way to be a Yes Man. Pretend to be part of the team, speak the language, earn trust and then do what you bloody well like, what you know to be right. In the end your client will appreciate your candidness, and your career will last longer than Dolly’s (the sheep, not the singer).