How to survive in a large firm? The 10 Laws for Success.


I have had the opportunity of experiencing and observing corporate life and culture from within the organisation as a manager, CEO and board member; and from the outside looking in, as an advisor, consultant, researcher, shareholder and observer. I have thus been able to reflect on the operations and effectiveness of corporations and organisations in the for-profit, not for-profit and government sectors; and on the people within those organisations.

In that context, I am firmly convinced that to survive and ‘prosper’ (from a career perspective) in an organisation, one needs to understand the corporate context in which the ‘game is played’, and be competent in the ‘playing of the game.’

I am of the view that people within larger organisations who have career aspirations within or beyond those organisations, need to practice the 10 Laws of Corporate Survival.

1. Non-Existence of a Cultural Vacuum. Understand that the organisation is not devoid of culture or expectations – there is no cultural vacuum in any large organisation. There is always something there, even if it’s somewhat bland and without much obvious definition. It still exists and ‘if you poke it too hard’ or ‘abuse’ it, you may see the blandness turn into a vibrancy – which can be either productive or destructive.

Bland organisations appear so, often because they have settled into a sort of comatose state where ‘everyone’ knows their place, their role and who play the games according to the accepted rules.

In practical terms this can affect what you do, how hard you work (or appear to work), who you talk to and about what, how you complain (if you do), who you complain to, when you complain, how you ask for stuff, how you reflect on the work of others, who is seen as the power within the company (not always titled), and so on. Knowing these things is vital to survival – crossing the line into unacceptable behaviour can force you to spend much time on re-establishing ‘trust’ (best case), or ruin a career or get you fired (worst case).

2. Prudence. Sincerity counts for little in the organisation – wisdom and judiciousness count for everything. That’s doesn’t mean that you don’t empathise or sympathise, but instead you need to be driven by organisational realities. Just because something is said sincerely, doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate, correct or suitable. Yes, this sounds very mercenary and Machiavellian but unfortunately that’s the way it is.

Never shoot from the lip – always think before you speak: think about whether what you are about to say will be heard by the listener in the way you need it to be heard. Always consider and think through the impacts and implications of what you say or do before you say or do it.

When others speak, don’t immediately jump in response – contemplate what they are trying to say or convey and the motivation behind it. Ask for clarification before you expose your thoughts.

Go to great lengths to avoid being considered a ‘hot-head’, impetuous, inconsiderate or ‘unthinking’. To advance your career, you need to be regarded as a thoughtful, reflective and a fair person who absorbs the ‘evidence’ and makes a considered decision, not a knee-jerked one. Therefore, your behaviour needs to enhance the ‘wise’ view of you, and dissuade others of the ‘reckless’ view of you.

3. Timing. Timing is everything. Sometimes it’s good to be the first to offer an opinion, because with a great idea or a solution to a problem, you will be seen as its author or architect.

On the other hand, you also become the target for others who will find flaws in your suggestions, and you become the target, which if destroyed, may help protect the attacker’s domain and self-interest.

Conversely, and for the opposite reasons, sometimes it’s best to listen to what others have to contribute so that you can extract the wisdom from each and synthesize an optimal (or better) suggestion.

There is no hard and fast rule here – merely of knowing your context, knowing the players in that context, and making a wise choice as to when you expose your thoughts into the open. Timing may also reflect on method too. For example, the time to confide in a manager or superior may carry different timing implications to when you expose the thought more widely.

4. Political Gaming. People play people-games – not out of malice but mostly out of self-preservation. If you see or know that the organisation is abnormally political or that playing politics is an important way of getting things done (or stopped), then do not accept anything at face value. Validate everything.

And if playing politics or games of influence is embedded into the organisation’s culture, then the culture probably also exhibits signs of having a tendency to blame someone when things don’t go to plan. What that means is that someone always has to be responsible for bad stuff that happens, and since someone has to be blamed, then blame is readily bestowed on anyone apart from self – because the cost of being at fault is poorly handled by the culture. That means you probably cannot trust anyone. Validate everything said.

Try not to be sucked into other peoples’ political games – always be polite by all means, but don’t commit to their ‘war’. Know your manager/s and what makes them tick. If you’re the CEO or CFO, then understand your board really well.

If your manager has a ‘vibrant ego’, then stroke it by giving them meaningful ideas that will help them shine. If your manager is devoid of operational intelligence, then whenever you provide them with a problem, give them a solution or at least some solving options. Work with their psychology – not against it – and never, never, never complain about your manager to another staff member.

5. Know your purpose. We are not talking here about understanding your role definition in the job, because that should be obvious. We are talking about knowing why you have the job, knowing what role it is fulfilling for you as an individual, and knowing what your desired next step is. And that next step may or may not be within the organisation that you are currently in.

If your job isn’t fulfilling your personal objective, or isn’t giving you the time to get ready for the next step, then why are you doing what you’re doing?

In virtually all cases, the larger organisation existed before you joined it and will continue after you leave. Assuming you are doing the job you are being paid for, what’s your next step and what is its timing?

As Kenny Rogers sang, “Know when to hold them; Know when to fold them.”

6. Become a listening expert. Observe all that is happening around you: what people are saying, what people are doing, who has the authority (and why), who has the knowledge, who has the power, who can make things happen, who is your aid, and who is your ‘enemy’.

As one wise proverb states, “You were given two ears and one mouth – use them in the same proportion.”

You must develop exceptional listening skills. I’m not talking about ‘hearing’ what others are saying, but really listening to what is being said, understanding the body language, understanding the motivation behind what’s said, and being able to tell the difference between honesty and dishonesty (read books on identifying the cues of dishonesty).

7. Don’t make enemies. Your destiny will, more often than not, be influenced by those over whom you have no influence or power. Most of what impacts you will be discussed outside of your hearing. Therefore don’t make enemies so that whatever is said about you or your area of responsibility, will have a better chance of being said without malicious intent.

And don’t assume that managers are ego or opinion-free. They carry as much psychological baggage as others (and some would argue more because they have ‘more’ to lose).

There are two wise proverbs that are worth remembering: 1. Don’t seek enemies even if you’re an experience political gamer – there are always those that are bigger, meaner, more powerful, better gamers and better connected than you. One day, you will get your comeuppance. 2. What goes around comes around – if you win a ‘fight’ don’t think that the loser will ever forget you or will not speak poorly of you. Those once vanquished seem to have a habit of reappearing in positions or in roles that impact you well after their animosity was ignited.

8. Be realistic. Pick your battles carefully. Work with the realities of the organisation, the economy and society to achieve your personal objectives – rather than working against the tide.

It’s easier to cross a strong tide by swimming diagonally across it but with the current, than by heading straight into the flow.

9. Learning and opportunity. Use every opportunity of your ‘good’ and ‘bad’ experiences and those of others in the organisation to learn.

The good experiences inform us of successful processes; while bad experiences teach us what to avoid.

Consider organisational hurdles and disappointments as challenges and opportunities. Every experience, good or bad, has a ‘take-out’ that you can grow from.

As someone famous once said, “If you don’t learn from your bad experiences, you are guaranteed to repeat them.”

10. Assistance. No one knows everything about anything so don’t be afraid to ask for help or guidance.

Conversely, help others to achieve their objectives without you complaining or using their request for help against them.


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