Who or what is a kingmaker? You might remember this FedEx commercial that aired in the winter of 2001: A group of a dozen or so people is huddled around a conference room table. All the workers in the room are in open shirts and ties, but the person at the head of the table, the boss, is in a suit. We join the meeting as the manager says, “We’ve got to save money, people. Ideas.”
One member of the group contributes the idea that they open an online account with FedEx and save 10 percent on Express shipping. Silence follows for a few beats, then the fellow at the head of the table looks straight ahead and repeats the exact words in authoritative tone with emphatic hand gestures to match.
The group loudly concurs as the camera moves to the face of the worker who proposed the idea in the first place. Perplexed, he declares, “You just said what I just said only you did this,” as he mimics his boss’s hand motions.
The boss looks not at him, but straight ahead, and says, “No, I did this,” as he repeats his hand motion. The group of sycophants proclaims, “Bingo, Got it, Great.” The camera captures the contributor, who has a sour grimace on his face.
This is a perfect example: The perplexed guy is a kingmaker who doesn’t yet realize his own power.
Anyone in corporate America up to the CEO level is a kingmaker. Actually even the CEO has to make kings of the company shareholders. This also holds true whether you are in education, a not-for-profit organization, film, real estate, small business, or any sort of work in which there is more than one person involved. Everyone reports to someone who reports to someone else, and we each have a stake, whether we realize it or not, in our boss’s growth to king status.
King status is achieved through popularity via leadership or politics, and through results, which ultimately lead to growth and profit for the division, the company, and the shareholders. The awareness of the unspoken roles of kingmaker and profit contributor, subtly folded into our careers, is vitally important to our own success.
Your great work helps your manager reach his or her corporate and career goals, and as a result you are more likely to reach your own. The issue is to become an aware kingmaker by creating and understanding your value to this person and to the company while remaining true to yourself. Your agenda is to become a vital contributor, leader, motivator, and innovative thinker in whatever post you hold at whatever level. Become known as a results-oriented person who gets things done well. It is smart to take every action to identify a well-connected king-in-waiting to work for who can ultimately become your champion. Ideally, you will learn a great deal from this person, who will ultimately advocate for you (becoming your kingmaker) along the way.
Some of my friends and colleagues had a hard time with the notion of the worker as kingmaker, feeling that it is a subservient role. The reality is that not everyone can be a king outright; there simply aren’t enough positions, and nobody can lead alone. Every leader needs people to rely on to bring objectives to life. The kingmaker station can make you very valuable and it is not an inferior role, but an important one.
You know that you want to stretch in your career because you love challenge, change, and growth. You already understand that your job is to do your part to reach company objectives. You can move up in the organization and feel very strong about your own security when at least two things happen with regularity.
First, competency is the baseline and excellence is the goal. For the record, competency means “average” in many companies today. On a performance appraisal-rating scale of 1 to 5, a competent label will yield a 3 rating. Who wants to be an average 3? Being competent is not enough to ensure security in a wobbly economy and tough job market. Because your work will speak for you, be conscious of the message you want to send with consistency. Second, it is imperative that you are recognized as a person who makes things happen, who is comfortable to be around, and who is ultimately trustworthy. When you are seen this way, the powers that be will want you on their team because it ensures their success. You will help them reach the company objectives and, as a result, their own personal career goals; the good news is that you will also be part of the team that makes things happen. You will grow to be your boss’s probable successor, which is a necessary identification to make for either of you to be promoted. It is not subservient to be a kingmaker. It is a reality and it could be your ticket to becoming an insider with a strong career path in front of you.
Being a kingmaker does not mean being sycophantic or without original thought, vision, or personal motivation. Being a kingmaker is not even the same as managing up. It is creating a trademark for yourself that is highly desirable to executives who have two goals: the company objectives and their own career growth. How is this different from your own goals? You want to meet or exceed the company objectives and you want a great career track, too. Being a kingmaker also helps you identify the competencies of the people you want to hire to work for you so that you can be better prepared for the rise to king, if that is your goal.
Being a kingmaker means that you must excel in your day-to-day responsibilities while being aware of the overriding style and ambitions enveloped in the actions of the person to whom you report. The relationship between you and your manager is most fluent when your objectives and values are in sync. Achievement of your own goals is easier when you gain your king’s support on the road to achievement.
Often personalities, politics, energy, and longevity in a position or place determine the kingmaker’s success, measured in large part by his or her own sense of fulfillment and achievement gained on the job and in life overall. Being a kingmaker isn’t always easy, especially if you don’t have a great boss, if you get a new manager every six months, or if the prevailing mood is survival (fear) rather than moving forward (optimistic productivity). It can be especially difficult when you see your ideas credited to someone else, as in the FedEx commercial, and this happens with unfortunate frequency. The ethic of attribution does not apply the same way in business as it does in journalism, for example.
In my experience, it only felt bad to be a kingmaker when the king wasn’t generous or inclusive, and when he or she was a narcissistic taker (or hoarder) of information, knowledge, and credit. There were many situations when I felt hidden or in the crossfire of territorial politics that I did not want to be a part of. So many egos with so little time! I should have done more to protect my position and contributions, and I see now that meant, in part, having a champion in a high place. It is more comfortable, credible, and efficient to have someone with clout advocate for you than to do it for yourself.
The fact is that leaders get to present wins and losses the way they want to. The king gets the overall credit or blame for work in his or her department and attribution isn’t always part of the leader’s lexicon. You get paid to do a great job; a great boss is a real bonus.
The purpose of this book is to shine a light on this kingmaker role and to be a resource for your own career as you navigate your way in today’s very tough working environment. I did very well, but maybe you can do even better.
Through the awareness of your role as kingmaker and profit contributor, you will excel in your work, your creativity and productivity will improve, you will be more secure, and you will enjoy a secret sense of purpose that does not have to conflict with your own core values. You will be free to be the best at what you do, become invaluable to your leader, and become one of the people that your company wants to keep and other companies want to steal away. You will thrive in your current company with the confidence of a free agent who has the security of employment within your industry because of your strong work ethic and your good name.
It is time to take the driver’s seat in your career and in your whole life and the earlier the better.