The Saddest Thing in Business

Business mimics life. There is in business the full range of emotions, from happiness, to anger, to contentment, to sadness, and everything in between.

In Robert DeNiro’s 1993 movie classic, A Bronx Tale, there is a poignant scene in which the mobster, Sonny, is giving advice to the young Lorenzo regarding why he should study hard and stay away from the life Sonny has chosen: “Listen to me, kid. The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”

I couldn’t agree more.

And business mimics life.

My saddest day in business happened in the same year A Bronx Tale was released, 1993. I was working for P&G in Morocco as brand manager. I had a young talent working for me as an assistant brand manager, who was far and away the finest marketing talent I had ever seen. And here he was in Morocco! I was convinced this kid would be the CMO one day, and I wasn’t the only one. In terms of pure marketing talent, he had so much more potential than I did. Or anyone I had ever seen.

While we all have character flaws, some are more fatal than others. Well, this young man had a fatal flaw, and it was simply that he was not an honest individual. We caught him cheating on his expense accounts, stealing a paltry sum, and he was summarily fired. He went on to work for a few other major multinationals, and each time within a few years, he was caught in some sort of ethics issue and fired. Last I heard, he was tending bar in somewhere in Morocco. Nothing against bartending, but I doubt very much that this was his career aspiration when he was graduating from university.

Some people make the most of their talent and, in reaching for the stars, they grab a few. But for every person like this, there are dozens who squander their talent. And nothing is more heartbreaking. This guy should be running companies, creating global advertising campaigns, winning marketing awards. Not making martinis for people who should be working for him! We see it in all walks of life. We see it as parents. I am the father of five children. Some of my children are making the most of themselves and I am deeply proud of them. But not all, quite frankly. And my greatest sadness is in seeing a son or daughter squander the talents and opportunities they have been given. Living below their potential.

The same is true in the world of business. Seeing young talent wasted away breaks the heart of any organizational leader who realizes people are the difference between success and failure. The question we must ask ourselves is, “How do young people squander their talent?” so that we can then educate future generations on what pitfalls they should avoid. After all, we are now in a time of graduation, and hence this is a very relevant topic for all our fresh grads!

So, what are the drivers of squandering talent in business? After reflecting on the many cases I have seen, for the most part I suspect it boils down to the same factors:

Ethical lapses – Just like in the Morocco case, ethics will trump talent in every instance. If you cannot trust someone, well, talent means very little. Spending company money as you spend your own; staying honorable and honest in your business dealings; doing the right thing, are all principles to abide by in our business lives. We all know what right and wrong is. Do the right thing!

Entitlement – Some people simply believe that they are entitled to a job, or a salary, because of who they are. Who their daddy is. What their last name is. What school they graduated from. The list goes on and on. But they feel, for some reason, that the rules of life, of hard work, of patience, of proving oneself, simply don’t apply to them. So as a result, they don’t work hard and spend inordinate amounts of time complaining instead of focusing on what they can do better.

Bitterness and lack of accountability – A decade ago I knew a student who never took any responsibility for a poor grade in school. It was always “the teacher’s fault.” This young man could never look in the mirror and just face up to reality, that he was the problem. It was too painful to contemplate. So now fast-forward a decade, and this same young man is mired in a mediocre career, far below what his talent and potential and education would suggest. And still it is the fault of someone else — a “bad boss,” for example. Well, we all get bad bosses in life and the best will ride through the tough times with flying colors! And what happens with this continual lack of accountability? You start to see a young person grow old and bitter way before their years. Because they blame “life” for their place in the world, they resent more and more people and parts of their lives. They become bitter and miserable people. And their talent falls by the wayside.

Laziness – We can label this in more acceptable terms, like “lack of discipline,” or “sub-optimal work ethic.” Well, I prefer to just call it what it is: downright laziness! Anyone who has been in business for more than a decade will tell you that attitude trumps talent any day. But sometimes the smart folks are simply not that smart after all. They think they can coast along behind superior genetics. And it will always catch up to them. Many times I have interviewed a bright young graduate, yet with below-average grades, and I always would ask, “Tell me about your grades…”

The response would be something along the lines of “I really am the smartest in my class; I just decided to have fun in school. But now I am ready to work hard and get serious.”

My response? I point out to them that a truly smart person would know that companies look at grades as a major part of their assessment of talent. Hence, if one is smart, then why would they screw around on something as important as grades that will directly impact their career for years to come?

Uncoachability – Young talent is simply that: young talent. They have a long way to go to become a proven business leader. Like a patient who refuses to take their medicine, the young talent who refuses to swallow the “pill” called coaching will eventually fail. Others with less raw talent will pass them by. I will take a modest talent, yet one eager to learn, over the clever prima donna any day of the week. The learner will pass them by, and with an eye on long-term development of an organization, this is the winning bet.

Immaturity and unprofessionalism – Sometimes even the brightest can be undone by lapses in judgment linked to immaturity and/or unprofessionalism. This can be an emotional outburst that brings into question one’s stability and poise and future potential. Childish behaviors more suited to a classroom than a boardroom.  Or it can be a lack of professionalism that rubs off on the company or individual reputation; even small things like punctuality and appearance play an important role.

When I taught leadership at Ateneo, UP, and DLSU, I had a firm rule that anyone coming even one minute late would have to do 50 pushups in class. And week by week, people would learn and get better, and by the end of the semester everyone was on time each week. I didn’t do this to be mean. I didn’t do it so my students had strong pectoral muscles! No, I did it to instill simple discipline in young talent. Being on time is a sign of professionalism. Being late signals sloppiness and a lack of discipline. This matters!  Let’s say you work in banking. Do you think clients will trust you with their money if they see a sloppy individual, always late and sloppy in appearance? No matter how wonderful that brain is, if they don’t trust you, they will not invest money with you.

Bottom line, in the coming weeks a fresh set of new graduates will hit the streets seeking their futures. They all have the same opportunities, the same hopes, and the same dreams. Some will exceed their talents. Some will deliver on their talents. And some will miss their potential by a wide margin. And it will all come down to the six variables noted above.

Grads, show your smarts! Be proud of your accomplishments. But now you are in the big-time! Get off on the right start, and learn from us gray-haired old guys! Indeed, we may be old, but once, not so long ago, we were just like you.