Review: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There feels like a book written for a past era. The author is an executive coach—an actual one, who regularly takes on Fortune 500 C-level executives as clients, as opposed to listing it in a LinkedIn profile from when they dropped some unsolicited advice to a seed-stage startup founder that one time—who collected his experiences helping those clients for the past 20+ years and condensed them into this one book. Although there’s a distracting amount of title-dropping throughout his stories, I still found the examples authentic, in part due to the casual tone and mundane problems.

The entire premise of “what got you here” consists mostly of jerkish behaviors, and therefore the author’s fixes are entirely around nudging his clients away from being jerks. In fact, he repeatedly avoids talking about any on-the-job domain skills that got his clients their C-level roles; his focus is solely on tweaking and smoothing out their behavioral rough edges. In other words, many of the world’s most successful companies employ alpha male executives, and their continued success requires that they act a little less, uh, alpha.

It feels like a relic of corporate past because this style is just less celebrated and openly accepted in the work environment. Take the biggest companies, most of which are now tech firms: recent corporate leadership and role models have shifted away from overt assholitude and towards gentler, kinder chief executives. Steve Jobs’s jerkiness evolved into a much more collaborative Tim Cook; Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer gave the reins to Satya Nadella who turned the company around while bringing a more positive culture; the Google founders left their conglomerate to a “nice guy” in Sundar Pichai. Their collective nominations and success is a strong rebuke to the old argument that being an asshole is a requirement to make it to the top. In fact, it’s harder nowadays to explicitly antagonize your colleagues when there’s the persistent danger of journalist exposés of bad behaviors.

Surprisingly, there is a section in this book, published in 2007, that encouraged managers to write down how to manage their aggressive selves and send those memos to their colleagues. That is, What Got You Here figured out the idea of the Manager README a decade before engineering managers stumbled onto the idea. Though, to be fair, the former only came about from an insistent executive coach trying to change resistant behaviors, whereas the latter is a voluntary exercise by those already attuned to the sensitivities of people management.

Given all the clientele that required this sort of coaching/intervention, there is certainly some amount of selection bias at play; an executive coach specializing in reforming aggressive behavior would mostly see cases that he can fix. But, I also found it hard to relate to as it’s the polar opposite of my own management philosophies. I recently read a well-researched study, which attributed the bamboo ceiling—the phenomenon where East Asians are underrepresented in leadership positions, even when they may be overrepresented in non-management roles—to a lack of assertiveness in communications. Despite the evidence above of an evolution towards kinder leadership, I wondered how much this cultural dissonance has negatively affected my own career; I started second-guessing myself a handful of chapters into the book.

I’m hoping that most people are like me, in that they would also struggle to relate to curbing their own overly aggressive demeanors. But What Got You Here Won’t Get You There is one of those books that’s good to keep in your back pocket for when you do cross paths with someone who matches the profile. Granted, recommending or gifting a book that talks about how to stop being a jerk is itself a message, so the hardest part may well be finessing your way into suggesting someone read this book, without coming off a jerk yourself.

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