We’ve all worked with one. At least one. The guy who doesn’t seem to do much of anything yet he’s able to stay in favor with the boss. You know him. The yes man. Brown noser. Suck up. Why does this guy exist at all? And how does he stay employed? Is the boss really that blind? Or stupid? Hopefully the boss is only temporarily disengaged.
I suspect the brown noser has existed since ancient times.
In the early hunter-gather nomadic systems he probably didn’t last long once his mother grew tired of him whining all the time. He was unable to help in the hunt and embarrassed his father. The brown noser was shamed into staying back with the women, children, and retired hunters to tend the garden or make weapons for the guys who brought home the food.
In later, more organized tribal systems, the warriors probably sat back and watched while the brown noser worked his schtick to manipulate the tribal leader into favoring him. But the warriors had a built-in purging system: battle. I’m sure they tolerated the yes man until the next skirmish…where he surely failed on the battle field and didn’t return home.
This purging system was probably quite effective through most of history. Until the modern corporation.
Unfortunately, it seems apparent that a byproduct of corporate success is the timid, often back-stabbing, opinion shifting, love-to-hate-him suck up. Or is he a necessity? Does this much hated charlatan meet a unique need of the corporate environment?
I met my first brown noser about six-months after I entered the real world of entry-level corporate servitude, circa 1995. This guy was a level jumper. We’ll call him Stan.
Stan bypassed our boss Jason, the Logistics Manager. Stan leapt passed Jason’s boss Paul, the Operations Manager. And finally we witnessed Stan landing squarely in the favor of the General Manager, a giant man named Tom.
Our GM was no normal GM. According to corporate legend, he was a direct decedent of the Roman inventors of cement. He was the youngest GM in the company (6,000+ employees) and managed one of the largest divisions. He had inroads to all the big customers and all the big whigs from the foreign investment office (that nobody knew was in the process of acquiring us).
But that’s not all. Tom was military. All three of these managers were military. Two still on active duty. They all understood organizational hierarchy. Seeing Stan jump to the top didn’t make sense. Stan was a good worker, but he wasn’t that good.
For months it kept going. Stan would be called from his normal duties and told to handle special projects, take extra training, visit problem customers and help hire people for other departments. The other guys in our logistics department, where Stan was supposed to work, had to backfill during his ever increasing absences.
About a year into it I truly feared for Stan’s life. We all thought Paul was going to strangle him to death. Paul and Stan actually had a fist fight in the office during the middle of the day. Not surprisingly this turned out to be the tipping point.
Tom realized how far he had let this go. And to what end? Stan was reeled back in. But it didn’t last long. We were told that a minority share holder was going to become a majority share holder and we had to create a five-year business plan for growth. Stan was pulled as the guy to lead the project. It demoralized most of his peers. And the two middle managers began actively working to see Stan fail.
What was going on? And who was this Stan guy anyway?
The Horrible Truth
It was me. I had unwittingly and unknowingly become the brown noser. I really had no idea. I was young, naive and in constant need of changing duties to keep me occupied. Tom, without formerly saying anything, had taken me under his wing. He later told me he had several reasons to do this:
- Competitive motivation. My active presence kept the middle managers on their toes. Tom was getting better results out of almost everyone.
- Succession planning. He needed some young guys to groom for five and ten years down the road.
- Political protection. Keeping me close kept me from screwing up too much at once. He could intervene quickly and provide air-cover.
- Framework to grow up. I was, um, disruptive when I ran out of work. Tom figured out I needed how a big back log to keep me busy and focused until I matured into the responsibilities of corporate life.
- Trusting his strength. Tom believed he was great at reading people and grooming them. He trusted my ability to think through issues and come up with solutions without getting too personal. I innately had a skill he needed in his division. He wanted to validate his assumption. I was a high risk task he had to stay directly involved with to know if I was worth the investment or if he needed to look elsewhere.
How It Happened
There is another part to this story. I said I met – rather became – the brown noser about 6-months into starting with the company. That’s true. But why did this happen? Well, I had written Tom a letter and sent it to his house. This was before email and I wanted it to be read while he was at home and not distracted at work. I needed him to digest it. Plus, he was very charismatic and I didn’t want to be overwhelmed. I knew if I handed him the letter at work he would call me into his office where he would out think me.
The gist of the letter was…he was arrogant, unappreciative, changed course too often, was full of crap and I didn’t want to work for an organization that let such a brazen, self-righteous jerk run one of the biggest divisions. I articulated it much more diplomatically than that. But the argument was the same. I was resigning.
He did call me into his office. Apparently, he was aware of his short comings. And his strengths. He needed some people who could stand up to him behind a closed door but tow the line in public. Because I sent the letter, he offered to help me grow my career and work on my weaknesses. The responsibility was that I would have to work more than anyone else, couldn’t say why, and would have to take a lot of heat from my peers and the middle managers.
I accepted my spot as the yes man. Brown noser. Suck up.
And I kept my mouth shut.
How it Worked
What happened behind those closed door meetings was often intense debate about solving problems. The problem could be internal or external. How to handle a regulation. Pricing problems. Developing staff. Identify new markets. Finding new raw material sources.
It was fun and energizing and I learned a ton. And I took a lot of heat. Including a couple of punches to the face by that Ops Manager.
Tom always had the final word. I could challenge all I wanted behind closed doors. But once the decision was made it was my job to agree with his decision publicly, even if I didn’t truly agree with him, and push his decision forward from my level. I had to show unwavering support.
The unfortunate part is that I couldn’t tell anyone. It really, really sucked at times. Many employees assumed that I thoughtlessly went along with anything Tom said so that I could get ahead by brown nosing. It was never the case. But I couldn’t explain to anyone. Like I said, it sucked at times.
On the positive side my career grew with his. I became an integral middle manager and really learned to enjoy being a middle manager. There is a lot that can be done from the middle. It’s possible to have a real sense of accomplishment. The caveat is you do so behind the scenes.
A Real Education
What I discovered is that managers, the higher up they are in the organization, need sounding boards, too. Usually, a middle manager is secretly part of this team. He’s close enough to the front line that he can feel the pulse of the customers. He’s also far enough into the company to understand the players, personal agendas and politics. This brown nosing middle manager is actually a confidant to executives.
A Dose of Reality
I admit there are still those who suck up to try and get ahead. They rarely last a long time. But if you notice a brown noser who has staying power, there’s a good chance he’s a valuable part of the corporate environment. If his career advances, he’ll most likely use a similar technique to help grow a direct report or two. I did. And it worked. Half the time.