A few years ago, a guy came to my company from another one that sported a thoroughly different culture. I won’t characterise ours, particularly the way it was back then. It was simply too demented – a post-merger environment in which you had to watch your back and your front. I can, however, tell you about theirs: arrogant, outspoken and obnoxious. The place was known for executives who came in, told you what you were doing wrong and then left a smoking ruin when they split. So Deon arrived from this alien planet to play a very senior strategic planning role. Soon after he started, he attended a large meeting on potential acquisitions – a meeting that included our then-CEO, Mark. Mark was sort of quiet, vague, inscrutable and indecisive. You seldom really knew what he was thinking. Deon changed that. The new guy arrived at the meeting wearing a black suit and black tie – nothing like the rest of us. But that’s all right. He was new. He seated himself in a very conspicuous chair near the end of the long boardroom table, in a spot usually occupied by our general counsel, who ended up taking the seat next to him, looking slightly confused and disgruntled.

Mark began with one of his speeches about growth involving both good internal management and smart acquisitions – one of those things he used to say that meant very little but was his way of letting everybody know he wasn’t sleeping. You need that sometimes. It was at that point that Deon, who was sitting very upright in his chair and pecking at his notepad with a R2 000 pen, spoke – and ended his brief career with us. “You guys have no idea what you’re doing on this issue,” he said, rather scientifically. “Mergers and acquisitions seem totally haphazard and completely random,” he continued as we all looked on, agape. It wasn’t that what he was saying was untrue. Just… Who says that kind of thing in front of Mark? “We’ve got to tear down your entire operation and start from the ground up,” Deon concluded, and sat back in his comfy chair, looking very satisfied with himself. The meeting ended not long after. Our president approached our CEO and asked, “Well, Mark, what do you think of our new boy?” Mark replied, in his mild manner, “Oh, he’s obviously very bright and capable and all. I just never want to see him again. I don’t want him in any meeting at which I am an attendee, and if he is in such a meeting, I will leave.” Then he sauntered off. Deon was gone a week later. This is an extreme example of an all-too common phenomenon – guys who fail to read the culture and don’t sync with their colleagues and employer. It’s a shame when it happens, because it’s not that hard to mesh in. You just have to follow a handful of simple rules.

Pace your commentary

Nobody ever landed in trouble for being too thoughtful and reserved at an open meeting. For the most part, everyone respects a man who projects a willingness to learn the ropes in attentive silence. You need to speak when it’s appropriate to do so, of course. But stifle your tendency to blather intelligently, even if you think it makes you sound good. That’s dangerous. There are limits to reticence, though. We have one division head around here who is the butt of jokes when we’re out drinking – the guy simply sits like a statue at meetings and, over the course of a year or so, hasn’t opened his trap once. That’s not taciturn. That’s dumb. So ease into it. We have a new junior dude around here who’s doing it right. He joined us last spring. Didn’t say much for a few months. Just did his work, and did it right. After a while he started stopping by my office and other people’s offices just to chat, offer a few ideas. In staff meetings he sat on the edge. But he started piping up in early summer, and nothing he said was stupid. At this point, when I see the guy I often stop to ask his opinion about something. One of these days I might be working for him.

Find your enemies…

You should be able to identify the good guys as well as the true bastards. Managing the difference can set you up right – or set you up for disaster. Here’s what you need to know. Pricks don’t look you in the eye when they talk to you. Friends do. Friends will touch your shoulder or your elbow when they say hello or goodbye. They’re not exactly snapping towels at your butt in the locker room, but that little friendly touch means a lot. Pricks will sell you out in an open meeting. If something goes south, a prick will turn to you and say, “Gee, Sean, why didn’t you give us a heads-up about that?” And you have to say nothing. Never engage a powerful arsehole when you don’t have the guns. Do it later. Much later, if necessary. Friends watch your back and will never humiliate you, even when you are a powerless little dweeb ripe for squashing. If I had to target one key skill all survivors possess, it would be this: they know their friends from their enemies, their potential friends from their potential enemies and their future permanent enemies from their future friends who used to be enemies, if you follow.

…but don’t pick fights with them

Business is pain. People wrangle. Make sure your wrangling doesn’t bring you head-to-head with somebody more powerful than you. Not too long ago, I knew some people at a corporation run by a very easy-going, informal CEO. He worked with a Number Two guy, relatively new to the company, who was all action and spunk. After a while the two began to grate on each other. The CEO decided he was going to take Number Two dude out. He gathered his staff together. He declared war. Everybody drafted all kinds of paper announcing the death of the subordinate. Then they went to the Board… and the Board backed the other guy. The Number Two became Number One. The Number One became Number Zero. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked a fight when I shouldn’t have, and walked away with some key body part in a sling. Think like a lawyer: in court they never ask a question they don’t already know the answer to. Don’t pick fights you’re not sure you can win.

Scare up some humility

Your entire strategy should be based around your willingness to subordinate your enormous, florid personality well enough to establish a power base. Later you can be as dramatic as you like. In the early days, not so much. You may think people will be most impressed by your white-hot brain and supercharged will to power. They won’t be. They’re much more likely to be annoyed by that. What they will like is modesty, charm and friendliness. Even if you’re not a humble person, act like one until you’re established enough to be yourself. Appear interested in what other people have to say, even when you’re not. Suffer fools gladly; suppress your urge to tell your cubicle neighbour that he’s an idiot. Speak well of others, even when the corporate gossip mill is humming. Find a sensei, even a few mini-sensei. Every Luke has his Yoda. Find yours.

Study the patterns

There is a tough balance you have to achieve immediately: you want neither to underperform and be a screw-up, nor to overperform and be a suck-up nerd everybody hates. Pay attention to when people show up in the morning, what the weekly and monthly cycles are and what the typical duration of a project is. Find out who stays late and why. There will always be people who are killing themselves at 7.30pm to make sure things get done right and tight. You might want to hang around those guys. They often need and appreciate help.

Find your turf

Very early on, you will notice gaps in the infrastructure that you can fill. My mate Neil is a consultant, God help him. A while back he moved from one predatory, heartless consultancy to another, looking for more efficient and creative ways to fire people and have those few who survived do the jobs formerly done by many. Simply put, Neil found himself working with and for a bunch of meanies. He did notice, however, that in this organisation, nobody seemed to want to go to Bloemfontein, even though the company had a big customer there. So Neil volunteered to handle the account. The boss man looked at him like he was nuts. And then he said yes. Now they tell jokes about him there. He’s the guy willing to go to Bloem on Friday for a Monday meeting, ha ha ha. That’s the kind of ribbing that spells success, my friends.

Have some fun

In every company, there are people who like to eat, drink, be merry and make believe that we’re on this planet to enjoy life rather than to conquer and then destroy the opposition. I like to hang out with those guys. It’s how I came to know our former head of HR. He was always the guy on a Thursday night at 3am, screaming for another Jäger. We had a lot of fun together. I particularly enjoyed it when he saved my butt during the big reorganisation of 2003.