Are you delivering? Then everything else is secondary

Hedge fund superstars don’t wear suits.

They don’t need to. Their performance in their job is clear, measurable, and comparable to their peers.

  • Your job is to make money by trading.
  • Your firm, or your investors, know exactly how much money you made or lost in your trades.
  • Everyone knows the overall market performance, so it’s easy to see if you over- or under-performed against the market.

In such a situation, you have skin in the game. If you perform, you get rewarded, and if you don’t, you don’t. Signalling devices like fancy suits, looking busy in meetings, and delivering polished powerpoint presentations just aren’t relevant. You can do pretty much whatever you want, as long as you deliver.

In Sheelah Kolhatkar’s new book Black Edge, there’s a demonstration of this principle from hedge fund titan Stevie Cohen, early in his career:

“Every time I try to trade, Steve’s ahead of me,” the trader complained. “Mesa’s my best stock, and he’s killing me!”

Aizer confronted Cohen.

“Steve, you’re making so much money, and these guys are not doing as well,” he said. “Do you really need to trade Mesa?”

“Would the Yankees ask Mickey Mantle to bat eighth?” Cohen shot back. Aizer shrugged. It was hard to argue. Cohen was such a good producer that he became the exception to every rule.

Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street by Sheelah Kolhatkar

Cohen could ignore the conventions of the firm–letting other, less profitable traders make money on a stock like Mesa–because he produced so much for the firm. Most importantly, it was clear to his boss that Cohen produced more for the firm, because in trading it’s easy to see who is contributing and who isn’t.

So in a situation where your performance is clear and obvious, all that matters is results. Everything else is secondary.

What if your output isn’t clear?

Of course, the issue is that many of us work in functions like accounting, customer service, operations, HR, or marketing, where we don’t have a simple way to point to the results we produce. The output of our work is mixed up with everyone else’s. In such situations, we need to find a substitute for “delivering results”.

I’d argue that a good substitute is “making my boss’s life easier.” By which I mean that your boss:

  • trusts you to get the job done to a good standard;
  • can rely on you to hit deadlines reliably;
  • isn’t surprised or caught out by anything you do;
  • feels informed of everything they need to know about your area;
  • doesn’t feel out of the loop on anything.

If you can hit these, then again, everything else is secondary. On the flip side, if you aren’t ticking these boxes, your actual job performance doesn’t matter that much. As author Jeffrey Pfeffer says in his book Power:

[A]s long as you keep your boss or bosses happy, performance really does not matter that much and, by contrast, if you upset them, performance won’t save you…job performance matters less for your evaluation than your supervisor’s commitment to and relationship with you.

–Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer

So the trick is to understand: what sort of situation am I in? And therefore, what do I need to deliver? Then focus on that, and forget everything else.

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