The Corporate Shrink

The Good Doctor Heals Some Hurt Feelings over Neglected – and Stolen – Ideas.

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on FastCompany

As an engineer, I was the first to see the need for the next generation of a key product. I think my CEO sees it too, but nobody ever gets it off the ground. Plus, our team recently got a project leader who operates between me and the CEO. How can I make this a success, for myself and for the business? (issue 92, page 82)

Sometimes it must feel like you have to be both engineer and shrink at the same time. Clearly, having a good idea alone isn’t always enough.

Let’s assume you’re right – your company should invest now in developing a new product, and you know exactly what it is. This isn’t just an engineering challenge; it’s a political one. How do you win acceptance for your idea in a culture that is slow to move? And how do you get the credit you deserve without stepping on any toes?

People often downplay the importance of corporate politics or wish that work could be free of it. But that’s silly; as long as there are people there will be politics, and those who recognize this – even learn to enjoy it – are the most successful in business.

Do as much work as you can on the product idea by yourself. Consider how to address expected resistance from the organization and the CEO, then present it to the project leader. Strive to be seen not only as a visionary engineer but as an adept navigator of corporate culture. And suggest a way the two of you might, in turn, pitch the idea to the CEO so that all three of you can take appropriate credit.

By the way, why was your team given a project leader? Were you unable to bring projects to fruition? Sounds like you saw it as a demotion, so ask yourself whether it’s partly a reflection on your own ability to get things done. Involving your boss and the CEO early on may remedy that – and earn you the reward you’ve been seeking.

I invited an expert to see my business plan, thinking he might become an investor and adviser. Turns out he was trying to steal my plans. I didn’t sue – and now, two years later, his company is up and running while I feel paralyzed, since I had such a strong belief in the business and put in a year to develop it. Now I want to raise money and compete against my own plan. In the long run, I believe I still have the “vision.”

The expert’s specialty was thievery, and yours was gullibility. Bad combination. The paralysis you feel may reveal conflict between constructive anger and wanting to wring the guy’s neck. Stymied, you retreat to helpless inactivity rather than jumping back into the game. And your decision not to sue may have robbed you of the opportunity to seek justice and regain a bit of your wounded self-esteem.

Having the “vision” (whatever that means) may not be enough to make up for lost time. I don’t mean to discourage you, but I’m a little concerned when you say you want to compete against your own plan. You’d better start thinking of it as competing against his plan. Otherwise, you risk turning your anger on yourself and sabotaging your next venture. Beware your attachment to an old idea. If you really have the “vision” thing, then you ought to be able to come up with an even better idea now.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises CEOs on people and corporate culture. Ask him about the psychology of business.