The first thing to do when you start a new job
Find out where the bodies are buried.
I’m a marketer and an engineer, not an undertaker, but dead bodies have played a big role in my career.
Summers during college, my weeknight ritual was to grab a burrito to go from my favorite Mexican restaurant after work, then take it down to my secret little beach tucked between two hotels. I loved to watch the waves and the pelicans and the sea otters. It was great — my own piece of paradise.
But my boss told me that the only reason that the beach even existed was because it was hiding a secret. There was a body buried there. A dead Indian. The hotel developer had uncovered it during construction and preserved the site because there were strict laws about disturbing Native American remains. Otherwise, he said, if they hadn’t found it, they would have built over the whole beach.
It reminded me when I was younger and overheard my billionaire uncle — a real estate developer — bragging about operating a backhoe that started turning up bones. He knew if anyone saw them they would derail his project, so he quietly gathered them into a garbage bag and dumped them in a storm drain.
That story always made me uneasy. But the bodies kept coming.
Years later, I was consulting for a mining company that was teaming up with an Indian reservation to mine a big piece of land in the desert. One of the first things we had to do was survey the land to make sure there weren’t any archaeological artifacts on it. So we hired a team of roving archaeologists to walk every inch of the site and take notes about what they found.
They found a body. A Native American burial. A thousand years old. Right in the middle of where the company wanted to dig. It was a dealbreaker.
As the years went by, the body count stopped. But the buried secrets continued.
I was working with a real estate developer trying to figure out how to redevelop a piece of land that used to have a factory on it. The city was booming, and some of the hottest neighborhoods in town were right around the corner. We thought it would make a great place for a trendy mix of condos and restaurants, since it was at the intersection of two very busy streets.
But weird things started showing up in my research. I found old photographs that showed the site had been used as a trash dump. A big flood in the 1930’s had washed garbage into it from miles around.
So we hired a driller to punch some holes in the ground and see what was down there. When we tested the soil that came up, we found bad stuff. Not just used car batteries and cans of paint, but things you could hardly pronounce: perchloroethylene, trichloroethylene, hexavalent chromium.
You might have heard of that last one if you ever saw Erin Brockovich. It was really, really bad stuff. Stuff that could cause cancer and other diseases. Stuff that meant potential liabilities in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Everything we found had to be labeled “Attorney — Client Privilege” then immediately deleted from our computers.
But I was starting to see a pattern.
Secrets had value.
If you knew things about a company that weren’t public record — its history, its strategy, its hidden assets or liabilities, or things that could cause embarrassment if they became widely known — you had leverage.
Opportunities that other employees didn’t.
Take Patty. She was the VP of real estate for a Fortune 500 company.
The company was in dire straits because of the Great Recession. A smaller competitor smelled opportunity and launched a low-ball hostile takeover. But Patty was sitting on an appraisal that showed that one of the company’s facilities was worth over $2 billion, even though its book value was essentially zero. She leaked it to the right outlet at the right time, and the stock price jumped out of reach of the competitor. She saved the company.
He had a top-floor corner office overlooking a park at the company’s headquarters. He had no staff to worry about, and he worked only on the projects that interested him. While other executives rushed between meetings, he loved to lean back in his comfy chair and hold forth about pricing strategy. Other employees called him The Professor. But really he was the consigliere to the CEO. For a company that did $5 billion a year in sales, he knew exactly how all its products were priced and why. He knew which customers needed to be rewarded and which needed to be disciplined.
Patty and James didn’t get into these positions overnight. It took them 20 or 30 years to accumulate the inside knowledge that made them indispensable.
But it’s not so much time in the saddle that got them there as it was attentiveness and awareness.
They picked up on subtle cues that pointed to the soft underbelly of their organizations. They zeroed in on what people didn’t want to talk about, or what made them uncomfortable. Because they knew that’s where the secrets were. Lesser minds breeze past the hard stuff because they don’t want to deal with it. They’re cognitive misers.
They want to pretend the ground isn’t contaminated. Someone else will clean it up.
They want to focus on next quarter’s revenue instead of last year’s unfunded liability, because that’s what their bonus will be based on.
They want to think about the near-term, not the long game.
The long game means focusing on the big issues that could cost your business everything it’s worth, like the flood 80 years ago that washed the city’s pollution onto your property. It means guarding the secret recipe that made your company famous over 100 years ago.
My strategy professor back in business school loved to talk about Coca-Cola. “If anyone ever had a license to steal, it’s Coca-Cola. They make brown sugar water, with bubbles in it!”
It was an over-simplification, of course. It took lots of creativity and discipline at all levels to make Coca-Cola the company it is today.
But one of the best things Coca-Cola ever did was to shroud its recipe in secrecy. The founders got tons of free publicity by making a big show of their secret recipe — hiding it in a big steel vault and entrusting the combination to a small, secret society of a few trusted employees.
If you were starting out as a new employee at Coca-Cola today, wouldn’t your goal be to become one of the guardians of that secret? Why not?
When you’re starting any new job, your first priority needs to be learning their secrets. How they do things better or worse than their competitors. What they’re afraid of. How they could do better.
When you focus on secrets and on where the bodies are buried, your goal isn’t to create leverage, or to blackmail anyone. Your goal is to avoid making the same mistakes that others have. Your goal is to develop context so you have a better idea where the risks are hiding when a new venture or project comes up.
You want to focus on problems because you recognize that problems are opportunities in disguise.
Secrets are worth something. Good secrets are worth lots.
But that’s not where it stops.
You have to know how to keep secrets, too. Not many people do.
Keeping secrets is how you tap their real value. That’s how you prove your worth.
That’s how you earn trust.
And trust is what makes you indispensable.
This article first appeared on the Varamark Research blog at https://www.varamark.com/post/secrets