There is an old saying that if something looks rotten, smells rotten, and tastes rotten, it probably is rotten.
The older I get, the more I understand the wisdom of this adage, especially when it comes to people. If I had embraced the concept earlier in my career, it might have saved me a lot of time, aggravation, and needless worry.
In my 30s I was a rising executive at Nissan and younger than most of my colleagues. While I had great confidence in my own abilities, I was understandably intimidated and slightly insecure around the older and more experienced automotive executives with whom I worked, particularly those in senior management.
A few years into my tenure we brought in a new executive from a competitor. He was brash and carried himself with real swagger. He dropped names, boasted of past accomplishments, and reminded anyone who’d listen that he had been the "youngest guy ever to be appointed a vice president at Ford."
My gut told me that he was bad news. He didn’t seem that smart, talked a lot more than he listened, and used intimidation to get his way. But I found myself nervous in his presence, and I questioned my initial impressions because, after all, he had been the youngest vice president at Ford. On top of that, my company had hired him in a senior role, so I was sure he must be more substantive than I was giving him credit for.
I found myself swayed by his insights. I began seeking his input and approval on projects. When he offered unsolicited critiques of my department or my performance, I took them to heart, despite my better judgment. His presence began to eat at me and to rattle my confidence.
What I failed to recognize was that my initial gut reaction was spot on. Others in the company, including members of the management team, were seeing the same things I saw. As it turned out, he was exited from the firm within a few years, and while I silently rejoiced, I also cursed the amount of time I had wasted worrying over what this bully had thought and said.
A similar thing happened years later at another firm when a new guy joined our management team with the same kind of obnoxious bravado. This exec came from a top-tier consulting firm, had an Ivy League degree, and frequently dropped the names of CEOs and senior executives from Fortune 100 companies with whom he was allegedly close. Again, my gut told me he was bad news, even though many of my colleagues seemed impressed by him.
So I consciously decided not to let him get my goat. I was polite and helpful when necessary, but made it a point to avoid engagement whenever possible. As in the case of Nissan, this brash executive left the company after a little more than two years. This time I was not surprised, and more important, I was pleased to note that I had wasted little time worrying about what the new guy thought. I was also impressed that our company did not tolerate his boorish behavior.
It took me decades to learn that if an executive appears like a bad egg, behaves like a bad egg, and responds like a bad egg, then he or she probably is a bad egg and it’s best to avoid getting sucked in by them.
I also learned to trust that these people generally don’t last long in an organization, and if they do, then it’s probably time to take a long look at the organization itself.
Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.