Aggression Loses Some Of Its Punch

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A money-management firm with a nice-guy culture was looking for an eats-nails-for-breakfast, kick-butt manager to run a new area of its portfolio. The first hire was aggressive with a capital A. In an office where flamboyant egos were scarce, the hotshot's first move was to order $200,000 worth of office furniture. "He needed to be a star," reports Elaine Eisenman of Management & Capital Partners, whose firm was enlisted to find a better match. The new guy flamed in four months, just long enough to get the furniture delivered. You know what the A stood for.

What's the state of aggression these days? The abrupt departure of Lucent's Deborah (Hurricane Debby) Hopkins touched off the usual fulminations: that aggressiveness, which is rewarded in men, is punished in women. No question, gender unfairness still operates. But more to the point, aggressiveness as a trait, in men or women, is less in vogue. Period. If you think of it as a stock, "its value has been diluted," says Patrick Wright, chairman of the human- resource-studies department at Cornell.

That backstabbing, rule-breaking megalomaniac who would gladly use you as a doormat is less and less tolerated across a range of industries. "It used to be that aggressiveness--the Type A personality--was valued," observes Steven Berglas, author of The Success Syndrome: Hitting Bottom When You Reach the Top. "Our culture built a Ben Franklinesque doctrine: Hustle; don't lose a minute."

The corporate-culture doctors now say you have to distinguish between "good" and "bad" aggressiveness--like good and bad cholesterol. The good kind is more in demand than ever, asserts Terry Schuler, senior vice president of HR at Avery Dennison. "Business is more unforgiving today," he says, "and the marketplace has upped the ante for drive and results."

Harnessing the good, culling the bad: that's where things get dicey. Since the mid-'90s, a growing number of companies have looked to the success of Jack Welch with General Electric to guide them through this psychologically ambiguous terrain. GE's mandate from the top is that high performers--even prodigies--who unrepentantly trash company values are given the boot.

Tony Eldridge, 40, a senior manager with consultants Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, taught himself to adapt to this changing landscape. "Before, it was all about what you as an individual could achieve and get credit for. Now you have to give up personal ownership--which goes against all my education in business school. But sometimes you have to put down that voice in the back of your head screaming 'Me! Me! Me!' and ask, 'O.K., if I get the recognition, what will be the cost to me?'" The cost is high, Eldridge says, because co-workers get turned off and avoid working with you.

The value of the lone wolf has fallen in direct proportion to the rising complexity of doing business on a global scale. No one can create or market a product alone anymore, so interrelatedness is a necessity. To foster it, companies have shifted how they evaluate and reward people. Increasingly, they reward the pack. "We think the era of individual heroics is over," declares Kathleen Donovan, Pfizer's vice president of HR for U.S. pharmaceuticals. It ended for the drug giant as the company grew rapidly in the '90s and began taking on vastly more complicated--medically, socially and politically--diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's. "The whole marketplace--and customer profile--is more complex," Donovan explains. "We need global teams." Pfizer now ties salary and bonuses to team results. A key player may be on more than one team and still can get personal incentives, but the balance has shifted.

Consider too what happens at downsized companies, where the resources are spread thin. At Lucent, a dizzying sequence of restructurings, layoffs and revised business strategies has reduced internal competition in favor of playing nice together. Before its fiscal year began last Oct. 1, notes Pam Kimmet of Lucent's HR department, the focus for salespeople was hitting their numbers by pushing their own products--a Lucent optical networking system, say, vs. data networking. Now the company needs to sell integrated systems that may include a little of each. So salesfolk have to join forces.

Lucent is not leaving any of this to chance--or to benevolent human nature. The new rule is that no one wins unless the company overall hits its targets--a mandate made imperative by Lucent's precarious state. So last year no one got bonuses. Once the company makes its numbers, it creates a kind of prize fund and divvies up the dough according to how a team performed and what each member contributed. A staff member on a successful team can make zilch or more than everybody else. But nobody gets anything unless his team wins.

Even on Wall Street, the natural habitat of the lone wolf, it's harder to run solo. "On Wall Street, aggression was equated with sales," observes Larry Fraser of Management & Capital Partners, consultants in hiring and organizational effectiveness. "But the aggression now prevalent on Wall Street is institutional aggressiveness in the market and a downward trend in individual success at any cost." Ten years ago, he notes, 10 of the top 15 institutional brokers on the Street paid employees by commission. Five years ago, that number was down to five. In the first quarter of this year, the last holdout, Robertson Stephens, switched to salary and bonus.

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