Sharp Elbows

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My boss and I were sitting in the client cafeteria.  Lunch long over, we chose a private table near the big windows.  We had just finished a great workshop with a potential client.  Spirits were high.

In consulting, we rarely got 1:1 face-to-face time with our bosses.  Especially at the partner level.  So this was a great opportunity to have a career conversation.

I considered how to ask it.  At some point, you’ve probably labored over this same question.  

“What do I need to do to get promoted to the next level?”

As he leaned back, I imagined all sorts of responses:

  •  Double your sales
  •  Build more offers
  •  Expand your team
  •  Speak at more conferences
  •  Develop relationships with more senior clients

But his answer took me aback.

“I don’t think you have what it takes.  You need Sharp Elbows”


What does that mean?

You can watch Sharp Elbows in pro basketball.  The ball bounces off the rim and a player grabs it and lands.  You see his elbows fly as he guards the ball from a sea of grabby hands.  Sharp Elbows provides an extra level of hurt.  With sharp elbows you just don’t protect the ball and block grabby hands, you CUT people.  There’s a malicious intent.  

My boss explained I needed to get my name attached to the most strategic projects in North America.  Do whatever it takes to wheedle my way in.  Once in, make sure everyone knows it’s MY project.  And don’t let anyone get credit as they try to steal your wins.

This is how you stand out.

The Sharp Elbow Strategy works.  You get credit.  You rise fast.  Make more money.  I’ve seen it happen.  It’s effective.

And Sharp Elbows is not who I am.  Not my identity.  

Look, I’m no angel.  

  •  I rolled people off my projects who weren’t cutting it.  Painful.  
  •  I pushed senior partners away who were sticking their nose in when they weren’t adding value.  Career repercussions.  
  •  I even ‘fired’ a few clients because they weren’t serious about achieving their mission.  Lost revenue.

But Sharp Elbows?  No.

In that conversation with my boss, I gave up on that promotion.  He was right, I didn’t have what it takes.  In fact, our talk reinforced my mission to double down on my investment in people -- my team, clients and fellow partners.  I take stewardship seriously -- leaving my team and clients better off than when we started.

In a world full of divisive language, I see a lot of Sharp Elbows.  Social media allows people to shout loudly with little accountability for the hurt they inflict.  Divisiveness solidifies intent.  It gets people worked up and mobilizes them to act.  Social scientists will tell you that Sharp Elbows and Divisiveness are proven as effective strategies.  

That doesn’t make these strategies right.

Let’s evolve!

A friend told me, “If you can achieve your dreams alone, you aren’t dreaming big enough.”

To achieve your big dreams, instead of throwing sharp elbows, extend your hand and ask for help.  Invite diverse perspectives to strengthen your strategies.   Step boldly forward.  Share your vision.  Share the credit.  And build a movement!

Sharp Elbows may get you promoted and paid more.  

But collaboration will help you build relationships that outlast promotions and projects.  A network activated by collaboration lights up your world and develops authentic relationships that will last decades.

Let’s build a better world for future generations!   


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