Stefan Stern: The office giants we pretend to be

We're so ambitious that we blur (or worse) the details of our career history


Sometimes the spinning has to stop. In the case of Scott Thompson, the outgoing chief executive of Yahoo, that moment came five months into his tenure at the struggling US internet business. The accounting and computer science degree on his CV apparently lacked one vital element – computer science. I know they say we can "live on thin air" in this digital age, but, for some shareholders, this was a step too far.

Poke around the CVs of high achievers – indeed, almost anyone at work – and it may be that not every claim can be justified on a close examination of the facts. "Managing a team" may have simply involved occasionally briefing a couple of junior assistants. That grand-sounding "project" could have been a paltry affair, and so on.

But, in a competitive jobs market, the temptation to inflate minor feats into major ones can prove hard to resist. We are selling ourselves, after all. (Mr Thompson's case seems to have involved cock-up as well as conspiracy. The company says there was an "inadvertent error" on his CV and that he had been ideally qualified for the job. The news that Mr Thompson is being treated for cancer should also temper our disdain.)

Nonetheless, this episode illustrates what can happen when executives (and their headhunting advisers) are too keen to push themselves forward. We are in such a hurry to leap to the next big job that we blur (or worse) the details of our career history. The first casualty of this undignified scramble up the greasy pole is the truth.

The sociologist Richard Sennett has written about the harmful impact on professional people of this urge to "big ourselves up". In the past, building a steady (if unspectacular) career by honing a craft was not looked down on. Professionals won the respect of their peers by a dedication to the task in hand.

The modern career path of the fast-tracked executive looks completely different. They leap from one "stretch assignment" to another in an accelerated journey to the top. It is not obvious that this leads to more capable management or better leadership of businesses and organisations. It does boost the supply of racier CVs containing extravagant claims about what a candidate is/could be capable of. As Prof Sennett puts it: "In place of craftsmanship, modern culture advances an idea of meritocracy that celebrates potential ability rather than past [ie real] achievement."

Many people feel like imposters at work, waiting to be found out. But some successfully override moral qualms and rejoice in their calculated false memory syndrome.

Perhaps this is yet another matter for investigation that could be added to Lord Justice Leveson's ever-expanding bundle – presuming he is who he says he is.

Stefan Stern is Visiting Professor in management practice at Cass Business School, London. Really.

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