The rise of the City Slacker

Jun 23 2006 by Steve McKevitt Print This Article

Getting on in life without actually being good at anything isn't a skill exclusive to C-list celebrities. The corporate world can boast an an even greater number of people who have built hugely successful careers based on the same premise.

Life's not fair! Surely this must be one of the most important and unpleasant lessons of childhood (well mine, anyway). Our parents may have sat us down after a tearful and unwarranted trauma — the loss of a pet or a favourite toy — and shattered our faith in the concept of natural justice by explaining that things don't always go our way.

They call it part of growing up. We learn that the good guys don't always win, that we don't always get our ball back, that we can't have our cake and eat it, that bullies don't always get their comeuppance, and that the bad guys sometimes get away with it too, regardless of the machinations of a few meddling kids.

This is a very pessimistic view of the world, but one that is intended to stand us in good stead as we deal with life's inevitable disappointments and its habit of pissing on bonfires, raining on parades and bursting party balloons.

There is, of course, another way of looking at this fact of life. Rather than dwelling on it as a bad thing, or simply viewing it pragmatically, there are many who will see it as an opportunity to be grasped enthusiastically.

If some people are going to get less than their fair share of luck, shouldn't we be looking to be one of those individuals who get more? After all, the world is full of people doing much better than they deserve and consumers of the mass media don't have to look very hard for supporting evidence.

In newspapers magazines and on TV we see famous people — who are not really famous for very much at all — living fabulous lives. Whether it's singing songs, looking nice in a frock, taking their top off, dancing in time to music, reading an autocue, or almost having sex with someone they've known for five minutes on a reality TV show, some people, it would seem, want to be famous. They just don't know what they want to be famous for.

That so many people seem to be getting on in life without actually being good at anything at all might be an inevitable part of western society, but the fact is that this is not a malaise exclusive to the famous. The world of celebrity provides a highly visible cadre of slackers for whom the working day seems to revolve around nothing more than which car to drive, where to shop, who to have to have lunch with or what party to go to.

But away from the glare of the media, in the corporate world there is an even greater number who have realised that presentation really is more important than substance.

These people are building hugely successful careers based on this premise. For them, their employer is no more than a vehicle to further their personal ambition. If the company's objectives fit in with their own, then all well and good, but more often than not they don't.

These individuals may hold senior positions already, but certainly they will be on the lookout for impressive high-powered jobs. Some of them are even running big companies. These are the City Slackers: the people who know that it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it. You could be one of them. Or if you prefer, you could be one of them.

Today's corporate landscape is set up to reward not success, but failure

One of the most striking things about today's corporate landscape is the fact that it is set up to reward not success, but failure.

The objective of simply delivering shareholder value can lead companies to become obsessed by their market cap, while equity schemes lead key members of staff to concern themselves with their own personal exit schemes: How do I get my money out?

The share price often has very little to do with company's actual performance and this situation and accompanying rationale has created a corporate culture that rewards image over substance: many successful careers are being built not on competence, but on an individual's ability to successfully market him or herself. To succeed you don't have to do your job: in many cases it's better not to, you just have to look like you're doing your job. And if you can make it appear that you're doing it well, all the better. This is obviously a much easier option, which is why so many people are doing it.

It's inevitable that some will misconstrue this central argument – though misunderstanding or mischief – but in attempt to mitigate the inevitable brickbat I'd like to make the following point in big neon letters: not everyone who works in big corporations is a city slacker and not every city slacker works for a big corporation. But in the way that light – an intrinsically good thing – is very good at attracting moths, so big corporations are especially good at attracting city slackers.

As companies have become more bloated, and the tasks they are charged with have become more difficult to solve, there are plenty of people coasting through their careers without actually having to contribute, let alone trying to contribute, anything.

Steve McKevitt's book,City Slackers, examines the phenomenon of people who never deliver anything but still seem to be successful. So how do they get away with it?

The problem for businesses is that the city slacker is virtually indistinguishable from a conscientious employee in a similar position. Moreover the art of being a successful city slacker requires relentless mendacity so it should come as no surprise that many slackers are in denial about the real motivation behind their working practices.

But the perception of the city slacker among peers and seniors will be very different indeed.

The ultimate company man, first in and last out, you can depend on him to burn the midnight oil putting the finishing touches to an important strategy document or vital presentation. It's not unusual to get emails and telephone calls from him late at night or over the course of the weekend. Often he'll be the first to volunteer for projects outside his remit or at least be ready to offer insight, support and good advice. In October 2005 Investors In People published the results of a survey which showed that 70 per cent of British workers thought some of their colleagues weren't pulling their weight.

They are dead right.

About The Author

Steve McKevitt
Steve McKevitt

Steve McKevitt began his career in the music industry in 1988 and has many years of senior management experience in the entertainment and media sectors. He is the author of City Slackers. His second book Why The World Is Full Of Useless Things is published in October 2006.