Insecure Overachievers

Clients 1st, Firm 2nd, Individual 3rd

What really goes on within London’s elite professional and financial services firms? Professor Laura Empson – who has dedicated 25 years to the study of leadership at professional and financial service organisations – explores the personal insecurity that drives exceptional performance. In our review of her BBC podcast, Insecure Overachievers, we see uncanny semblances between Blade Runner’s replicants and our elite overachievers.

The Type A Personality and the Elite Institution

It is a well-known secret that top professional and financial service firms attract Type A personalities. Those who are, generally speaking, that bit more competitive, neurotic, demanding, and impatient. We can all recall that incredibly ambitious peer at university who came out top of class, and in their final year was interviewing with the top banks, consultancies, or legal firms. You just knew they were going to ‘make it’, land some prestigious job in the City, and work their way up the corporate ladder accruing a healthy Rolodex and bank balance in the process. You may have admired their drive, harboured a slight distaste towards their naked ambition, or sometimes found yourself wishing you could be them.

Now viewing them from a distance, you wonder at their lifestyle, the circles they move within, and the doors that open for them on account of their gilded resumes. Although eerily reminiscent of some Woody Allen type film you’re sure you’ve seen before, Mike White’s Brad’s Status (on Netflix now; starring Ben Stiller), hones in on this woulda-coulda-shoulda-#WhyThemAndNotMe malaise. While we may not navel-gaze quite so insidiously as the eponymous protagonist, we may wonder: Who are these people who so conspicuously ‘make it’? What secured their consecutive successes? What is it like living in their world?

It is to this third question that Professor Laura Empson has us turn, providing a rare glimpse into the revered corridors and corner offices of the likes of McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, KPMG. In her podcast with the BBC, she looks at the individual: what goes on inside of the people working at these elite firms? What are the costs to them of working there?

Insecure Overachievers and The Firm

Professor Empson calls these individuals insecure overachievers, and as the podcast begins, we hear from these Type A individuals themselves. Global CEO of global accounting firm BDO, Jeremy Newman comments: “It feels like a constant need to prove you should be where you are. A constant concern before every meeting I go to that, am I going to make an idiot of myself here, and are people going to see through a facade and think acually there’s no real substance to this?” With almost journalistic incision, Professor Empson asks, quasi-rhetorically: “In spite of becoming global chief executive of one of the world’s largest accounting firms?”. “In spite of becoming global chief executive of one of the world’s largest accounting firms”, Newman confirms. He has what sounds like a slight smile on his lips: the irony is most certainly not lost on this man.

When we hear senior leaders’ experiences so clearly articulated as insecure overachivement, we have to ask: Does this genuinely surprise us? In a very fundamental sense, no. Casting our minds back to that gilded classmate, if we ever saw them with their family or talking about them, the need to win their mother’s or father’s approval or adulation was painfully palpable. Take a person like this and put them in the world of academia or work, and the game is set. Perhaps they didn’t care to effect an air of concern about what anyone else thought of them, but it was very clear they were on a mission to prove something to someone, even if only themselves. Moreover, we may look at this breed now (and for some of us this may be a quick step to the nearest mirror), and see someone looking back who genuinely sees very little distinction between second-best and failure, who is driven to over-perform as a means by which to achieve the necessary standard, and who is overworked much, if not all, of the time.

How desirable is this type of individual to the organisation? Very. McKinsey ex-partner Yuval Atsmon talks about the search for ‘drive’ in the recruitment process: they’re looking for people who’ve overcome the odds and can demonstrate outstanding levels of grit, discipline, and commitment to results. It’s no secret among HR professionals that some ’emotional instability’ in candidates can be highly valuable to the firm, providing them with an employee who is primed to over-deliver and seeks to please their supervisors and clients, often at some cost to themselves.

What starts to emerge in this podcast, and indeed through Professor Empson’s work, is the complex relationship between the individual and themselves, and the individual and their organisation. She highlights the individual’s own agency in choosing organisations for their particular personality traits, working style, and Weltanschauung. She questions where the boundary lies between their use of the organisation (to satisfy the own internal drive to achieve) and the organisation’s mis-use of that very need (to achieve its own ends).

Run, Forrest, Run

“From that day on, if I was going somewhere, I was running!”
– Forrest Gump, in Forrest Gump

Professor Empson’s findings allude to a complete blur between person, life, and work within top professional and financial services firms. The workplace, the clients, the project deliverables – all consume the individual and their lives. The individual effectively gives themselves over to this – and, yes, the word ‘slavery’ does get a mention. Much like an ant joining a colony: they take their role and become part of the hard-working system and its relentless grind. Unlike ants, however, collective mastery is organised along different lines: that of the blinkered competition we see in horseracing. The organisational goals may be given and held in common, but your particular position and the security of your continued tenure and trajectory is unstable. In other words: your place there is far from guaranteed, and indeed, you must earn or ‘win’ it, year on year, cycle after cycle, project after project, by dint of how you perform against the achievements of your peers, both within the firm and your wider industry.

Pivotal here, is the fact that your colleagues’ actual achievements are unknown to you: what they do, how they are doing, and where you sit in relation to them is more-or-less unknown and unquantifiable until you reach the end point: your annual review, the project end, or the opportunity for promotion. Without knowledge of what measurable outcomes will secure your continued place within the organisation and among the ranks of ‘the-best-of-the-best’, you act on the basis of what you do know: that your peers are all “exceptionally capable and fiercely ambitious”, as Professor Empson puts it. She suggests that elite organisations enable the overachieving behaviour with this culture of ‘internal competition with a lack of transparency’ – hence our reference to the blinders that horses wear during races. What does this ultimately mean for overachievers? Pulling out all of the stops to run your best run, and for every single run.

Here is how some of Professor Empson’s interviewees talk about their experiences:

  • You must suppress your biological and emotional needs in order to be at the beck and call of your work. When I entered Goldman there was a panel of analysts and the important topic was, ‘How do you stay awake after extreme sleep deprivation?’, and one analyst helpfully recommended that you have a paper clip under the table and cut yourself because that pain, in her experience, was the only thing strong enough to keep her awake. (Dr Michel of the University of Pennsylvannia, previously at Goldman Sachs)
  • After about four years, things start to happen, chronic pain, feelings of emotional and physical depletion, addictions. Endocrine disorders were very frequent. Quite a few cases of infertility. (Dr Michel of the University of Pennsylvannia, previously at Goldman Sachs)
  • It’s difficult when you work in buildings where everyone has glass walls everywhere so you can see everyone round you and people are smiling, and, sometimes, you don’t feel like smiling at all, and what I think is true, is actually other people are feeling that too but everyone is just pretending sometimes. (Jessica Carmody, KPMG)
  • I cannot tell you how many Nurofen or otherwise I popped in order to make my back not seize rigid, and by the end of the day I simply could not move. (Jeremy Newman, previously at global accounting firm BDO; speaking about hosting a partner conference shortly after being elected to lead his peers)

In Jessica Carmody’s comments on pretending to be fine, one is reminded of the Black Mirror episode Nosedive, where an insecure social climber must mask her own needs and feelings to be likeable enough to ‘make it’ in society. It also conjures up images of social theorist Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon: prison architecture where omni-surveillance is used to coerce self-regulating and “desirable” behaviours amongst inmates. (Yes, there is a huge problem with open plan, vitrine-like office design.)

One would be forgiven at this stage for likening the ‘elite experience’ to something like the Hunger Games and their tributes (#SurviveHoweverYouCan) or the life of the replicants in Blade Runner, who are described as “bio-engineered by the powerful Tyrell Corporation to work on off-world colonies”. Indeed, Dr Michel talks of one Goldman Sachs woman describing herself as a “chemical cyborg”.

The key difference seems to be that Hunger Games’ tributes and Blade Runner’s replicants have a deeper sense of self-worth. There is the recognition that there may be something wrong with ‘the system’, and that it denigrates and violates their dignity as sentient beings, as well as undermining a fundamental sense of our shared humanity. It becomes an existential question for them: if it is okay for us to be treated in this way, what is the meaning? A sense of deep injustice is aroused, along with a will to make things better for ‘their kind’. These ‘über-people’ incite the Lockean right to rebel and overthrow the powers that purport to govern them (read more under 6. Separation of Powers and the Dissolution of Government here). If, at this stage, this inclines towards sounding rather left-wing, it pays to consider that a Randian perspective would have it that a great and grossly unjust cost is born by the most capable, who work for a system that leeches off of their brilliance and hard work, failing to truly recognise and reward them for who they are and what they bring to the table.

There is the distinct and undeniable sense that these insecure overachievers fight for recognition and reward, becoming some of the most expert and skilled leaders in their fields… and yet, they are utterly replaceable. Roy Batty’s final words in Blade Runner hint at the sense of futility: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. … All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” The penchant for running among City professionals is not without a certain symbolic irony.

Who is to Blame, and Does It Matter?

Who is to blame for this system? Professor Empson speaks of these overachievers being “driven by a profound sense of their own inadequacy”, and setting the bar ever higher for their own achievement. She suggests that insecure overachievers tend to be more attracted to jobs which demand and challenge, and that it is they who bring their particular work ethic with them wherever they go. They effectively embody the work practices that entrap them. At the same time, the culture of “internal competition with a lack of transparency” drives them to push themselves to the limit, time and time again. A couple of Professor Empson’s interviewees seem to imply that this is just how it is and where the money is; if you can’t hack it, don’t enter the circuit. Perhaps this is right, but are we, as a society, really content to keep sending some of our best and brightest as grist to this mill?

Professor Empson hints at another risk: insecure achievers are custodians to 17% of Britain’s economy, including 5.5 million jobs and more than £300bn a year. It does matter that they are constantly operating at – or beyond – the limits of their mental and physical wellbeing. The stakes are higher for any mismanagement, poor decisions, or toxic work behaviours. Indeed, while overachievers operate at this point, it is almost understandable that, in service of outperforming and pleasing one’s organisation, a few leaders get confused about where to draw the line, or outright cross it. Here, we see bribery cases (BAE Systems; this chapter is still not closed), tax evasion (Facebook), and other illicit activities (see the 2017 EY Fraud Survey).

The relationship between employee and organisation seems to be one of parasitic symbiosis then. The employee is the host, and the organisation overall benefits from the exchange. Negative externalities are imposed, from time to time, on the wider ecosystem – our economic, political, and social context. Is this then simply the dark side of how our current ‘ecosystem’ works for us? Possibly.

Laura Empson is Professor in the Management of Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School, London, and a Senior Research Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession. We reviewed her podcast Insecure Overachievers, which is available on BBC iPlayer here. Professor Empson’s most recent book is Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas (Oxford University Press).