The Secret of My Success: Learning From Your Mistakes in 7 Easy Steps

Editor’s Note: Last year, TLNT asked some prominent thought leaders about their favorite films with a management or HR theme. With the Academy Awards taking place Sunday, we’re republishing the best of those posts all this week. 

By Sharlyn Lauby

There’s absolutely no reason to learn everything the hard way. If there is a list, a show, a book or something that will keep me from making a mistake, I’m all for it.

This is why I really like The Secret of My Success. Besides the fact that I grew up with Michael J. Fox as the super ambitious junior business executive Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties and I’m looking forward to hearing his keynote at this year’s SHRM Annual Conference in Las Vegas, the movie is just one of those feel good, have a laugh and learn something films we all like to watch.

To refresh your memory, the movie is about Brantley Foster (Michael J. Fox) a young college grad from Kansas who is determined to become a successful business person in New York City. After a few initial setbacks, he finds work in the mail room of his uncle’s conglomerate.  When he’s not moving up the corporate ladder as fast as he would like, Brantley puts on a suit, takes over an empty office in the C-Suite, and pretends to be a new hire executive.

I’ll try not to give away too many of the funny parts, but along the way, Brantley learns some lessons. As I was watching the movie, I took away seven key points I wanted to share.

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  • Always have a “Plan B.” Brantley gets an immediate wake-up call when the job he goes to New York for is eliminated via a hostile takeover. If the past couple of years have taught us anything, it’s nothing is forever. Have an alternate strategy, a longer-term plan, a side hustle … something to fall back on.
  • Demonstrate self-confidence. Out looking for a job, Brantley tells recruiters he can accomplish anythingif given a chance. As HR pros, how many times have we heard that? Then Brantley makes an impassioned plea to his distant uncle to remember what it was like at the beginning of his career.  This is an exercise we could all stand to do every once in a while — remembering where we came from and how much sweat equity it’s taken to get us where we are today.

    Michael J. Fox in the film "The Secret of My Success."
    Michael J. Fox in the film "The Secret of My Success."
  • Know the unwritten rules. Brantley ends up getting a job in the mail room (of course).  The co-worker training him tells him the rules: “Never consort with the suits. Unless they talk to you first.” Stuff like this is never printed in the employee handbook. Every employee needs someone who can teach them the unwritten traditions and codes of conduct.
  • When the phone rings, answer it. You never know what opportunity lies on the other end of a phone. Brantley finds that out when he answers a phone ringing in an empty office. It could be a new job, new consulting assignment or some other great opportunity. But you will never know if the phone goes unanswered. And, sometimes new and exciting opportunities don’t leave a voice mail message.
    Don’t be afraid to be the dissenting opinion. This one is tough. The company Brantley works for finds themselves in a hostile takeover situation. Everyone on the executive team wants to cut expenses to generate enough cash to fight the takeover. Brantley disagrees with everyone and wants to build revenue to draw more investors and increase stock value. They have the same goal – fight the takeover — but two very different approaches. Being the single dissenting opinion in the room is scary, but it can also be important for the future of the company … and the employees working for it. Stand up for what you believe.
  • Have a mentor. While in the movie, Brantley’s relationship with his Aunt Vera has some interesting nuances, and there’s a point where she recognizes his business savvy and starts to open doors for him with the financial power brokers who can make his future. While we might not be lucky enough to have our own “Aunt Vera,” everyone should have a person they can bounce ideas off, who will give them the unfiltered truth and open a door when necessary. If you don’t have that person, find them.
  • Know who “has your back.” Hate to say it but in the world of business, everyone has an agenda. But this doesn’t mean you can’t build strategic alliances with people who will support you. When times get tough, you need to know who’s gonna bail and who will stick it out with you. The reality is there are plenty of two-faced people in this world. Know the people who will support you no matter what … and support them back.

No surprise, the movie has a happy ending. There’s a poetic justice moment at the end where Brantley and his financial brokers end up taking over the company.

It was terrific fun watching “The Secret of My Success” after all these years – the big hair (on both guys and gals), shoulder pads, and Yello tunes was a blast. But fashion aside, the business takeaways are timeless: work hard, have the courage to take calculated risks, and be yourself.

What are the secrets to your success?  Leave us your words of wisdom in the comments.