Three Conversations — How to avoid career limiting mistakes.

November 17, 2022
4 min read
Photo by Carson Arias on Unsplash
“The sufficiency of merit is to know that my merit is not sufficient.”
— Francis Quarles

A true story of the big job,  with Tate, Pat, and fake names.

Tate and Pat were both vice presidents, reporting to the Chief Information Officer. Tate ran application development. Pat ran infrastructure. Tate had started his career as a programmer, Pat as a consultant.

The CIO retired. Both were up for the big job. Pat got it.

Tate didn’t understand. He had more experience. He led a larger group. He had phenomenal performance reviews and was well-liked by other business leaders. He was more technically expert on the more critical systems that ran the company. Pat, in his view, had much less expertise. 

Tate didn’t understand why he was passed over.

What Tate didn’t realize is that the world doesn’t operate on technical merit. Being the expert, having a Ph.D. in your specialist subject, matters less and less the further you progress in your career. 

At the top level of an organization, it’s just as much about who you know and who knows you as it is about what you know.

At any one time, there are three conversations going on around you. 

The first is the technical conversation. This is about the work. It’s about what you know. It’s where you have credibility and expertise. This is what you are hired for. It’s where you earn respect.

Think of the technical conversation as “I know how to...”

The second conversation is the social conversation. It’s who you know. This is about people. It’s how you develop a network. That network gives you the ability to marshal resources and get things done, both in your team and across the organization. 

The social conversation is “I know who to...”

The last conversation, the one that Tate was deaf to, was the political conversation. This is how you gain influence. How you get a seat at the table. This is about who knows you. This is the ‘polish’ that Tate saw in Pat. That polish goes by many names: gravitas, executive presence, charismatic leadership. 

It’s mastery of the political conversation.

Pat had this in spades. They wielded outsize influence in the organization. While everyone in the IT organization knew—and respected—Tate, everyone in the business knew Pat. Tate would stand his ground. If he believed something was right, he would argue for it, sometimes leaving bruised egos and chips on shoulders.

Pat would never do that.

Pat built and nurtured relationships carefully. Pat would argue for certain things but ultimately balanced a technical perspective with other agendas in the business.

This ability to balance the technical, social, and political conversation is what we call the leadership conversation. It’s the topic of Rose Fass’s second book, The Leadership Conversation. Make Bold Change, One Conversation At a Time.

If Tate had read that book, he would have been on an even playing field with Pat— instead of passed over. The leadership conversation shows you how to reframe a conversation, how to lead change in your business, and how to have deep, honest conversations with yourself and others.

If you think your work speaks for itself, you’re wrong.

That’s the moral of the story. Your work doesn’t speak for itself. The world is not a meritocracy. As you read the story of the big job, you may be wondering—am I more like Tate or Pat?

Have you ever felt like your ideas were not listened to? You weren’t part of a decision? You sometimes get more drill-down than you need, or people resist your ideas? You don’t get the help and support you feel you need?

You need to change the type of conversation you are having.

Where do you stand?

If you want to find out where your conversations land today, and some ideas on where to focus your conversation, take a quick survey.

It takes five minutes and will show you how you frame your conversations.

Click here to take the survey.


Tate didn’t read the book but did have a conversation with Rose Fass, the book’s author. Pat went on to another, bigger job in a different organization. Tate had taken Rose’s advice and developed conversational muscle in the political and social spheres. 

Tate got the job. 

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

Free Survey
About Us
Our Thinking
Free Downloads