Here’s a list of some people I feel really sorry for:

• Mike Tyson’s accountant (only kidding Mike – really!)
• The choir director in my church (Would somebody please tell those people the truth about their voices?!)
• Derek Jeter’s social secretary (busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest).
• Here’s one just for my friends in Maryland and Virginia: The guys in charge of planning street construction in Montgomery County, Md., and Fairfax County, Va. (Um … sorry fellas. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it’s too late!)
• Finally and most importantly: All business leaders who care THAT they are known by others but don’t cultivate HOW they are known by others.

On that final point: I get frequent inquiries/requests from managers of client companies like this: “Rand, I’d like you to find out what my boss and my co-workers really think of me. All of my performance reviews indicate that I walk on water, but I haven’t been promoted in five years. I get a feeling that there’s something that I need to know, that I don’t know.” I’ll then request and receive the names of the people I ought to talk to and begin my mission, doggedly pursuing my query and relentlessly asking questions until I get to the bottom of things. I almost always end up with a version of my client’s “story” that looks nothing like the official, personnel file, performance review, development planning version.

I call it their “water-cooler story.” Your water-cooler story is the version of you that people talk about when you’re not around; it’s the version of you that gets whispered or implied with a wince or a shrug. Here’s an example:

Your company is assembling a product development team. In a meeting, your name gets mentioned as a possible team leader. Someone – a trusted, credible person – grimaces, implying that putting you in charge would be ill-advised. The idea gets dropped.

Another example: Your name is brought up as a promotion candidate for an executive-level job reporting to the CEO. In the discussions of your candidacy that ensue, two of the CEO’s “direct reports” bring up examples of past interactions with you that were, according to them, unsatisfactory. As a result, the CEO decides to retain Spencer-Stuart to conduct a search for the position that will include both internal and external candidates. He assures you that you remain the primary candidate and that the search is really a formality; it is a matter of completing a process that will assuredly result in your being offered the position. Spencer Stuart then interviews you, but one of the external candidates gets the job.

In both cases, you got zapped by your “water-cooler story.”

Your initial reaction might be to dismiss these examples as implausible, but don’t kid yourself. In large corporations, the official version of your story might inform the size of your raise or the level of your bonus, but the thing that will more often than not determine your career trajectory and velocity is your water-cooler story. You say you’re not a Fortune 500 honcho. Doesn’t matter! Whether you’re a business owner, a smaller company manager or a non-managerial professional, the same deal applies. Your WCS will either help secure your success or make your life really difficult.

I recommend that you aggressively manage your water-cooler story. Here’s how:

• Build mechanisms to frequently and systematically procure feedback from constituents.
• Ask precise, relevant questions that can catalyze action. “How am I doin’?” isn’t good enough.
• Persist until you get to the “brutal truth.”
• Develop and implement specific plans, using what you learn to improve your performance.

Most people aren’t comfortable giving or getting feedback, so they provide it or pursue it (when they actually do it at all) without energy or conviction. In response, they receive generalities that can’t be acted upon (of course they can “check the box” when the drill is completed).

Poor leaders view searching for feedback as a sign of weakness. You know, trying to please the masses rather than demonstrating a steely core. By indulging their egos rather than demonstrating wisdom, these people undermine their potential.

Great leaders, on the other hand, pursue feedback with vigor, tenacity and insistence. Then they act on what they learn. That’s a big part of how they got where they are and, more importantly, how they became WHO they are.

Copyright 2010 Rand Golletz. All rights reserved.

Author's Bio: 

Rand Golletz is the managing partner of Rand Golletz Performance Systems, a leadership development, executive coaching and consulting firm that works with senior corporate leaders and business owners on a wide range of issues, including interpersonal effectiveness, brand-building, sales management, strategy creation and implementation. For more information and to sign up for Rand's free newsletter, The Real Deal, visit