I love actors, said an emotional Jamie Lee Curtis this February when she won a SAG Award for her performance in “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” I love the job we get to do. I love being a part of a crew. I love being part of a cast. I love what we do with each other. It's such a beautiful job.
Then Curtis added, with a bit of mischief, I know you look at me and think ‘Well, nepo baby, that's why she's there' — and I totally get it. But the truth of the matter is I'm 64 years old and this is just amazing!
Nepo baby is jargon for nepotism baby. Applied to children of celebrities, wealthy folk and political families who are perceived to have it easier in life because of preferential access.
I thought of nepo babies again 10 days ago when a video posted by Romy Mars, daughter of filmmaker Sofia Coppola and musician Thomas Mars, went viral. Sofia Coppola, like Jamie Lee Curtis, is an Academy-award winner and the daughter of a legendary filmmaker, Francis Ford Coppola.
Romy, we might argue, is the nepo baby of a nepo baby.
“Why Do People Care That Sofia Coppola’s Daughter Was Grounded?” writes Callie Holtermann in the New York Times (3/23/2023). Her essay is subtitled The internet can’t get enough of nepo baby content.
You can make more friends in 2 months by becoming interested in other people than you can in 2 years by trying to get other people interested in you."Dale Carnegie
In Romy Mars’s case, the notoriety of her 49-second video may have been prompted by the following confession she makes in the video: “I am grounded because I tried to charter a helicopter from New York to Maryland on my dad’s credit card because I wanted to have dinner with my camp friend.”
We’re in major privilege territory here. But what does this have to do with you and me, you ask?
The same day I read Ms. Holtermann’s essay in the New York Times, I had a chat with Marcia, the Chief Human Resources Officer of a global manufacturing company. I have supported hundreds of HR leaders in my career as an Executive Coach; Marcia is one of the very best.
Marcia was fuming after a chat she had with John, one of the Senior and at times cantankerous executives in the company. In a heated moment with John, he said to her dismissively Well, you’re Steve’s girl.
Steve is the CEO.
The implication was clear: You only got the job because you’re Steve’s girl. You wouldn’t have gotten it if you weren’t Steve’s girl. You don’t have a mind of your own – you’re merely Steve’s stand-in and order taker.
I have heard similarly sexist and misogynist comments made to other female CHROs. Comparable comments are at times hurled at men, as well, who have a tight relationship with a power broker: Well, Brad is Steve’s boy.
This is what the Johns of the world seem to miss. The real nepo power in business is the power or relationships. Relationships born of deep respect for each other, of having been in the trenches together, of remembering that this person had your back. In the real world of business nepo power, CEOs who assume a new role bring along the team who they know they’ll work with well.
That’s business nepo power.
In the world of this power, talented people don’t hunt for job listings on LinkedIn. Their phones regularly ring with calls from folks who know them, appreciate their skills – and more importantly, REALLY want to have them on their team.
These folks have earned the luxury to say NO.
In the real world of business nepo power, being the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis or Francis Ford Coppola is, at best, a conversation starter. At worst, a liability that you may have to overcome.
Here are a few ways in which you, too, can be a business nepo baby. The well-earned way.
No offspring of a famous person sustains an acting career without acting skills. No business executive sustains an executive career without producing meaningful business outcomes. No marketing professional attracts new clients without evidence of previous campaigns that had demonstrable impact. No leadership role of any sort expands without the ability to generate followership.
You can fake a lack of skills for only so long. Don’t. Be meticulous in your skill-building. Make sure your skills are current and continuously evolving. Fully embrace an agile, life-long skills learning mindset. Consider this the prerequisite. Without this prerequisite, you will become the person who is waiting for the calls that never come.
You will never be on anyone’s nepotism radar.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We know about the significance of robust business relationships. Let’s break this down, for a moment. You have worked with those colleagues who fake their way through professional relationships. They do and say all the right things. Show up for all the business dinners. Inquire about your family and hobbies. Share a bit about themselves. They know the dance steps of the professional relationship dance. Execute all the right steps, in order. Yet you never, ever feel that they truly care.
Skill is a given. In the substance of your work skills, and in your ability to socially engage. The more Senior your role, the more your sustained success will be driven by your ability to play well with a wide variety of colleagues. True on a film set, true in the board room. The sincerity and depth of your social engagement is the tipping point. Want to be that professional whose phone keeps ringing? Be that person who they clamor to work with and can’t wait to have on their team again.
It starts with not faking the relationship part. Always does.
I have been blessed with having a few professional angels in my life. Folks who opened doors for me. These doors were opened because of their faith in my skills and the depth of relationship we had established.
These angels were, in a way, my nepo business power brokers. They gave me access.
Kit Williams was one of those angels. When Kit moved into a Senior leadership role in one of the hottest biotech companies in the United States, she made it very clear to me how access worked. I cannot get you a single client here, Kit explained. I can introduce you to people. The rest is up to you.
I am grateful to Kit for many things. This clarity is one of them. Kit was one of my power brokers. The brokering was based on her faith in my skills and the depth of our relationship.
Since then, I have been my version of Kit for others. Happily so. Wouldn’t do it if I doubted your skills or didn’t trust our relationship.
That’s the contract. That’s how business nepotism works.
Add it constantly. Be clear about what adding value looks like. Understand that adding value means different things to different colleagues. Know what is of value to your colleagues. Give it if you can, or direct them to someone who will add value better than you will.
It’s all connected. If my skill sets are limited, I am limited in the sort of skills I can offer. If I am limited in the amount of substantive relationships I have, I am constrained by the amount of situations where I will be asked to help. If I have not developed genuine relationships with enough people, I have not expanded the field of power referrals that might be possible. And if I don’t get the calls to participate in new professional endeavors, I am not inviting the playgrounds where I might add more value.
The same dots are always connecting. And even though I present them in sequential order here, they all connect simultaneously, at the same time, all the time.
Jamie Lee Curtis got her first acting role in 1977 on the short-lived ABC sitcom Operation Petticoat, adapted from the 1959 movie of the same name that her dad Tony Curtis had starred in. That smacks of old-school nepotism. Sofia Coppola made her film debut as a toddler in her dad’s Godfather.
Those early moments didn’t get Jamie Lee Curtis her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress earlier this year, at the age of 64, or Sofia Coppola her Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for her film Lost in Translation.
They got there with a lot of skill. With depth of relationship. With access to folks who longed to work with them. And the perception that their presence would add value.
You, too, can be a nepo baby. Because that same playbook applies to you.