Career TOOLBOX #39: 8 Business Lessons ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Taught Us

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Boardwalk Empire

Nucky Thompson’s Path to Success


“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” ― Blaise Pascal


As two more anti-hero cable dramas wrap up their legacyMad Men next year and Boardwalk Empire this fall, it’s a bittersweet viewing experience watching Don Draper and Nucky Thompson dig their way into the psychological ground. We saw Tony Soprano go there, via the infamous diner scene, and Walter White. I’ll refrain from any spoilers on the latter as some have yet to watch the show’s brilliance.


All four men have lots in common and the book Difficult Men examines their complexity as well as our fascination with these self-destructive ego-maniacal, success-at-any-cost family guys trying to get their proverbial piece of the ever changing American Pie.


If you timelined Nucky, Don, Tony and Walter you’d see a legacy torch-passing like no other. If the four ever ended up at a party together they’d automatically form a bromance. Until, of course, Tony would want to sleep with Don’s wife or Walter would grow suspect of Nucky’s growing distribution.


One thing that can’t be denied is all four men are phenomenal at business. They are gutsy risk-takers willing to put it all on the line, including friends and family, in order to dominate the market.


There is something very Rockefelleresque about these opportunists.


In this column, I’ve already covered Mad Men, so as Boardwalk Empire broadcasts its last few episodes, I wanted to take the time to honor what Nucky and friends have taught us. Because if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll realize that Atlantic City has been a perfect corporate playbook. And, specifically this season, as we watch Nucky the Boy commence his career as errand boy for the Commodore, we realize that each individual becomes who we are because of nothing else but motivation. And whether or not we use our circumstances as crutches or as tools is simply a matter of choice.


I asked EvaLynn Humphreys Green, MM, Enrollment Representative with University of Phoenix, to chime in. We’re both hardcore fans of the show. We both also grew up together, in Skokie, Illinois. Skokie is about 20 – 25 minutes away from Chicago, which means it’s close to Cicero, which Al Capone, a key character on Boardwalk Empire, once controlled.


EvaLynn and I have both seen life’s extreme highs and lows and continue to live as optimistic risk-takers, realizing that success is never given. It is earned. And so, here is our list of 8 Business Lessons Boardwalk Empire taught us.


1. Drive Diversity. A beautiful lesson Nucky teaches us is that you do business with whomever has the best shot of growing it. Throughout all the seasons, even with racial and anti-Semitic slurs running rampant, the Irishman expands his presence via key alliances with the Jews, Italians and African Americans. During Prohibition, these four ethnic populations drove significant migration patterns to our country’s northern cities. Nucky sees the power patterns and he capitalizes on them. Now if only more of today’s corporations could do the same.


2. Respect Women. Yes, Boardwalk‘s full of brothel scenes. I’m not talking about those women. I’m talking about the two women that continue to influence Nucky’s behavior: his estranged wife Margaret, who, at one point, wisely advised him to memorize all his bookkeeping so that the Feds can’t come after him, and Sally Wheet, who single-handedly helps him carve out a stake in Florida. The nature of both relationships is different and Margaret, a widowed mother of two, is still catching up to Sally’s independence. But Nucky values both and knows full well that the family image Margaret gives him and the inventory Sally guards makes him a more secure businessman. Chalky lost sight of this by falling for a nameless singer. As result, Chalky lost everything.


3. Question Loyalty. Loyalty, by definition, assumes a long-term commitment. But loyalty, in many ways, is also an idealistic and often unreasonable expectation, especially in business for the simple reason that markets never rest. Nucky knows this. It’s why his alliances fluctuate based on who can generate the best deal, the best new market penetration, the best introduction, the best price. This is how business works and to think otherwise is simply being naive. What’s so remarkable about how this is portrayed in the show, which takes place nearly a century ago, is that we think today corporations are no longer loyal to their employees. Truth is, they never were.


4. Anticipate War. Many old-school American Corporations were built on the rank and file structure of the U.S. Military. Strategy and key decisions are distilled top down; if you don’t like your direction, you leave. At any given moment any company is under threat of some kid in a garage or dorm room building a better mousetrap.

Nucky knows this and is smart enough to think about not just with whom to align, but, also, from whom to protect himself and at whom to wage war. Since offense is often the best defense, he conquers his place before his enemy has even considered trying to. Per EvaLynn, “Whenever Nucky sees any opportunities to gain power, money, and notoriety, he bites.”


5. Build Momentum. Nucky didn’t start being Nucky. Just like Apple didn’t start being the mega-conglomerate it is today, breaking iPhone records and giving away free U2 albums. This kind of power takes time. But not passive time. Active time.

“Nucky’s drive came from his childhood being extremely poor and his desire to eat, drink and buy whatever his heart desires. Nucky handled his business in a slow and steady manner until fast and quick decisions were a necessity,” shares Evalynn. To get this kind of steam, you first need a boat. And before you steer that boat, you gotta want the ship.


6. Risk Everything. Per EvaLynn, “Nucky increases his business by illegal means, bootlegging during Prohibition.” Nucky isn’t afraid to go outside the law to get what he wants. By no means am I encouraging anyone to break it. Simultaneously, it’s important to realize that anyone who made it giant in America lived right on the edge of the law, pushed the law or due to intimate relationships with key decision makers knew how to influence the law. This was true in 1814, 1914 and 2014. Of course, exceptions exist. But unless you’re not afraid of losing everything, your growth potential in this country is limited.


7. Nepotism Wins. We see all kinds of familial alliances on Boardwalk. Nucky, on and off, keeps his brother as his right-hand man. The Commodore passes the baton to his son Jimmy. Al Capone protects his brother and then faces the metamorphosis of moral abyss when he loses him. Nucky is hoping to grow his eldest nephew as he has no sons of his own.

“Today, organizations are no different than Nucky,” observes EvaLynn. “Companies today do not hire prospective employees according to their experience and education. It is all about who you know. If a prospective employee has a referral of a well-known employee or relative, (that candidate) has an 85% chance of obtaining that job.”


8. Be Calm. One of Nucky’s most undeniable qualities is to be calm in a crisis. Of the four characters mentioned in the beginning of this piece, this is Nucky’s branding. We rarely see him raise his voice. We almost never see his feathers unruffled. Instead we witness him calm and in control, even when he’s not really sure as to what will happen next. At any given moment our protagonist has at least half a dozen pressure points on him and one of the key reasons we love watching the show is seeing how he extricates himself next time. And when Nucky does finally lose his temper, we know there will be consequences. There will be blood. But not an ounce of sweat is lost for trivialities.



Reprinted with permission and gratitude from

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