J. Pierpont Finch buys a book How to Succeed in Business, describing in step-by-step fashion how to rise in the business world. The ambitious young window cleaner follows its advice carefully. He joins the "World-Wide Wicket Company" and begins work in the mailroom. Soon, thanks to the ethically-questionable advice in the book, he rises to Vice-President in Charge of Advertising, making sure that each person above him gets either fired or moved or transferred within the company.
Finch begins to fall in love with Rosemary Pilkington, a secretary at the company. Finch finds out that the president of the company, J. B. Biggley, has made advances towards the beautiful but incompetent secretary Hedy LaRue. Finch uses this information to assist his climb on the corporate ladder. However, Bud Frump, Biggley's annoying nephew, also takes advantage of the situation and tries to get to the top before Finch.