Moving On Up! How To Climb The Corporate Ladder
As my @Hultbiz class of 2016 gets ready to graduate later this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about what advice to give them about getting ahead professionally in an increasingly competitive world. I’d like to offer something beyond simple platitudes like “work hard,” “know what you want,” and “be your own advocate.”
I’ve previously written the articles Advice to Graduating Students and 7 Steps to Finding and Landing an Awesome Job about how to get a great job. Here are my suggestions about moving up – climbing the proverbial corporate ladder. Let me know your thoughts!
- Treat (future) managers as your customers. To successfully build, market and sell yourself as a product, you need to start by understanding your customers. Who are they? Why are they in the roles they’re in? What drives them? What are their top challenges? Aspirations? Who are the top performers on their team? Why are they performing well (i.e. why are they happy with these products)? What traits do they most value?
- Think of yourself as a product to serve these customers. How can you help them overcome their challenges and reach their goals? Are you the best product they can buy? Do you need to add capabilities or features? How can you market your product (yourself) to these customers? What are your strengths? How can you invest in your strengths? Marcus Buckingham has written or co-written a number of great books about this, including First, Break All the Rules
- Pick the type of product that you want to be. Do you want to be known as the turnaround person? The heads down performer? The go-to technical expert? The innovator (beware, innovators aren’t usually treated very well)? The great salesperson? The team builder? The leader? Just as you can define a product by the types of problems it solves, you can brand yourself as being a solution for specific roles and responsibilities. This requires focus and importantly, the discipline to deselect. You can’t be everything to everyone
- Keep learning. Be curious. Bring what you learn to work. People are more impressed with progress and trajectory than specific prior experience. It helps them see potential rather than current state. There are so many great resources out there – from blogs, podcasts and social media to very pragmatic training through organizations like General Assembly. Be open to learning about things that are tangential to your core job function. Always be on the lookout for examples of success from other industries or companies that you can apply to your own
- Own your personal narrative. Study storytelling and pitching for products or businesses. Pitch Anything is a quick read that helps with the first and perhaps hardest part – framing your story. The same skills used to sell products or pitch businesses work to sell yourself as a product. People are wired to be very susceptible to stories (and causation, generally).Nassim Taleb’s book The Black Swan provides an excellent, if a bit complex, overview of why this is true and what to do about it. Make your story simple, logical and credible
- Get really efficient at doing your core work. This will give you time for extra curricular activities. Tim Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Work Week is a fantastic resource for this as his podcast. Most really exceptional accomplishments are outside your job description. Be strategic. Think about what type of product you want to be. What can you be doing outside your core job to help you become this product?
- Find a way to get invited to the important meetings where decisions are made. To the extent possible, skip the meetings that don’t matter – update meetings. Update meetings waste time and come with lots of potential downside risk
- Make sure that your name is on the work you’ve done or significantly contributed to. Fight for this. Be willing to put in extra work, to do more than your share, but don’t compromise on getting credit. If your managers consistently refuse to give you credit when it really matters, fire them and find new managers
- Build, grow and maintain your professional network. Treat your relationships as valuable assets. Respect these assets. Bring the same discipline to managing your network that you would to technical skills in your core job. Being helpful regularly is a great start. Be strategic about building relationships with customers, suppliers, people working for competitors, start-up founders in your industry, industry experts and analysts, super users, executives and other stakeholders in your industry or people with similar roles in other industries
- Find a mentor, preferably in your industry or company. Pick someone who is significantly senior to you, but not in your direct reporting line. Find someone who you respect and trust and who has similar strengths to yours. To quote Pitbull, “Ask for money, get advice. Ask for advice, get money twice.” The same applies to mentors. Don’t ask them for help moving up directly. Don’t ask them for a job. Ask them for advice
- Pick your bosses well. Choosing your boss is one of the most important professional decisions you’ll make. Value trust and respect over other traits. Interview people who work for or who have worked for this person, group or company. Study the progress of the people who’ve worked for them in the past. Where are they now? As an example of this, look at the difference between Jon Stewart and Howard Stern. Both are great entertainers. Both have loyal fans. Both are responsible for significant industry innovation. Both have had tremendous commercial success. They’ve had teams of about the same size. However, they couldn’t be more different in terms of the trajectory of the people who have worked for them. There are almost no success stories that have come from Howard’s organization over the years. But, the list of success stories from Jon Stewart’s organization is stunning: Samantha Bee, Jon Oliver, Steve Carell, Steve Colbert, Lewis Black, Jessica Williams and on and on
- Make it easy for your managers to promote you. Make them look good. Make them heros. Be clear about what you want, how you’ll deliver value and the evidence that you have to support the added value you’ll bring with more responsibility. It’s not about why you “deserve” the promotion. It’s about why you’ll be more valuable to the business, to your managers, why you as a product are best for this “job to be done”. Be very explicit about your professional goals, but try hard not to say “I want your job” to your boss or boss’ boss. They’re human. They’ll be threatened. Instead, look for diagonal progression. If your current management sees your strategic value as an ally or performer in another group, they’ll be less threatened and more supportive
- Beware of the innovation sirens. While all board presentations and annual reports talk about innovation, most leaders and managers have limited appetite for what innovation really means: change, especially change to the power structures. People in power today justifiably find this threatening. And, real innovation is usually iterative in nature, meaning that you have to fail many times on the way to success. Most organizations and managers value success of execution over learning through failure. As obvious as this might sound, it’s at odds with all the hype about failing fast and implementing lean and agile principles in corporations
- Stay away from office gossip. As tempting as it is, it can be very destructive. This is also true of third rail subjects like religion and politics. It’s so easy to get drawn in. But, good things rarely come from these subjects
- Get out of the building whenever you can. Even if you’re not in sales or a customer facing role, find ways to participate in the selling, marketing, delivery and support of your company’s products and services. Try to understand the customers and their behaviors – who they are, how they use your company’s products, why they buy your company’s products versus the competitors, why your company loses to competitors. Build relationships with people in your organization on the front lines of marketing, selling, delivering and supporting your customers. Ask lots of questions. You’ll often be surprised by what you learn. And, you’ll be shocked by how open people are to sharing information if you treat them well and listen
- Don’t burn bridges. It’s fine to have people in your past that disagree with you or that you wouldn’t want to work with again. But, do your best to maintain good, working professional relationships with everyone. There is a great book about this called Crucial Conversations. My very short synopsis – find common interests and goals and use those as anchors for your relationships. The world is very small. You never know who you’ll bump into again. Treat people well and you’ll usually get the same in return
- Invest in your online presence and profile. Be willing to spend money on professionals to help you build and maintain your LinkedIn and other social media profiles. Participate in online conversations related to your industry or profession. Make it easy for the right people to write recommendations for you. Be strategic about who you ask. Will they be credible? Would they say the same things in person? Do they have a good profile themselves? Once you’ve picked the right people, give them an outline of what you’d like them to say and why. Be clear about why you’re asking them. Do this before you need it. Make sure the recommendations are consistent with your personal brand. Again, think of yourself as a product. Is the messaging on target? Are my recommendations adding credibility and evidence to support my product claims? Are the recommendations authentic and persuasive?
- Office politics sucks, but it’s everywhere and it matters. Organizations are the sum of their people and the relationships between those people. Actively managing productive relationships built on trust and respect is the best defense against the destructive potential of office politics. Try to stay focused on common goals and your own objectives
- Actively manage expectations. People judge us mostly against the expectations that we set not on an objective scale. Harnessing this power can have a profound impact about how people feel about us – especially whether they trust and respect us