Q – I think I’m at the end of my rope. I’ve been working my butt off for the past two years and I keep getting passed over for promotions. I swear if I didn’t know better I’d say there was a giant conspiracy at my workplace to keep me from advancing. But I know that can’t be it. What’s worse is that during this time I’ve seen so many less talented people get promotions, raises and teams of their own. It’s extremely frustrating watching people I know aren’t as smart as me, having success while I’m stuck in career quicksand. What am I doing wrong?
A – I know this feeling. I know it so well in fact, I wrote an entire book about it. If you’re really interested, check it out, if you’re only kind of interested, let me give you some of the most important points right here in the blog. I’m sure my publisher will want to kill me for that, but I get this question so much I just have to share my thoughts here.
If your career experience looks anything like mine, and it sounds like it does, you’ve probably spent more time than you should wondering how certain people around you became so successful while you tread water. You can’t help but look at some of the executives at your workplace and scratch your head. How did that guy make it? You cry a little bit each time one of your less talented LinkedIn contacts announces a promotion. Who are they sleeping with? You cringe as your Facebook timeline seemingly lights up with old high school friends making it big. Those guys weren’t as smart as me! Its infuriating.
I spent ten years doing exactly this. Truly vexed at how less competent people around me seemed to get ahead with such ease, while I – Mr. Smarty Pants – seemed stuck in perpetual career stagnation. This is a byproduct of a phenomenon I call the Incompetent Executive: The average and below average managers who make it big. You know these people as well as I do. ‘Teflon Executives’ a friend of mine calls them. No matter what happens, they always end up on top and yet they seemingly do nothing at all.
At first I bemoaned the unfairness of it all and asked all the wrong questions (see above). But then one fateful day I stopped all that and started asking the right ones:
Once I started on this train of thought, everything changed for me. I began to see corporate dynamics and career upward mobility in a completely new light. And when I did, some very disturbing evidence began to reveal itself. Many of qualities I cherished as my strong points were in actual fact the very attributes holding me back.
On the surface these seem like great qualities and at one time I would have underscored them in my argument about the great injustice of it all. But if these attributes were so strong, how could I be stuck in middle management when these seemingly incompetent managers continued to rise up the ranks?
So after many years of observation and analysis I handpicked the top seven tactics to manage your career the right way. I put these lessons into my own game plan and had immediate success. You can read about them in depth and with all kinds of fun stories in Stealing the Corner Office or you can read the summaries below and get the basic picture of what I’ve learned. These are lessons taken straight from the playbooks of executives who succeed in spite of their glaring lack of skill, work ethic and intelligence. The idea isn’t to copy incompetent executives entirely, but rather to take a few lessons from the things they’re actually doing well and apply them to your own game. When you combine these lessons with your natural talent and skill, I’m confident your career will take a major turn for the better.
Because human beings are naturally opposed to change, the greatest moments for career advancement come in times of uncertainty and disruption. During these periods, like in an acquisition or management shake-up, the opportunities are at their greatest and your competition are at their worst. While your competitors are rebelling to change and worrying what the future may hold, you need to be executing your advancement strategy. Most of my promotions and big opportunities over the years have come during these times of change.
It’s very comforting and often therapeutic to gripe and gossip with peers at work. We are naturally drawn to this behavior especially in times of change and uncertainty. You should never do it. We also tend to network with people at our own level or below in the company because it’s comfortable and easy. It’s a waste of time. To actually get ahead in a corporation you need to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Gravitating to the herd has the opposite effect. So if you find yourself engaging in a lot of group gossip behavior at work – whether you’re talented or not – you should stop.
Many of us have dreams of being transformative figures and we are drawn to icons like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg for their passion and perseverance. But for every Jobs there are hundreds of bodies lined up along the road that tried and failed to execute a passion-based strategy. In my experience a reputation for objectivity is much more useful than a reputation for passion. The only sure fire way to do that is to commit to providing very objective alternatives in every scenario rather than to drive at any one agenda or idea you may have. As great as your ideas may seem to you – “You” are irrelevant. Focus on helping your company evaluate ideas objectively and avoid passionate pursuits.
Despite what your manager tells you or what the career blogs may say, a myopic focus on short term results can be a prison sentence for your career. We know from studying Incompetent Executives that it’s much more productive to broaden your skill set than it is to fixate on short term objectives. The challenge we face as managers is the burden of separating our own personal objectives i.e. career advancement, from the company’s objective i.e. achieving performance results. Your career is much better served in the long run by expanding your expertise than by reliably delivering short term results for the organization. This is one I get a lot of questions and comments on. I highly suggest you check out the book for more detail if its struck a chord with you.
As it pertains to career advancement, small wins and reliable performance do not put a winning score on the board. It can take as many as five small victories to equal one big win. Managers who play a game based on reliability tend to become known only for their mistakes. Mistakes, unlike small wins, reverberate across the company and garner lots of attention. It makes much more sense to pursue a big win strategy even at the expense of making more small mistakes. Big wins are memorable, they build attention outside your department, and they often don’t need to come at a high risk to you personally. My suggestion is to find a big project or challenge to take on whether its directly related to your core job responsibilities or not.
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of assuming your work speaks for itself. Especially when you’re busy. As managers we so often prioritize the work and deprioritize internal promotion during crunch time. This is a recipe for career disaster. It makes the false assumption that people in your organization, especially those outside your department, actually define success the same way you do. Demonstrating to influencers in your company how your work will benefit them is much more important than the work itself. Doing so effectively can often make up for inferior work and act as an insurance policy for project failures. You need to be promoting projects before, during and after they execute to maximize visibility and minimize criticism.
Holding people accountable is another modern career principle we’ve allowed to spiral out of control. While it makes perfect sense why the corporate entity benefits from employees and managers holding each other accountable, it makes almost no sense for your own career advancement. In my experience, there is much more to be gained by being seen as a mentor than as a task master. In practice people gravitate to, hire and promote individuals they like to be around, not people who demand accountability. One of the best demonstrations of leadership qualities is to mentor others. Next time you feel like killing your colleague for his crappy work, help him instead.
I can tell from your question that you’re in a very similar place to where I was for the first fifteen years of my career. No doubt you find yourself getting more frustrated with every passing year. You can’t seem to get ahead in spite of your hard work and talent. You see other people having success, often times in spite of glaring incompetence. You probably spend a lot of time wondering about the injustice of it all. I hope you can take these 7 lessons and apply them to your game plan and see things get better. Let me know how it goes for you.