One of my core personal beliefs is that good work is rewarded. I spent the first part of my career believing that if I worked hard enough and produced results, my career would take care of itself. People notice productivity, and by producing a stand-out body of work, I would certainly be promoted. But what I have learned is that careers do not make themselves, and leaving your career to chance is the surest way to bewildered disappointment.
Is good work really noticed?
The first issue to tackle is whether good work is really noticed. It is absolutely true that most managers (and all good managers) notice the good work that their teams do. In most of high tech America, the span of control (number of people under one person’s direct management) is somewhere between 4 and 10. With fewer than 10 direct reports, it is very easy to spot the standout work that A-players do. Even on a team of all standouts, it’s not that hard to see truly great work.
But career advancement requires more than just direct management support.
Once you get past the bottom layers of the organizational hierarchy, promotions are generally handled by your manager’s manager. A typical process might go something like this:
- Your boss’s boss calls together her team to review performance.
- Each of her team members submits a few names for consideration.
- The room discusses the names, usually one-by-one.
- There is a lot of focused discussion on the top and bottom names.
- Next steps are identified.
- Champagne bottles open (or they don’t).
The key in this process is that your career is discussed with more than just your boss. All of your boss’s peers are part of the conversation.
Don’t you just have to influence your boss’s boss?
Actually, no. Imagine that the average span of control is 8 people. If your boss has 8 direct reports, and is himself one of 8 direct reports, then your boss’s boss has 72 people in her organization. While it might be possible to track the accomplishments of 10 people, tracking everyone’s contributions across an organization of 70+ people is not practical.
Sure, a couple of exceptional contributors will be well-known, but unless you are one of those two or three people, you end up fighting for attention with everyone else in the organization.
So who do you really need to influence?
The answer here is that you need your boss’s peers to be aware of your good work. When that conversation of star performers comes up, you want other people to chime in on your boss’s behalf. You can expect that your boss will do his best to represent you, but if there is no support in the room because people either don’t agree or they don’t know who you are, there is not much your boss can do.
In fact, in most of these discussions, the vast majority of the candidates are introduced to a room that is flat and disinterested. The person’s manager goes through the details, but there is little engagement by anyone else. No one says no per say, but there isn’t a yes either. The questions then devolve into time-in-role, whether the person is a flight risk, and what projects are coming up for the individual.
Once the room starts talking about the time since your last promotion, you are pretty much done. That only ends with a timeline. Once you have served your time, you can be promoted again.
How do you change the dialogue?
There are two things that you have to do if you really want to change the dialogue: build relationships and socialize your results.
When I say that you need to build relationships, I don’t mean that you need to set up meetings. The workplace is already filled with a bunch of work transactions. Setting up a one-off sync meeting is a decent way to force a conversation around a specific topic, but it doesn’t really forge a relationship that persists past the transaction.
You need to be aware of who you need to be connected to, and you need to diligently cultivate the relationships.
One woman at a previous employer did this masterfully. Once a week, she had lunch with people across the organization (typically her boss’s peers). Every Wednesday for a couple of years, she would have lunch with someone. They would sit in the lunchroom and chat – about work, life, whatever. Over time, she would revisit the same people, effectively establishing a long-standing relationship with them.
Not surprisingly, when it was time to discuss promotions, she had tons of support. People knew who she was. They were personally connected to her career. And the lunchtime chats had afforded her the opportunity to highlight things she was working on and results she had delivered.
Treat your career with purpose
For many people in engineering roles, it feels a little bit icky to sell yourself. But try treating the problem like an engineering problem.
If (hard work) if (invisible)
then (keep toiling unrecognized)
elseif (not invisible)
then (get recognized)
The point here is that this woman had taken a hold of her own career and then driven it to the conclusion she wanted. You need to treat your own career with that kind of purpose. Assuming that good things will come is all fine and good, but you are actually doing yourself a disservice. Oddly enough, you might even be doing your company a disservice, as the best people might not be ascending as they need to be.
[Today's fun fact: "60 Minutes" on CBS is the only TV show that does not have a theme song or music associated with it. Sounds like an opportunity to me.]
No One Else Will Make Your Career Happen