Think about it from your own experience. When you’ve decided somebody is capable and something they do is odd, don’t you tend to give them the benefit of the doubt? Conversely we tend to kill people when things go wrong if we have a neutral or negative impression of them.
Whether your goal is to be CEO or to have really interesting work with relative autonomy, you need to earn the right to that role. Some people also just seem to be well thought of and get those kinds of opportunities.
So how do you start off on the right track to be in the favored crowd?
Write Down Goals and Track Them – It’s obvious, so do it. How many people do you want to meet? How will you quantify your work? Keep score and give yourself rewards for successes and/or “punish” yourself for underachieving. Force yourself into this discipline and it will serve you well in the long run.
Determine How You Will Be Measured – If you don’t know you can’t manage it! This may seem obvious, but in some places it’s very quantitative (think client billable hours) while in others its fuzzy. It’s important to understand whether you’ll be scored on technical or artistic merit. They drive different strategies.
Build Support – I have written in the past about building support and the impact it can have. I won’t re-write those ideas here, but believe me when I say it’s critical. Rarely will a rugged individualist who nobly toils in obscurity get rewarded in an organization. Why would they?
If you work in an organization, the point is to get things done, which almost always requires working effectively with others and driving others to take action. You need support to do this.
So think “how do I become someone everyone wants on their team?”
Do Excellent (and difficult) Work Without Complaint – I am going to sound like a grumpy old manager here, but the emphasis in this column is your START. If you do well here, you earn the right to more flexibility later.
There is no substitute for demonstrating a willingness and aptitude for taking on hard things and doing them well. If you are willing to take on what others can’t or won’t and are effective you will be strongly differentiated. I can point to countless examples in my experience where people have been rewarded.
If you don’t have enough to do, go find more and do that well too.
Do Work That Matters – Focus on your organization’s goals. Strive to understand your boss and chain of command’s priorities and focus your time on those.
You may have some pet projects or interests and it’s great if you can build those into your day to day. But what gets noticed and rewarded is what drives larger organizational goals. That could mean doing excellent client work, completing priority internal projects, over-delivering on your P&L. It’s context dependent.
What isn’t overly rewarded before management knows what you can do are softer activities that may be visible but aren’t driving important goals. So be careful of over committing to things like community activity coordinator etc. This may be rewarding and you can certainly take it on if you have passion for it. But in most organizations, that’s “church work” and not ultimately rewarded in performance reviews.
Drive Results You Can Describe – Are you pushing to do work you can articulate? This could be quantifiable, but focus on whether you can explain what you did and what impact it had.
Why do I separate this from my other “do good work” ideas? Because you can toil away on big priorities, but forget to be at least a little focused on what you did. Yes, the team matters. But within the team what was your impact? If you can’t describe it to management, you leave it to them to try and decipher your impact. Make it easy for bosses and colleagues to see.
Seek Feedback – Develop a reputation as someone who is talented, but also open to feedback and you will be well on your way to building support. We all have stuff to work on. However, you need to hear from other what to work on. We aren’t always good at self diagnosis.
Network – I have written too much about networking already. You can read it all here.
I would emphasize its importance as you start in a new organization. It will help you understand the culture, history and values that people carry around with them. What stories do people tell and what gets valued? What results get promoted? Who has power? Who has influence?
This is a little soft, but a big part of getting things done in any setting is understanding how people think and what they talk about, as well as who has the ability to get stuff done and what is rewarded.
When I teach this we talk about what’s “hidden from view”. If you can figure it out, you’ll be a lot farther ahead.
Similarly, be searching for allies. Who shares similar goals, values, perspectives and is someone you trust and want to work with or for?
Be Patient – Understand what takes time. You will not be immediately promoted at a much faster pace than is typical etc. Some things simply take time. As a dad, I always use the “you can throw 9 doctors at your wife’s pregnancy, but that won’t make it take 1 month” analogy. It’s OK to be ambitious and want to understand what success criteria are, but don’t veer too far into being “high maintenance”.
Be Impatient – On the other hand…understand what doesn’t need to just sit still and push.
In your first year it’s powerful to find an unaddressed problem and try to fix it. You’ll be surprised at the impression just trying makes. Per the comments above, just make sure it’s related to management’s priorities.
Have a good attitude about the whole thing – People who are always dour, grumpy, snippy or just generally negative run into more roadblocks.
The first year sets a strong tone for your tenure, so make it count.