The Five Golden Rules of Career Advancement.
This Wisdom Should be Carved in Stone Tablets.
Recently a young professional called me for career advice. She works at a major private equity group for the chief of staff. She is working nights and weekends on other people’s emergencies and having a hard time seeing how it met with her career goals. She has a great education and great experience. In addition to being talented, she speaks three languages fluently including Chinese. But she was feeling trapped in a highly demanding job that does not have a clear career path. She was beginning to think of a job hunt outside of the firm and wanted my advice. We ascertained that the private equity firm might support her in job hunting internally and I advised starting there. It is always better to find a good new job at your current company if you can. I suggested the following Five Golden Rules of Career Advancement:
Golden Rule Number 1: Get Close to Customers. If you are not selling or servicing customers, then you should be supporting people who are. If you are not selling or servicing, you should be marketing, measuring results, developing products or solving client problems. If you are not facing customers or supporting people who are facing customers, then you are overhead and risk being expendable. A year or two working at headquarters or in the office of the chief of staff is great experience and gives you an overview of the organization, but then you should transition to a customer-facing function.
Golden Rule Number 2: Become an Expert. The modern world pays for expertise. Someone who is well educated, well traveled and speaks three languages has broad perspective, but getting to be an expert, for example, in China, or Southern China or an industry sector within China will make themselves invaluable. Get to be an expert in the politics, the people, the trends, the economic forces, the culture. Read books on the subject. Attend lectures on the area. You may also be asked to work on other projects or client matters, but establish yourself as an expert in something relevant to your company.
Golden Rule Number 3: Manage People. You want to be headed in a direction where you will eventually be managing a group or a team. Organizations can only growth if good people are recruited, nurtured, trained, developed, motivated to become leaders and contributors. The most valuable employees are the ones that do a great job AND can train other people to follow in their footsteps. If you are a solo producer by nature, then get into a position where you can manage, mentor and develop other solo producers. There are plenty of player-coaches who manage a team and focus their own time on larger projects, larger clients and developing new channels of opportunity.
Golden Rule Number 4: Take on Tough Projects. Everyone always want to work on the most prestigious projects and the most prestigious clients, but that often means working in mature situations as the third, fourth or tenth person on the team. Many careers have been accelerated by taking on a product, division, geography or industry sector that no-one else was eager to work on, that wasn’t as prestigious, or needed a turnaround. Maybe it is redesigning the sales incentive system, looking for a new warehouse location or oversight of a handfull of small accounts. Taking a problem off your boss’s desk and doing an excellent job with it is a good way to get noticed. You are likely to have more autonomy and freedom to try new things and pursue your own ideas. The experience will be much more powerful than documenting the ideas of your team leader on that “prestigious” project. Sometimes this Golden Rule is written as “Take Risks”, but that does not really provide much guidance when you are at a decision point. Taking on tough projects for your leaders is a much clearer lens.
Golden Rule Number 5: Develop Your Personal Brand. It is said that a reputation takes a lifetime to build and only a few munites to ruin. Your personal brand is built conversation-by-conversation, presentation-by-presentation, project-by-project, report-by-report. The amount of time your work is exposed to colleagues and superiors is surprisingly limited. Your reputation is built on your personality, appearance and humor, your insights and results, but often these are measured in short bursts of exposure such as 1-on-1’s, group meetings, presentations and reports or analysis. You must obsess over your results, research, ideas and content, but for those few moments of exposure, you must also obsess over the quality of the presentation that may be the only thing your colleagues ever see. Re-read reports carefully and have someone proof-read them. Practice your presentations in front of the mirror or with a friend. Good content, poorly presented looses almost all of its impact.
These Five Golden Rules for Career Advancement should be carved in stone tablets and passed down from generation to generation.