No sugar coating here. Unless you’re fortunate enough to be born to take over a thriving family business or to get in on the ground floor of the next Facebook, the road to business success is seldom a simple one.
In my experience and observation, success is much less the product of one brilliant idea than of a great deal of hard work, well-executed and sustained over a long period of time.
Even in the best of times, no one will just hand you a position of great value for nothing. If your goal is vice presidency or partner or managing director or the c-suite, or whatever role has captured your imagination, no one can guarantee you’ll attain it. But if hard work is the currency of success, there are things you can do to make that effort work as hard as possible for your up-and-coming career. So with a tip of the cap to one the greatest musicals ever (“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”), here are five activities that can be worth really trying to put extra time into.
Learn the business – If you work for a sizable organization, and perhaps if you don’t, chances are your business has considerable complexity. Take time to learn not just your particular role (that’s “table stakes”- you have to know it), but also to gain a broader understanding of the business: the competitive environment, the market forces at play, the company’s value proposition, sales model, pricing model, etc. No one’s expecting you to become expert in all these fields, but gaining at least a working understanding of the key macro-level issues is always helpful. Familiarity with these larger issues senior management is grappling with will only enhance your decision-making capabilities in your own role.
Make yourself indispensable – Take time to really understand what your manager needs. Not just what is needed from you in your current role, but what are the troubling problems that keep him or her up at night? Is it help with PowerPoints, an upcoming presentation to a hostile audience, delicate personnel problems, or dealing with regulators… to name just a few of a thousand possibilities. Try to see things through the eyes of others. The more substantive assistance you can provide, the more gaps you can fill, the more valuable you’ll be to an organization.
Provide solutions, not problems – The normal state of senior management is too much to do in too little time. When wrestling with difficult issues in your own area, naturally you can’t always solve all the problems yourself. But it definitely can be worth the extra time to not simply make your problems your manager’s. Instead, present your manager with a carefully thought out range of viable options – ideally including your recommended solution – rather than just posing a vexing, time-consuming problem. This approach demonstrates your critical thinking capabilities, and can be an appreciated time saver for a person with little time to spare.
Be a great collaborator – Good team players are valued. Large complex projects always require people with diverse skills. Attitude matters; effective collaborators often find themselves in demand. Consider taking the time to volunteer for a large project that may be understaffed, even in an area outside your core expertise. This can be a way of broadening your skill set and business knowledge, plus demonstrating your motivation. Management appreciates self starters who ‘play well with others.’
Come early, stay late – The best point I can offer here is a story of my own. While I’m an advocate in theory for as much work-life balance as possible, the fact is, if you want to get ahead, there will be periods in a career where there are no substitutes for grindingly long hours. There was a period in my own career where I was especially motivated by the prospect of advancement and all that went with it, and had great respect for the organization and the work we were doing. Accordingly, I resolved to myself that no one in the 20-person department I worked in (including the SVP who managed the operation) would come in earlier or work later than I would. Did I always achieve that? No. But did my diligence catch the attention of senior management and ultimately help my career? Yes. (The assumption here of course is that you’re not simply sitting around long hours playing video games or writing to your aunt… but doing real work and adding value!)
In the end of course, occupational success is preordained for no one. Many talented people compete for relatively few coveted positions. But you can take certain actions to improve your odds. And if you do, regardless of how things turn out in a particular instance, at the very least you’ll have the benefit of broadening your skills and the satisfaction of knowing you gave your very best effort.