Why Being Reliable is Not a Winning Career Strategy

One of the most common questions I hear when I talk to people about their careers goes something like this:

“How come nobody cares about the work I'm doing? I’m reliable, I’m never late with my projects, and I hardly ever make mistakes. Meanwhile, people around me who aren’t half as dependable as I am, keep getting all the promotions. What’s going on?”

This one hurts my heart a little bit. So many people feel this way and frankly they deserve so much more than they get. If reliability and consistency were the stepping stones to success they would be at the top. They’re dependable, smart and hardworking. But it isn’t enough. It almost never is.

Whether it feels fair or not, we have to take an honest assessment about what it really takes to advance your career in a corporation. And having spent many years studying success factors from the competent and incompetent alike, I can say with great confidence, and more than a little regret, that being reliable is just not enough to advance your career. At least not to the executive level.

Here’s why:

Reliability is a passive career management strategy that will not bring you the visibility required to make it to the top. Contrary to conventional logic, a career strategy based on consistency and small victories is actually higher risk than one based on big wins and major projects. Many of us like to think we will be noticed for consistently solid work. But in practice consistency is only enough to provide career security. Career advancement demands more. 

To advance your career you have to put points up on the board. Points, in your career, like in football or rugby, come in a couple of varieties. Consistently delivering against your responsibilities and doing solid work in your day to day tasks wins you lots of small points. We’ll call them career field goals. And if you never make any mistakes, those points accumulate over time – slowly. On the flip side, when you inevitably do make mistakes you lose points too. The problem is, in my experience, one career mistake is worth at least five career field goals. So it can be a challenge even for very reliable people to build up enough points using the field goal strategy to put a winning score up on the board in the end.

On the other hand, recognition for being associated with a big project gets you big points. We’ll call them career touchdowns. If you’re actively looking for them you’ll see that opportunities for career touchdowns present themselves all the time. They often don’t directly impact your personal objectives and it will frequently look like there isn’t much to gain from all the extra work you’ll have to do by taking them on. You should do it anyways. Because like in football and rugby, even if you score a lot of field goals, your opponent is always only one or two touchdowns away from catching or surpassing you.

An effective career strategy has to be about scoring touchdowns. It’s about big plays and projects.  While playing a safe, consistent game will keep you employed and keep your boss happy, it’s an extremely difficult strategy to actually win with. As you’ve no doubt experienced a few times in your own career, a less competent opponent can beat you with a few lucky touchdowns even if you’re more reliable on a day to day basis.

To break from the metaphor for a moment, the only people who are paying attention to the reliability of your daily work are your direct teammates and your boss. This is almost never enough to get you a promotion. At least not after you’ve reached a senior management level in your career. To get promoted you need recognition outside of your direct circle of influence. Mistakes by contrast, have a tendency to reverberate across an organization. Nobody will ever notice the twenty times you get the process right but the one time you mess it up, it will seem as though the entire company has been affected.

So what does this mean for your strategy? It starts with changing your personal career score card. Stop focusing on the consistency of your daily work as the number one priority and start seeking out opportunities to participate in big projects. It should go without saying this doesn’t imply abandoning quality altogether – it’s a matter of emphasis. You need to focus your time and energy on projects and initiatives that can actually put up enough points to beat your competitors.

If you want to learn more about this and other unconventional career strategies, check out Stealing The Corner Office.