New Boss? Company Acquired? 3 Tips to Take Advantage of Change

In my experience, the greatest moments for career advancement come in times of uncertainty and disruption. I know this sounds counter intuitive but its very true and something most of us overlook or won't admit. During highly tumultuous periods, like in an acquisition or management shake-up, the opportunities are actually at their greatest and your competition are at their worst. In these chaotic times, roles change, departments get reorganized and objectives and power shift. If you execute strategically you can find many career advancing opportunities. If you operate emotionally (like most people) you can lose out on your best chance to get ahead. While your peers are rebelling to change and worrying what the future may hold, you need to be executing your advancement strategy. Here are some tips for how to embrace change from the book Stealing the Corner Office:

A very important first step is to create a Change Playbook so you can take advantage of these moments when they present themselves. I find it helpful to document my game plan when I see big changes coming. The process of actually writing my plan down helps to remind me how important it is to be consciously executing purposeful tactics during these periods versus reacting emotionally.

I recently met with a business partner who confided in me within an hour of meeting him that he had a new boss he couldn't stand. He just couldn't figure out how to deal with him and he and the rest of the team missed their old boss immensely. As much as he delivered the polite version of his plight, it was pretty obvious that he and his peers were not handling this change scenario well.  A management change is almost universally mishandled by staff who fight against what has already taken place in some naive hope their discontent can actually reverse time. In this case, when your peers are all gossiping and griping about the evil new boss, you should be actively networking with him or her and finding ways to be helpful in the transition. Getting on the winning side of change is as much about choosing to play on the winning team as it is about any specific strategy. Having a positive attitude and aligning yourself with the eventual winners are your keys to success.

So when change is afoot, I jot down a few key notes in three basic areas to guide my behaviors. It reminds me that my goal is to get ahead in the company and not to vent my emotions or misgivings about the situation. Here is a sample of what that might look like:

Figure 1: Sample Change Playbook

Figure 1: Sample Change Playbook

The first area I focus on is my Influencer List. It has most likely evolved as a result of the change that has occurred. I make a quick list of who the key players are and who can most profoundly influence my success or failure in the new environment. My only caution is not to let any personal misgivings cloud your assessment of who actually has power and influence. Sometimes we can convince ourselves power hasn’t shifted when in fact it has.

The second thing I take note of is what key transition projects are likely to take place or have been scheduled already. I want to be a part of these and will do whatever I can to participate. These will come in the form of process alignment meetings, systems integrations, best practice sharing and a variety of other events. They all have the goal of smoothing the transition from the old way to the new way. You will participate on these committees and in these meetings ostensibly to help in the transition most importantly you’re tactically demonstrating leadership and networking with the winning team.

The final area I make note of is how I can advance my position during the change period. Specifically, what actions I will take to proactively improve my status. This can include things like booking a meeting with the new boss to understand her priorities and challenges. It might be taking one or two new people out for lunch or dinner after an acquisition. It can be the small things and conversations that reveal the best opportunities for career advancements in a highly dynamic environment. If you see yourself doing the same old routine, or trying to ignore the chaos around you – you should stop and get involved.

The most important thing in taking advantage of change scenarios is your attitude. Get on the winning team. Do the opposite of what the masses are doing. Find opportunities to demonstrate leadership in the face of disruption which will often be present during this times. Get strategic during turmoil and you will rise to the top.

Here are three quick tips that will make sure you embrace the changes everyone else hates and ultimately end up on top:

  • Make a change plan. You need to actually write down what your plan is or your emotions will likely get the best of you. Jot down some tactics when a major transition occurs to force yourself to act strategically and not emotionally.
  • Pick the winner with your mind not your heart. Make an objective assessment of which side is likely to come out on top and join that team. If someone has just bought your company or has just taken over your department – choose that team. Don’t fight against the winning side.
  •  Leave your ego at the door. If you execute the correct change playbook, people will make fun of you and tease you for being a suck up. Ignore them. Your career is not about making friends, it’s about advancement. 

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.

The Biggest Reason Smart Managers Fail

In my experience, the biggest reason talented managers don’t advance as quickly as they should is that they don’t fully understand the playing field they’re on. We make false assumptions about corporate dynamics which cause us to build sub optimal strategies for our advancement. We all want to believe companies act with logic and fairness. We want to believe they identify and reward hard work, talent and passion with career advancement. We build our career strategies based upon these assumptions. Unfortunately that is not how corporations work in reality. As much as it may sound cynical, your experience will likely tell you the same. In actual fact, most corporations function in a manner which actually favors the Incompetent Executive – a concept I speak about at length in my book Stealing the Corner Office.

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We speak about companies with a certain assumed respect for operational integrity and logic. The media reports on corporate strategy and execution as though it’s mechanical and well-conceived. But it doesn't take more than about six months working in middle management inside a typical corporation to realize that all companies are flawed from top to bottom. And this is not about hating on corporations either, this is about accurately assessing the environment you’re contesting your career in so you can make good strategic choices. 

Corporations after all are comprised of people and people care about personal security over everything else. And most of us are not logical by nature, we're instinctive. We opt for self-preservation over and above any notion of corporate allegiance. And most importantly, people make up the decision making engine for the company. Human beings, not a corporate entity, will ultimately determine the fate of your career. As you might imagine, this has major implications on your strategy for career success as well as your priorities at work on a day to day basis.

Should you be focusing on short term results or expanding your skills?

Should you be aggressively pushing your ideas or dispassionately presenting alternatives?

Should you be holding your peers accountable or finding ways to help them?

Early on in our careers we assume a certain logical order of things in business. We use terms like ‘meritocracy’ to describe how things should work. Should – yes. Do – no. If a widespread corporate meritocracy in fact exists then the scoring system it uses runs counter to any rational definition of merit. What we see when we examine the tactics of successful people - the competent and incompetent alike - is that the most powerful strategies are designed to win on a very human playing field which often times can run counter to the conventional tactics we've been taught are the secrets to get ahead.

If you want to learn more about the tactics people use to navigate and win in the corporate world we really work in, check out Stealing the Corner Office.

The 3 Fatal Flaws of Job Hopping as a Career Strategy

A lot has been written about “Job Hopping” in the last couple of years particularly as it pertains to the generation y workforce. We’ve all seen the stats: Your typical millennial will work for 15-20 employers in his or her career which means on average they’ll jump ship every two years or so. Contrast that to your parents who stayed with the same company for 30 years and it’s certainly startling – but is it wise?

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On the surface there seem to be plenty of logical reasons why job hopping would be a good strategy. To that end Jacquelyn Smith wrote a pretty balanced account on forbes.com of the pros and cons of executing this game plan. Other more passionate proponents, like Rebecca Thompson, in her post, laud job hopping as an optimal – mandatory even - career strategy in the current corporate environment.

Having spent the better part of three years researching unconventional but effective career strategies, I can say with confidence, that in the long run job hopping is flawed. Certainly it’s flawed as a career strategy if your goal is advancement.  And, as I talk about at length in Stealing the Corner Office, your priority at work should always be advancement, even if, like many millennials, your ultimate objective is rooted more in fulfillment than finance. Advancement leads to seniority which comes with the freedom to be selective about roles and projects and employers and all the other things that lead to a fulfilling work life. Without advancement, the quest for job fulfillment will always be an uphill battle for most of us.

I’m certainly not the first to argue against job hopping as a strategy, but most often those arguments focus on resume optics and professional network depth. I have a slightly different perspective – here are three flaws that rise to the top for me.

1.       Turmoil is your optimal environment for advancement

In my experience your greatest moments for career advancement come in times of uncertainty and disruption.  That is, if you’re around long enough to capitalize on them. During these periods, like in an acquisition or management shake-up, the opportunities are at their greatest and your competition are at their worst. Change begets opportunity – people get fired, organizational structures change, objectives shift – these are the best times to jump up the ladder. But instead of embracing these periods, Job Hoppers bail at the first sign of trouble. They’re missing out on the best possible time to advance their careers.

2.       Credibility demands on-field promotions

In my opinion there is no greater indicator that a candidate is worth hiring than if he or she has a track record of receiving promotions. And any executive who’s paying attention knows there is a big difference between an on-field promotion and a cross-company jump in responsibility. So while job hopping may work once or twice to get a small salary or role bump, more and more these moves are being heavily discounted by hiring managers. I certainly do. There’s just no credibility in it anymore. Job Hoppers, who don’t stay around long enough to get on-field promotions give up the most powerful marketing tool in their arsenal when it comes to job search time.

3.       Learn so you can move – don’t move so you can learn

There is a widely used, albeit flawed argument that says job hopping allows you to broaden your skill set by gaining more experiences in more roles with more companies. But I would argue that learning, when acquired this way, comes at too great a price. And, I should point out that few experts advocate as strongly for learning and skills expansion as I do – it’s a cornerstone of the optimal career advancement strategy in my opinion. But what is a strong tactic when implemented correctly, is being horribly misapplied here by job hopping supporters. Job hopping as a means to broadening your skills assumes incorrectly that skills expansion is the desired end in and of itself. They’ve got it backwards. You should be leveraging your current job as the means to expanding your skills so your next job provides broader leadership responsibilities, compensation and freedom. Jumping from one employer to the next at best demonstrates that you are a flexible individual contributor but does nothing to create a reputation for leadership, which is critical to moving up the corporate ladder.  

Whether you’re after fame and fortune or fun and fulfillment, your career strategy needs to be about advancement. Advancement is the fastest path to achieve your personal objectives. Job hopping is a relatively new phenomenon, so only time will prove if it’s an effective career advancement strategy or not. But having spent several years studying the tactics successful people use to get ahead in the current corporate environment, I would recommend spending a little more time finding opportunities for advancement in your current job and a little less time looking for opportunities at other companies.