Let me set a tiny bit more context before we jump into examples. Whether we want to admit it or not, career progression is a competitive game. Everything is relative. Everything is comparative. If you’re a manager – you get compared with other managers. If you’re a Director – you get compared with other Directors. The same holds true until you’re CEO and then you get compared with CEOs from other companies. This is a reality of corporate life. Your value is always measured in relative terms.
She’s one of our brightest executives
He’s been placed on a management fast track
She’s high potential employee
He’s a key manager we need to retain
The entire dialogue about careers in the workplace is comparative. And that makes sense. The higher you go in an organization, the fewer spots there are. Organizational structures, for the most part, are smaller at the top than they are at the bottom. This means we are all competing for advancement opportunities, whether we like it or not.
This doesn’t mean you need to turn into a blood thirsty shark at work tomorrow. I’m not advocating for that. But it does help to take an accurate view of the playing field you’re on. It does help to appreciate the real dynamics at play so you can play your optimal game and maximize your chances of success.
I’m often surprised by the poor career choices I see managers make. Where they invest their time. Where they choose to focus. What upsets them. What opportunities they ignore completely. The good news is, with so many managers making suboptimal career decisions, you can find an edge. You can take advantage of the opportunities they pass up.
Here are three moments I see managers consistency fail to capitalize on. They don’t give them enough attention or energy. They mail it in when they should be leaning in. My advice, when you’re next faced with one of these, is to double your efforts, make it a priority, differentiate yourself from your peers. Your career will thank you.
1. Your Presentation at Annual Kickoff
Most of us have some forum at the beginning of the year to present something. For some of us, it’s in front of the entire company. For others, it’s in front of a smaller team. Whatever your moment is, my advice is to quadruple your efforts to make it great.
Your annual meeting is one of the few times people will see presentations from a bunch of managers in a row. Whether we are conscious to it or not, we are rating, ranking and positioning managers in this moment.
Whose presentation was amazing?
Who was funny?
Who looked unprepared?
Who energized the audience?
Who has mad presentation skills?
Who seemed authentic?
Who was full of crap?
These are the questions racing through the minds of audience members during annual kickoff. Your boss, the CEO, other executives, your peers, your team members. It’s a huge moment.
It’s a huge moment, but also one that way too many managers squander. It never ceases to amaze me how weak most of the presentations are at annual kickoff. People just don’t try that hard. They aren’t polished or prepared. The tragedy is, many managers work tirelessly to build great plans and execute them all year, only to mail it in when presenting at the annual kickoff.
I never do this. For me, the presentation about what I’m going to do, or about what I have done, is equally as important as doing it in the first place. You’d be shocked at how much effort I will put into my presentation at a kickoff. It’s THE moment to distinguish yourself from everyone else. Even if your actual contributions were only on par with your peers, this is a moment where you can separate yourself from the pack. This is a moment where you can energize the company (or department) about your initiatives such that it will provide a tailwind for your efforts for the rest of the year.
My advice to managers is to triple or quadruple the amount of effort you expend preparing for your presentation at annual kickoff. Make it amazing. Focus on making a presentation that will set you apart from everyone else. Don’t just be good. Be amazing.
Now, you may say – I’m not a great public speaker, so what about me? – that’s fine. Be the person who has clearly put in the most effort. Have amazing materials, polished slides, great data, concise points. You don’t need to the best speaker to advance your career in a material way at your annual kickoff.
2. Any time Your Team Members Present
One thing that might surprise you, is how much time I spend helping my team members prepare for their own presentations. Reviews with executives, team meetings, anything with an audience of significance. My job as a leader is to help my people maximize their potential and realize success. So that’s what I do. I never let a manager on my team present in front of a large group or senior leaders without helping them prepare. At first, this might sound to you like a control mechanism. Like I’m a micromanager. Like this is all about me. It’s not. The deal I make with managers on my team is that I will do everything in my power to make them successful, to make them look great. And that means getting personally invested in their big moments as well as mine.
I’m often shocked when I see people deliver poorly prepared or unpolished presentations in large groups while their manager looks on in horror. I would never allow this to happen. When my team members present, I want them to be the best. I want them to be confident and proud. I want them to know, no matter how the presentation goes, that we’ve worked on it together and I’ve got their backs. Even if it doesn’t go well - if they struggle in the moment, that we’ve done everything we could to make it great.
It should go without saying, your team members are a reflection on your management competency. Which is why I’m often shocked at how many managers leave their team members to fend for themselves when preparing for a big presentation. It’s possible they think it too controlling or micromanaging to review their team members’ presentations. I obviously disagree with that perspective. In my experience, the kindest thing you can do for your team members is to help them be great.
My advice to managers is to get more involved in helping your team members prepare for big presentations and meetings. Get in there. If they know you’re doing it because you genuinely want them to look good, they’ll appreciate it. And once they knock a few out of the park and separate themselves from their peers, they’ll embrace the process.
3. Your Quarterly Business Review (QBR)
This is another moment most managers don’t expend enough effort on. They take quarterly business reviews for granted. They view them as necessary evils – an event that gets in the way of what’s really important. This is a misguided perspective. How you present your progress and results is as important as the results themselves. I realize that sounds like quite a statement. Can that really be true? Is this one presentation every three months really as important as all the work expended the other 99 percent of the quarter? Yes.
Put yourself in your boss’s shoes. The QBR (or whatever the equivalent is at your company) is the one moment she gets to compare all the managers on her team. To see them perform on an equal playing field. In a matter of hours or days, she gets to see your management prowess on display, one after another. If you think she’s not evaluating, making judgement, mentally positioning you, you’re naïve.
Of course, you need good results. If you’ve bombed the quarter, no QBR presentation in the world is going to save you. But if you’ve done reasonably well, this moment can differentiate you from everyone else. If your results are slightly below average, a great QBR presentation can make people believe in your potential. If your results are great, it can catapult you into consideration for promotion or expansion. The QBR presentation is your showcase opportunity, and you need to NAIL it.
Let me give you a window into how your competition might be thinking (by sharing my own mindset). When I am preparing for a QBR (or when I help my team members prepare) I am 100% committed to building what I believe will be the number one presentation my boss sees that week. I commit to spending more time preparing. I commit to polishing and practicing. No matter what happens, no matter what results I’m sharing, I make certain my presentation will be the best. Unlike the results, which have already happened, the quality of my QBR presentation is something that is fully under my control. And so, I nail it. I help managers on my team nail theirs. If you’re not doing the same, your competition is lapping you.
My advice to managers is to invest more energy in your QBRs. Commit to be the best. Presentation quality, slide design, data accuracy. Be compelling. Even if you think every other manager is just going to follow some standard template, go three steps further. Take unnatural efforts to be great in this moment.
I’m often confused by the moments managers choose to focus on (and ignore). In my experience, we spend too much time fixating on creating and executing our plans, and not nearly enough time preparing to tell people about them. I’d love to hear your experiences and perspective on the issue in the comments section.