Build or burn?

How to get to the top in large organisations

There are captains of industry who have written books telling you how they got to the top.  Don’t listen to them.  What you need at the beginning of your career is to listen to someone who only made it half-way to the top and learn from his mistakes.  These tips will get you further than I did.  The rest is up to you.

Few people start a job knowing already how to operate successfully in a large organisation.  We typically go from a small circle of family and friends into an anonymous organisation of thousands.  To get promoted within such an organisation you need to learn a blend of particular skills and behaviours.  I would summarise it as learning to ‘rock the boat gently’.

1)  Inspire confidence

Some people have sharp edges.  They do not succeed in large organisations.  Don’t come over as an angry young man or woman.  If you are impatient, learn to control it.  If you have edges, learn to project an even-temperedness.  Make sure you behave this way consistently.  If you fly off the handle just once, it will be remembered.  Your overall aim is to make your bosses, and those around you, relax.  Large organisations are conservative.  Brilliant but mercurial people can make it to the top but my guess is they fake it during the early part of their careers.  More often the people that succeed are able to convince their bosses that, in promoting them, the bosses are not taking a risk.  Inspiring confidence in your peers and bosses needs a mature temperament.

2) Get noticed

It is not enough to get on by simply doing a good job.  I can’t emphasise this enough.  In a large company, you need to do more than just a good job.  You need to get noticed.  This is achieved by networking.  If you think networking is brown-nosing you lack maturity and I refer you to the previous point.  Networking means building relationships and alliances.  It means co-operation with colleagues.  This is easier if it is already part of your job, but the best networkers are those that expand their network of relationships beyond those that are strictly necessary for doing their job.  These people will not let their relationships wither and die but will keep meeting people for coffee or lunch for the simple pleasure of catching up:  letting others know what you have been doing and learning what they have been doing.  Networking takes time but think of it as investing in your future career because the value of your network comes when you are seeking promotion.

3)   Get things done

To get promoted you need a track record of ever more impressive achievements.  This is the bit where hard work, intelligence, decisiveness and leadership skills pay off.  It goes without saying that if you don’t have practical competence you will not go very far, so here’s a more helpful suggestion:  seek out projects.  Volunteer.  If there is a horrible mess, be the person that cleans it up.  If no projects are forthcoming, suggest some.  You need to deliberately put yourself in harm’s way, so to speak, if you are going to make big strides.  ‘Stretch’ the HR folks call it.

4)  Speak well

In a large organisation you will mostly be influencing through the power of your words, so you need to be articulate.  You need to be able to command a meeting room when you speak.  You need to be able to persuade, sell, make presentation, tell stories.  In short, you need good communication skills.  Ideally, it’s more than just being able to speak and write clearly.  Your non-verbal communication needs to help transmit the confidence you feel when you speak to your audience.  You don’t need to be extrovert, talking all the time.  But when you do speak, people need to listen.

5)  Make money

The surest path to the top is to be in the income-earning side of the organisation.  If you are in a support function it is all but impossible.  Income-earning will obviously include sales and marketing but in an industrial company it could be design or engineering.  In a wholesaler, it could be buying, or in insurance it could be the actuaries.  These days IT tech know-how can be the route also.  Whatever the industry, the money-making department is where the power resides and this is usually where chief executives are drawn.  The only exception in support function is finance where it you are not so much making the money as controlling it.

6)  Find role models and attach yourself to them

The quickest route to promotion is becoming a protégé of a more senior manager that is on their way up.  These are your role models.  When they are promoted they may pull you along with them.  Even if they don’t, they are an excellent source of learning.  Watch how they operate.  Ask them for career advice and feedback on your own performance.  They need to be people you respect, however, otherwise you won’t listen to their advice.

7)  Get qualified

A professional qualification is an excellent stepping stone into junior management positions.  An MBA is an excellent catapult into more senior management positions.  These are gateway qualifications.  You don’t strictly need them to do your job, but you might need them to get your job.

8)  Learn how to fight

You won’t get to the top by being nice.  You will come up against obstacles.  There will be conflict.  You will encounter difficult people.  You will need to assert your will over others.  When fighting in a large organisation, you must do so in an even-tempered way.  This takes self-control.  You must stay in ‘adult’ and never revert to ‘child’ even if feeling angry or defensive.  The most effective way to fight in a large organisation is to use authority, process and procedure.  If you position yourself correctly within the governance structure, you will usually win.

9) Be well-liked

‘He’s liked, but not well-liked’.  So says the character Willy Loman in Death of Salesman by Arthur Miller.  All the sales people I know are clubbable people.  And all the people I know on the fast track are the sort of people that other people want to be around, either to listen to their stories, or to learn from (the role model point in reverse).  Make a point of socialising.  Don’t leave the party early.  If you have fallen out with someone after a fight, as in the previous point, patch things up with them.

10)  Luck

You can have all the ingredients above and still not make it to the top.  Luck and timing play a part.  Corporate reorganisations are an occupational hazard in large organisation.  They can open or close doors.  There might be no good role models around for you to observe.  You might be stuck in an unfashionable subsidiary or territory.

When you get to the top, give me a wave.   You’re welcome.

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