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My Career Secrets: Not Sexy, but Smart

Promise less, deliver more to get ahead

by on
in Dealing with Bosses,Office Management,Office Politics,Workplace Communication

I had lunch the other day with a director of career planning at a college. She asked, “So what dirty deeds are you most ashamed of? I’d like to give students the real scoop on becoming a CEO.”

“I don’t have any good stories to tell you,” I replied. “Maybe it’s considered glamorous when you run a company, but getting there isn’t glamorous at all.”

Some people assume that CEOs claw their way up the corporate ladder. Well, you don’t have to play a mean game of office politics.

Here’s the boring truth: My secret for success was to stay positive, have allies everywhere and capitalize on every assignment to produce bigger-than-expected results. Talent counts but only to the extent that you direct your skills into something that truly matters to your organization.

Tap team power

You’ll never get ahead if you operate too independently. No man (or woman) is an island.

Here’s what I mean: If you have a great idea that’ll save your company wads of cash, don’t just write it up and drop it in a suggestion box. Generate some buzz so that you communicate your idea in a more powerful way. Do fact-finding and enlist the help of lots of people. Generate initial buy-in by spreading the credit around.

Keep a paper trail to record your progress and document your role in introducing the idea. While you want everyone on board, the danger is that someone can later hog the glory if you fail to take charge.

Think in threes

Begin every assignment by asking this question: What do I want to achieve, preserve and avoid?

Answering that forces you to separate what needs fixing from what’s already working and what mistakes can make things worse. Then you can proceed with the boldness that comes from a well-developed action plan. Don’t overlook what you want to preserve. Even if you’re convinced things are a total mess, chances are something’s worth leaving intact.

When I was asked to turn around our marketing operation, I knew I needed to keep my sales reps happy and avoid fiddling too much with their compensation. But I also knew I had to squeeze more results from a bloated unit and produce a higher ratio of successful product roll-outs. Mapping all this out in my head guided my decisions, and I led a massive overhaul of that department.

Exceed expectations

Competence will only get you so far. You’ll leave a stronger impression by producing far more than what your bosses—and employees—expect from you. If you’re given a production quota, double it. If you’re given a deadline, beat it.

I’ve always tried to figure out what someone expects of me from the outset. Then I strive to underpromise and overdeliver. When you pleasantly surprise people, they rarely forget. You’ve just gained their stamp of approval.

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