Not everyone wants to quit their job and live the laptop lifestyle.
I was that guy for years. The appeal of entrepreneurship meant nothing to me. I liked the snug fit of corporate life.
I started at the bottom of the corporate ladder in an entry-level job, working for minimum wage.
Within a few years, I got pretty high up the ladder. If I stayed I’d be a general manager by now on roughly $500,000. I don’t tell you that to impress you. I tell you because I made it to the top 1% who learned how to climb the corporate ladder.
It’s not for everyone.
But if you want to climb the corporate ladder, here’s what I’d do.
Play this sneaky game rarely spoken about
The moment I got my first call center job I tried to get out of there.
I play the corporate game like the lottery. I looked up senior leaders in the company directory and started cold-calling them.
In hindsight this was an amateur move but I didn’t know any better. Surprisingly these leaders answered my unsolicited calls. I’d ask them point blank: “You gotta job for me.”
None of them took the bait.
Most were happy though to refer me to someone in the organization who could give me a job. Because I got the intro from them, the people they referred me to often thought I had an existing relationship.
I played up the theatrics of my relationships with these senior leaders. I’d get snippets of their life from social media or the company blog and then pretend I had some closeness to them.
Because they, too, were trying to climb the corporate ladder, they didn’t want to disappoint the senior leaders who referred me. So they happily gave me advice and let me interview for jobs I wasn’t qualified for. LOL.
Pretending there are no rules can get you far.
Never underestimate the power of a warm referral.
Become the permissionless apprentice
I spent time with many different departments.
I wanted to milk them for information to find out what they did, to see if I might like to do one of their jobs.
Most departments sounded sexy but were boring as hell once you took a look under the hood. The most boring was the dealing room where all the stock trades happened. It’s the room you see Wall Street bankers give interviews from when they’re on mainstream news.
Once I got in there with my special clearance, I quickly fell asleep. Every call got recorded and insider trading was the naughty phrase everyone was on the lookout for. So the red tape and bureaucracy were painful.
I eventually found two departments I was interested in. I watched them like a hawk. When the time was right I’d ask if I could shadow them. They rarely said no.
I’d attend their meetings and act like them. Inevitably there was always some small task that fell out. “I’ll take care of that action item.”
I didn’t ask for permission.
I said I’d do it and then wait for busy people to reject me.
All it took was a crumb and I’d treat it like I’d been given the whole cake to feast on. I’d name-drop their department in other conversations and never mention I was an apprentice.
Get close to the action then become the permissionless apprentice.
Find the shadow job board
Everyone who plays the corporate ladder game knows there are two job boards. One is the jobs advertised on the internal intranet. The other is the jobs you get hired for through word of mouth — I always chose these.
To get these jobs I sat in different office seats every day. I spent as much time outside of my own crappy call center department as possible.
Normally if you made some solid relationships the chance of getting hired was ten times more likely. No leader worth their job title wants to hire a rando and hope they work out. Because if they have to be fired it makes them look bad for hiring them.
The informal way to make these relationships is by attending their department’s social events. I’d go every week to a different team’s Friday drinks. After a few frothy ones people’s mouths would become loose.
They’d tell you who was about to leave, might leave, or was about to get fired. Once you had that information all you had to do was stay close to the action and double down on building relationships in and around the position.
Lesson: the best jobs are never advertised.
The coolest jobs are created as per your specs
I climbed the corporate ladder by inventing my own team.
Myself and a few colleagues had a passion for tech. So we gained some traction in this field and then got our own team funded. We got to write our job descriptions, set our budgets, and hire our mates to join us.
This is the ultimate dream.
I got to do this because I became known as a high performer. Whatever the revenue target was for my job, I aimed to double and even triple it.
No one else had that mindset … so I stood out like a poo stain on a grown-up’s freshly ironed white pants.
Be assertive as hell, but collaborative
When you act like there are no rules the behavior lends itself nicely to assertiveness. You tell colleagues and customers how it’s going to be.
They rarely challenge you.
There’s miles of corporate red tape in front of you because anyone that wants to go above and beyond or create change will cause some friction.
Corporate employees, for the most part, are couch potatoes.
- They want to cruise.
- They don’t want drama.
- They don’t want to do extra.
- They just want to do their job, get home, watch sport, and try not to regret Monday morning.
Unless you’re assertive the default answer to every request will be no. These noes add up and prevent you from climbing the corporate ladder.
Turning noes into yeses is the subtle art often overlooked.
The counter-intuitive way to do it is to also be collaborative. You don’t crush your fellow colleagues like a bulldozer and harm their fragile bodies.
You work as a team with them and learn how you can make them look good and achieve their own career goals and KPIs.
The team player is always everyone’s favorite person to work with — so more gets done and you look like a god to senior leaders.
Dare to learn code even if you’re a tech moron (like me)
Even though I can’t code I’ve done plenty of code interviews for software engineers (don’t ask…haha).
I learned quickly that memorizing a few lines of gibberish (aka code) didn’t get you hired. Coding is the language of solving problems.
Technical hiring managers care more about how you think about a problem than the code you suggest as your answer.
Knowing basic code makes you a better problem-solver.
And problem-solvers climb the corporate ladder the fastest and take home the biggest pay. Nice.
Build a reputation instead of a personal brand
A personal brand is selfish and showy (think Hollywood). A reputation is built on being known to get sh*t done. Be in category two.
Work smarter not harder
Those who work hard to climb the corporate ladder miss the point.
Hard work doesn’t make you special. Most colleagues and leaders of other departments have no clue how hard you work. Your direct manager won’t know most of the time either. So it’s not a flex.
The real flex is to work smarter by saying no or getting donkey work (like admin) off your plate as fast as possible.
Shine bright on LinkedIn
LinkedIn is the center of the business universe.
It’s the first place people go to find out more about your career. 99% of people have bad profiles and next to no presence on the platform.
So they’re forgotten about like lost souls.
The people who can help you climb the corporate ladder will be impressed if you start conversations on LinkedIn and comment on industry topics with smart thoughts.
In my case, the people who could help me climb further my career wanted me to help them with their own LinkedIn accounts.
Why can’t you spend some time on LinkedIn? You can.
Never murder your career with this quiet statement
“I deserve a promotion/bonus.”
Yuck. Only a drop-kick with no brain would say this. If you didn’t get a pay rise or promotion a leader will assume you didn’t:
- Hit your KPIs
- Build the right relationships
- Pitch enough decision-makers for opportunities
A career owes you nothing. Learn the corporate ladder game or get crushed by it. That’s the harsh truth.
The end game of the corporate ladder
If you follow these principles you will climb the corporate ladder in record time. The end game is to make enough money and start a side hustle, so you can one day escape the game if you choose.