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How You (Tragically) Get Promoted at Most Companies

by | Sep 8, 2021 | Startups

Corporations sell us the snake oil of the elusive promotion to keep us motivated, and to make sure we stay away from side hustle dreams.

Most of us are smart enough to understand a job title won’t make us happy. But we want the promotion because the cost of living is skyrocketing, thanks to record-high inflation.

Tragically, the promotion path in most companies leads to some interesting behavior. Here’s what it looks like.

Engage in office politics

In every company there is hiring and firing that occurs on a daily basis. When a new person comes in you can speculate about their failure.

Sounds like this: “The last schmuck couldn’t do it. She certainly can’t.”

Then there’s the factory worker KPIs that if you fail to hit them, they could cause a Friday afternoon sacking. Speculation on this topic thrives in most companies. A good ol’ fashion sacking is like a spectator sport such as football. The chumps crowd around the office floor and gossip about who’s next. There’s always a “next.”

If you don’t engage in the office politics then you’re an outsider. Plus, the modern workplace is frustrating. Office politics is how you let off steam. Don’t lie now. It feels good, doesn’t it?

Suck up to the senior leaders

The LinkedIn dictionary calls it “kissing ass.”

This involves blowing smoke up your boss’s (or your boss’s boss’s) butt about how well they’re doing.

“Oh, ever since you became our leader progress has started to accelerate. We’re on plan to outperform this year. It’s all you.”

There’s another type of kiss-ass. I discovered it in 2020 during the start of a terrible pandemic. Suck-ups would tell our boss overly optimistic things about our company performance.

“This is going to provide us so much opportunity. There’s no growth without problems. Hey-y-y?” *Does cheesy wink on Zoom*

The truth was the pandemic screwed up a lot. Our customers started spending less money with us. Procurement marched in and chopped the guts out of our profit margins, and expected us to give them charitable gifts.

KPIs fell off a cliff. Kiss-asses kept pretending by blowing further smoke up more butts. This led to unrealistic expectations. When results time came we missed all our revenue numbers. War broke out. People got brutally fired.

Meanwhile, a good friend worked at a company that didn’t stand for this false optimism. They told their business leaders to chop expectations. They accepted zero growth for 2020 and focused on the customer. As a result they outperformed.

Throw people under the bus

Stuff will go wrong in business. The goal of any business is to solve problems. Many people forget this. When you’re surrounded by problems some of them are going to set off a nuke explosion.

It’s on the day of a cataclysmic event that people will get thrown under a bus. The more dead bodies you can pile up, the less people in your way for the next promotion. Competition is bad for promotions.

Many people think they can quietly throw people under the bus without any witnesses, then they’ll fast-track their career. The problem? If you say something that is detrimental to a person’s career, your name is going to get attached to the quote.

Senior leaders don’t remove the names from the intelligence they get from their Russian spies who commit espionage. Nope. They just tell you they do. Realistically they need evidence and a name to get employee bodies under buses.

There are no protected hidden snitches in business.

Treat your fellow colleagues like dead bodies

“I’m going to have to walk over a few dead bodies.”

A shitty boss once said that to me. A dead body to him is anyone who wasn’t alive with the awesomeness of business. Anyone who didn’t stay back, or stay up late on a Saturday night to orgasm over spreadsheets. He applied stupid levels of toxic masculinity to his middle management position. If there is one sign of this trait it’s this: wartime analogies.

He’d say to me “We need wartime leaders not peacetime leaders.” The poor guy thought he was on an Afghanistan battlefield. The truth is he was too much of a coward to participate in a real war and save civilian lives.

Business isn’t a war. Nobody has to die at work.

Build an exceptional personal brand™

Three years ago the rise of the LinkedIn guru came about. Headlines full of emojis and busy-being-awesome mottos were born. They didn’t just teach. No. They preached.

“It’s all abouttt the person-a-l brand” they’d scream from the rooftops of their condos. All day long they would say “network.” This was followed by a “tag your friends on my post to get job opportunities and network with other people.” Plenty of people didn’t understand the pyramid scheme. They offer false hope in the form of a job in return for a dump truck full of dopamine likes to re-inflate their self-esteem.

HR teams drank the kool-aid. They started running personal brand workshops. Then at performance time we got told things like “your personal brand isn’t strong enough.” You can’t measure a personal brand because none of us are companies with marketing teams like Coco-Cola.

We each have a reputation. A reputation is built on trust and getting shit done. No amount of LinkedIn fakery with a personal brand can build a reputation.

The reason leaders in business do some or all of these things is because they don’t have much else in life to look forward to other than a bunch of stupid KPIs. As they get a tiny bit of leadership power, they don’t know how to handle it. So, their power consumes them.

The best career advice I’ve been given is this: Avoid drama.

Promotions at work aren’t determined by quality results. They’re determined by who will and won’t support their boss’s career agenda — that gets them to their next promotion and helps them level-up their bank balance.

If promotions became a democratic process like elections, that required data-based evidence, a lot of this traditional business culture would disappear. Perhaps AI can fix the world of promotions and help quiet achievers to get the career opportunities they deserve. For the time being we have software like “Culture Amp” that is helping to expose insecure, egotistical leaders.

Here’s the real way to be successful in your career and outperform

There’s another path. It’s one that doesn’t involve going to work each day and feeling like an unhappy fraud that wears the grin of a smiling assassin.

Treat your colleagues well

You need people to do business. Teams solve problems not individuals — too many people forget this.

Build your colleagues up. Support their outside-of-work hobbies. Give genuine compliments when they do good work. Find out the names of their children or parents. Learn about them. Ask about their career history. Connect with them on LinkedIn and engage constructively with their posts.

Deliver for the customer

The voice of the customer ultimately defeats the voice of leaders.

When I managed one of the largest US financial institutions in the world, I let the customer tell the leaders I worked for that I should be promoted. As a result, I did get a large promotion and managed to opt out of the office politics losers’ game.

If the customer gets what they want and you’re part of the process, you’ll do mighty fine in your career.

Choose action over meetings

Roll call for meetings is ridiculous. Most could have been an email, but insecure leaders need ‘yes people’ to remind them they’re still in control.

I recommend you focus on actions not meetings. Action produces outperformance and stops you from staying back every night to do the real work, because you spent your day in back-to-back meetings with egos dressed in Gucci’s winter fashion collection.

Be kind to everyone you meet

There’s enough anger in the world. Anger drains your energy. Just be kind to people you encounter at work. I don’t mean Mother Teresa kind. I mean basic kindness: say thank you, greet people, let others be heard, speak nice things.

Build people up

A guy I used to work with is dying to quit his job. He has another job lined up. I asked him why he hasn’t quit yet?

“I want to make sure our colleague gets out of his toxic role and into a new one before I move on.”

He convinced a customer to take an unqualified person for a new role so that they could escape their terrible dictator boss. He helped train our colleague on a new skill. He introduced them to people who could support his career development. He sent him encouraging texts when the career opportunity looked like it wouldn’t happen.

What will happen? Well that person he helped will never forget that gesture. People like me that heard about it will never forget it. So he’s going to get opportunities torpedoed in his direction on a weekly basis.

Just care.

Improve yourself every day

Some people say they have 20 years experience, when in reality, they have 1 year’s experience repeated 20 times — Stephen Covey

Self-improvement involves learning new skills at work. When I worked in IT there were two types of people: those who understood cloud and refused to understand blockchain, and those who knew cloud and took courses on blockchain. The latter are now getting the big opportunities as financial services make the shift to blockchain to enable trust.

The ones who stayed in the cloud are stuck with salaries that keep trending down as the skillset is commoditized.

Learn about new tech.

Choose a job based on culture, not perks

Perks are for jerks. Perks can be taken away. They’re superficial B.S that status-chasers look for so they can tell their mates at the bar after the football “ohhh our company has got waiters on a Friday night that serve us cocktails, skewers, and kale side-salads.”

The way to be successful in your career is to choose a company that has a good culture. Don’t trust the brochures written by the HR puppets. Do and experience the culture for yourself. Message people on LinkedIn who work there and get the undercover story.

How do they treat people? Do they have Culture Amp style software to spot dictators, smiling assassins, and snitches? Do they have ping pong tables or democratic decision-making? Do they do anything for the community, or do they simply vacuum up every dollar from society and hand it out to fat cat bosses leaning back on black leather chairs?

Success at work is a team sport. Your colleagues can become friends. Culture is the enabler. Choose culture to get promoted and outperform.

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