Over the course of my career, I’ve had the good fortune of learning some valuable lessons. Following are a few key ones I encourage you to master to avoid the pitfalls along the gruesome climb up the corporate ladder.
Don’t sacrifice “good enough” for perfect. Waiting costs time, revenue, and competitive advantage. Most times a vetted solution is good enough to keep things moving forward while you tweak it along the way. You have to be open to accepting “good enough.”
Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. People shouldn’t know everything you’re thinking and feeling. Professionally, reserve your negative thoughts, anger, and frustrations, keeping them to yourself the best you can. When in a meeting, don’t fold your arms and pout if you don’t think you are being heard, or if someone disagrees with you.
Every negative comment you make gets back to the person you made it about. I was in a meeting once, and someone attending via conference line said something I thought was pretty dumb. I rolled my eyes. Big mistake! I got blasted for it because someone around the table had noticed and reported it back to the speaker.
Being called a “loose cannon” is not a compliment. You’re not Bruce Willis, and running around half-cocked doesn’t work out well for anyone. If your boss doesn’t know what you will say or do next, he or she will not put you in front of senior management. Off-the-cuff thinking and creativity are good in the right environments, but your boss doesn’t want to do damage control because of something that came out of your mouth at a management meeting.
Never say “can’t” or “won’t.” These are two words that will back you into a corner. First, they make you sound like a know-it-all instead of a team player. No matter how impossible a situation may seem, there is usually a solution—or at least a compromise. Second, these words give you nowhere to go. Either it will be on you to come up with a solution anyway, or someone else will solve the problem. Either way, you look foolish for having said the situation was impossible.
Don’t be a roadblock. Whatever name you call it—roadblock, gatekeeper, or obstacle—it translates to stalling progress. If you have an objection, frame it in positive terms: “I see your point, but help me understand how doing this will help us reach that goal.” Discuss ideas honestly and openly, and seek to more fully understand how they will work.
The devil is in the details. When you’re presenting an idea or solution, make sure you have done your homework, practiced what you are going to present, and created a flawless presentation with clear key points and absolutely no typographical or grammatical errors. An error on a slide will bring your entire message into question, along with your thoroughness and professionalism.
Never sell a big idea to a group. If it’s something that needs significant buy-in, go to each member on the committee and present the idea one-on-one. Find out who likes it and who doesn’t, and address any objections or issues prior to the meeting. Never say, “Well, I just spoke with John, and he thinks this is a great idea” to someone who questions your idea. Trying to make someone feel their objections are unfounded immediately puts them on the defensive. Also, the person in favor of the idea may not have identified the same issue as the opposing individual, and if the person you are discrediting goes to that individual and tells them their concerns, they might agree. Now you have compounded your problem.
Be proactive. Become the idea person by frequently offering well-thought-out ideas. When you have something to say, speak up, and make it good. Usually, the person thought to be the most intelligent isn’t the one who speaks the most, but the person whose words have the biggest impact.
Don’t pat yourself on the back. Don’t go around bragging about your latest accomplishments. If your boss knows about and thinks enough of what you’ve done to tell your peers or their superiors, this is more than enough. People who go around boasting about what they did and how fantastic they are tend to seem as though they have self-esteem issues.
Be flexible. Listen to everything with an open mind, especially if it contradicts what you are thinking. This doesn’t mean be wishy-washy. It is important to have convictions, but it is equally important to hear what people have to say and work together to find a solution.
Let them think they came up with the solution. Which is more important: coming up with a solution that a critical person doesn’t buy into, or letting them think that they came up with the solution themselves? The answer depends on what your biggest battle is. If you need to own the idea for some reason, that’s one thing. However, if you can give away the idea to achieve a greater good, then give it away.
Get to know people on a personal level. Get to know your colleagues’ personalities and make an effort to learn something about their personal lives. Don’t get nosy, but show some interest. If you are an “all-business” person who is a cold fish and never lets anyone in, people will not trust you—and probably won’t like you much either.
Celebrate the small successes. If someone working for you has done something fantastic, make sure everyone else on the team knows about it. Do something personal, like giving them a handwritten note telling them why what they did was so great for the company and how much you appreciate them being on the team. Don’t wait around for big successes—small ones are more frequent, and celebrating them spurs people on.
Don’t lie about anything, ever. And don’t take credit for something you didn’t do or that you played a minor role in. Always share credit with others. People love humility and hate glory hounds. Seeking out credit gives the appearance that you did it all on your own which is very rarely the case.
Don’t make other people feel inferior. Especially if you think you are smarter, faster, or harder working than they are. You don’t know anyone else’s situation, and making someone else feel stupid doesn’t build you up; it just makes you look like a jerk.
Understand the political climate around you. You are surrounded by business politics. Politics is a colossal waste of productive time, but you still have to acknowledge it, understand it, and carefully step around as much of it as you can. It would be nice to think you could get ahead just through hard work; we would all love to achieve the level of Senior Vice President based on accomplishments alone. However, if you plan on staying in one place and climbing the ladder, you have to carefully pick your allies. Involve yourself in just enough politics to keep things moving forward for you, and avoid other people’s political battles.
At the end of the day, it’s just work. Don’t create heart problems for yourself worrying about everything. The company will let you drive yourself into the grave, so you need to know when to push back. Make sure to exercise, pursue other interests, and stay out of the office most Saturdays. There is a great saying that no one on their deathbed ever wished they’d spent one more day in the office. Also, don’t ever think for a minute that you are indispensable. Everyone can be replaced, and people often are.
Be careful how hard you push. If you push too hard on an idea or position, and an exasperated Vice President says, “Fine, go ahead!”, you really should reconsider. This is an instance in which you are being given rope to swing by or hang yourself with.
Don’t fight a battle at a conference room table. Disagreement is unavoidable, and we all get heated sometimes. But you can always say, “I understand you are passionate about this point, and if we can take away some of the emotion, I would like to continue to discuss it openly.” This will do one of two things: (1) the person will realize that they have just been called-out publicly for losing their cool and will recoil, or (2) they’ll think you’re telling them to calm down, and they’ll really blow up and make a complete fool of themselves. Both are OK for you, as long as you continue to maintain your professionalism. You can always offer to take the discussion “offline.” This is a really good thing to do if you feel unprepared to further defend your position and want some more time to think about it—kind of like asking for a courtroom recess.