My experience in business has been in bureaucracies of various stripes since I left college a couple of decades ago. If you have ever worked in a bureaucracy, you know how difficult it can be to get something accomplished, especially when everyone else seems to be heads-down and avoiding risk. In the simplest of terms, to accomplish anything, you need to continuously have cantankerous meetings, to push your agenda, and to take flak from everyone about what might go wrong with your approach. It seems so much easier just to “go with the flow” and take a low profile, just like everyone else.
On a parallel vein, there are many different ways to approach a career. One way is to bargain furiously for the highest position possible when you enter a job, and then to focus continually on getting promoted and working the organization politically for continued promotion. The individuals who push down this path are often focused upwards on presenting their efforts in the best light and in ensuring that the areas in which they work are the most promising in terms of opportunities for promotion (i.e. highly visible to executives). This can be a very effective strategy.
Another, opposite sort of approach is to work hard and take on some of the most difficult tasks that the organization faces, and try to do your best to make the firm better even if the choices are not politically popular. If you see a project that is in disarray and you step in to try to make it better, that can be a dangerous move politically (because if it fails, it could get pinned on you) but it could be the best move for the company, because it gives a project the chance to right itself. If you see a process that is inefficient but crosses a lot of organizational silos, meaning that it will be difficult to streamline and get everyone on the same page, this is also the type of effort that the heads-down hardworking type will apply themselves to.
In many instances it seems that the hardworking, change-agent type of person is kind of “playing the fool” by working so hard while the career-orientated politically minded person is looking at the overall picture and trying to pick the project that will give him or her the most visibility and opportunities for career gain.
The NY Times has an interview section where they ask relatively open-ended interview questions to high ranking executives. In this instance of “corner office” they met with Lawrence Kellner, the former CEO of Continental Airlines. Without meaning to do so, Mr. Kellner validates that second approach to career management.
Mr. Kellner was asked a question about hiring. From the article:
I don’t believe that any one hour or two hour interview can let me figure out “Yeah, that person is going to be really successful”. So step one is: “Have I worked with someone who could fill this job that is really good?” My success rate is dramatically higher going that route.
If not, the second step is to widen the net to people I trust, and look for people they’ve worked with. Our third net is, we try to find somebody we know and trust who knows the person we’re thinking of hiring. The best possible interview is minuscule in value compared to somebody who’s got even a couple of months of work experience with somebody.
Often when hiring an executive is trying to fix a problem, usually an intractable one. If you are someone who takes on difficult challenges and tries to do their best for the organization, your real “upside” is that this will be noticed by someone and they will put you up for an opportunity that comes their way. Instead of trying to bargain your way into a position you can let your past efforts speak for you which will make the hiring process immensely easier.
This is the strange thing about working in a bureaucracy; while it seems like everything is arrayed against change, the head people DO notice those few people banging their heads against the wall trying to make things better, and they remember. Later, when they have their own companies, or different opportunities, the executives may reach out to those that shook up the status quo and bring them along to take on new challenges.
In the simplest terms, when you try to be a change agent, “every day sucks” (this was also a term that applied to friends of mine that used to work for EDS), and it seems like you are losing. But your hope on the other side is that someone like Mr. Kellner notices you, and someday when he has an opening, he goes for the best and most dynamic employee, and you have an opportunity that the political, do-nothing guy never receives.
Cross posted at LITMG