When I first started working, I lived for promotions. My very first job was as a software engineer and I studied the job descriptions at each role. I made mental notes of what was required to move from one to the next. I was determined to rise up the ladder. I dreamed of being a principal engineer.
Using my job leveling descriptions, I sought opportunities and projects that would allow me to showcase those skills. Since I worked in a place where they had a great corporate training program, I attended classes in my spare time. I did extra projects and worked weekends.
When review time came around, I got a great review but no promotion. I was disappointed. I went to my boss with the level descriptions and some examples of other people leveled above me that were clearly not at the level I was performing. I had hoped this would result in a promotion. Instead I was told two things:
- You have to be performing the job for some period of time to get promoted (lots of people have to see it, and you only get promoted after you have shown that level of performance for some time – at least months, if not years).
- Just because someone else you see as comparable to yourself is at that level, doesn’t mean you should be too (they could be over-leveled).
I was frustrated. Getting a promotion wasn’t like getting an A in a class; it was way more subjective (which sucked, since the whole reason I preferred math to English in school was because there was always a clear, right answer).
Of course over the years since then I have learned a few things. One thing is that titles and promotions don’t really matter. Most are localized to that company, and other companies will care more about what you actually did and how it added value to your previous employer, than what your title was. I have also learned that the people you work with, and the relationships you build, will open more doors and opportunities than any review score or promotion ever will.
Don’t make my mistakes. Be sure you are optimizing for the right variables. Below is some of the advice I wish someone had told me earlier. Hopefully it helps you.
Success comes from trust, which comes from people.
When you first start working, it is so easy to fall into the trap of promotions and performance review scores. In school we work for grades, so in work we seek those same sorts of accolades to give us a sense of accomplishment for all that time we are investing. We want to be rewarded and recognized for all the effort we put in. And for type-A overachievers, we need a bar set so that we can exceed it.
These things are arbitrary, though. There is no way for your boss to know what you are doing all day, and so promotions and review scores are really rewarded based on perceptions (unless you boss is a micromanager and truly knows everything you do, and if that is the case, then you have other trust problems to solve).
Perception is based on the opinions of other people.
This means that the people around you are determining your success, your promotions, and your review scores.
So let’s think about this for a minute, because most of us would like our work to stand on its own merits.
Your boss is busy. They can’t know if you threw something together at the last minute, or if you worked diligently all weekend commenting every line of code and writing a ton of tests. They may go and examine your work, but without spending a ton of time they can’t verify every detail and get the background information necessary to decide if you did the optimum thing, or learned a technology quickly and above average.
They are going to judge you on the success of your project. Did you deliver a quality piece of work on time? This answer is clearly subjective. Did you do a good job estimating your work and delivering your commitments? That is perhaps less subjective, but estimating can be a challenge if you include things like helping other people, learning new skills, or representing the team in meetings.
They may ask your peers about your performance. Some of your peers may even give their opinion of you – especially if you do something wrong. All of these little things go into your boss’ head, influencing their overall perception of your job performance.
Are you adding value to the organization? For some types of jobs this can be easier to quantify. However, in most technology organizations, value can mean so many things that your overall performance becomes very subjective.
Creating value people can see.
Most of us don’t like to brag. We work hard, and believe that people will see the value we add. If you are patient, this may be true. Over time, if you work hard and continuously add value and awesomeness, then people will see it. However, if you have a manager that doesn’t understand your work, or you get assigned to a project without clear business goals or definition (causing you to spend your cycles on something less valuable) it is very possible that your efforts may go unnoticed or under-appreciated.
This is your career though, so it is your job to create value that is also visible.
How can you do this? Here are some lessons I have learned from my mentors and my own experiences:
Get the work done.
No matter what you do, if people can’t count on you, then you won’t get anywhere. Learn how to give great estimates. Always be on time (if you think about it, it is like predicting the future – which is a pretty neat talent if you can perfect it).
As time goes on, be the very best at what you do. Be amazing.
Try to work on projects deemed important to the company.
Working on customer-facing stuff that has big business impacts will put you in the sight of higher-up management (and since they sign off on all promotions and ratings, great work here can improve their perceptions). This can also give you face time with other execs or stakeholders in the company, and those positive impressions can pay dividends later (since most reviews and ratings are done across a much larger team than your immediate one).
If you visibly screw up, visibly make it better.
Mistakes at work are the worst. However, everyone makes them now and again. Things like causing a major bug or failing to respond to an important, off-hours request can hurt the perceptions of other people. However, heroes who can save the day can earn major points. You want to be seen as reliable – an asset to the organization.
If you mess up, take ownership of the issue, send follow-ups afterward to let people know you have it under control. Don’t get defensive and don’t point fingers (since whoever is at the other end of your finger is going to be angry with you, and they may have friends in high up places, hurting more perceptions than just theirs).
It can be an uphill challenge, since it takes a lot of positives to counteract a negative. It is possible, though, so put together an action plan on how you can build and create a whole lot more positive interactions.
Think of yourself as a Ghostbuster – when there is a problem, you are the one they can call to solve it. Bam!
Make sure people know what you do all day.
A few years ago my boss told me, “You seem really busy, but to be honest, I am not sure what you are working on every day.” He and I had set my goals together, and I was working to achieve them, of course. However, he had no clue on the mechanics of how I was actually doing it, and that meant he didn’t know if I was efficient, or wasting time on things that weren’t really necessary.
After that conversation, I started sending a weekly status mail. I aimed for 5-8 bullets of my most important (or most time-consuming) activities for the week, and my top 3-5 priorities/activities for the following week. Once I started this (super easy) weekly ritual I was shocked at the transformation of our relationship. In fact, I even started getting more accolades from him on all the stuff I was doing that he had no idea was even something I had taken on (particularly things like events I attended, or other departments’ initiatives I was helping with).
If you don’t feel recognized at work, start by asking yourself if your boss knows what you are doing. Are you proactively telling them? Are you putting it in writing? (Since you may be mentioning things in 1:1s, be aware that your boss may not be hearing you. If your boss is like me, I don’t retain verbal details and find written records so much easier to visualize and store in my mind – and therefore I like things written down.) If you want to be seen for what you are doing, you have to show it to them.
Every relationship is important.
Ask any manager about great employees. Everyone will say something about “team”. No one works in a silo. And this means that your relationships with other people are important. The perceptions that determine your success come from your peers (or customers, or other teams, etc.) and their opinions of you.
Growing up as a bit of a misfit, social skills were never my strength and this was the area where I had to do the most improvement, especially when my skills were judged as a senior engineer or leader. Learning to play nice with others is one of the biggest things you can do to improve your work relationships (and consequently your work performance). Ask yourself, how are you adding value to those around you? Are you someone people want to be around?
Each day you have the chance to improve your relationships at work. You can make the choice to be someone positive, focused on finding win-wins and seeking to bridge communication gaps. Or you can be overly critical of your boss, the business strategy, or that crappy task on your plate you don’t want to finish. Make the choice to be the person that motivates those around them. The person that refrains from office gossip, or negative talk about someone or something, and instead of joining the pity party steers the conversation on how to make things better.
Regardless of your path to success, though, remember that most problems in organizations are people problems. Focus your energy on fixing your parts in all of those problems, and you will be on right path. Make sure people see your work; you don’t need to brag, but try to show the value of the work. My friend, and another great leader, Luke Kaines told me, “Its not about what you did, but what you got done.” Express things in the value that you added to the organization, not the tasks you crossed off. And most of all be reliable and consistent.