July 13, 2017

How to Get Ahead at Work: Lessons from an OG

You start your career. You find a job, and work hard every day. Maybe you achieve some success, and begin to see some progression. It can be intoxicating; put in the effort, contribute impact, and reap the rewards. That easy, right? Wrong.

A year ago, I spoke at my grandfather’s funeral. It caused me to reflect on my experience with him, remembering that as a child I viewed him as a difficult, stubborn man, with some very old school beliefs. I spent those early years being turned off by our serious disconnect about a whole host of issues. It wasn’t until the end his life, when we had some serious conversations about how he had lived during his 98 years that I began to appreciate him in a different way.  

In short, the man passed on going to college because he fell in love with my grandmother during war time, and needed to provide for his new family. He applied his brawn to shoveling steel in a local steel mill in Indiana. He was smart. He worked hard. He was noticed. Like a tale out of a Horatio Alger book, my grandfather parlayed his hard work in the mills to become the head of the European division of that same company. He continued to thrive until his retirement by continuing to learn new languages, and challenging himself by moving through Europe to expand new markets. Over time, I began to appreciate the purpose driving his success was based on building a career he loved, and providing a good life for his family.  As frustrating as his point of view and approach was to me as a child, I grew to seriously respect some of the lessons I took from him over the years. I share these with you now.

My grandfather would have respected Bill Belichick’s famous line, “Do your job.” Before you can ever aspire and expect to move forward in your career, you need to add value in the job that you have. That doesn’t mean show up, clock a lot of face time, and tell everyone how busy you are. It means balancing efficiency with impact and adding value to your team’s goals.

Once you have grounding in your current job and are acknowledged as being a valued contributor, start volunteering to take on additional projects. Remember in school when the kids who sat up front and raised their hands were the ones the teachers adored? Apply the same logic to your job. When you are viewed as someone who goes beyond just want is asked,  and is respected as someone who drives impact to achieve success, watch the opportunities and rewards follow.

This isn’t to suggest you need to stand up in front of a room and become a stellar facilitator (though that is never a bad thing!). Rather, take advantage of the opportunities to share your point of view and ideas during team and other meetings. Don’t speak just to get heard; share when you have an important point to make. Quality over quantity nets respect.

If you are attempting to build your career and be recognized for additional opportunity, don’t expect that it will all happen within the safe cocoon of your team. Get out there and partner with members of other teams. Have them get to know your value, and how great you are to work with. This could be as simple as the “raise your hand” suggestion mentioned above, or volunteering to help solve a problem another team is working on to which you can add a unique contribution. If you provide these people with a great experience of working with you, your network will begin to widen, and getting tapped when it comes time for bigger picture projects becomes far more likely.  

It’s not enough to do a good job, and be viewed as a great team player. Continuous learning sits at the center of anyone’s ability to grow and nurture a career that never slows down. Of course, with that learning often comes the ability to push yourself out of your comfort zone and take some risks through which you will learn more; and we all must be open-minded enough to realize there are times when we stumble. Developing the resiliency to dust yourself off and learn from those experiences is just as vital as having the courage to take the risk and learning that comes with it.  

My grandfather lived these simple approaches and built an incredible career in the most unlikely of circumstances. In today’s world where many are fixated on how fast they can get promoted or collecting LinkedIn connections like the baseball cards of our youth, reassessing how well you are living these basics seems like a smart career move.

Christina Luconi is Chief People Officer for Rapid7. Follow her on Twitter: @peopleinnovator.

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