Growing a Career

By Hannah Wallace October 31, 2008

Quite often when we think of marketing, we view it in the context of selling a product or a business. Many of my columns provide advice on how to grow your business and conquer challenges. But the fact is that most of us do not own businesses but work for people who do. And one of our main goals is to grow our career.

When I ran corporations I was often asked to counsel aspiring executives. Today I still get calls or e-mails seeking career guidance.

Follow all the lessons learned in college or in the business books, and they’ll tell you that the smartest people with talent will win out every time. Certainly that is true—to a point. But it is merely the price of admission. Think of the analogy of buying a car. Great gas mileage is the minimum acceptable criteria for consideration, but if every vehicle meets the 30 mpg level, what becomes the differentiator?

To win you have to develop a strong strategy for outwitting and outsmarting the person in accounting or sales who is just as experienced and smart. Yes, it is a power/zero-sum game. The only caveat is that you want to always maintain your integrity. You want to get up every morning and look in the mirror and say, “I like what I see.” Dirty tricks are a stupid approach and, in the end, you will experience your version of Donald Trump saying, “You’re fired!” Here are my suggestions:

Always try to see the big picture. Think of it as a chess match where you have to look five to six moves ahead. Certainly your strategy will have long-term goals, but winning the game requires short-term tactics and making the right moves to put you in position to capture the king. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices, but do so with your career goals at the forefront of your mind.

Don’t underestimate the competitor. You have to assume that he or she is equally talented and can get the same information as you. Your key will be to become a better analyst. Do your homework, understand the business, dig deeper to find solutions, come up with new ideas, create coherent presentations and then get them to your boss. Work hard to make your boss look like a hero.

Take risks. You have to not only stay current; you have to move to the cutting edge. I have always had a philosophy that the most effective way to cope with change is to help create it. I have recently adopted a corollary: If you fear change, how are you going to feel about becoming irrelevant? Confrontation is GOOD. If you have your facts and present them well, you should prevail. Facts will eventually win out over opinion. And oh, yes, try to be tactful. (Advice I occasionally ignored myself, sometimes with dire consequences.)

Be a strong manager who is surrounded by strong people. You need people who will help get you where you need to go. Some of our greatest leaders were people who had the strongest people around them. Think of Harry Truman.

Keep your enemies close. Know your competition. They have strengths and weaknesses, and they will make contributions to the company. Your goal is not to be disparaging or conduct personal attacks. Quite the contrary: You want to get out ahead of them. You want to set the pace so that you are perceived as a leader.

Finally, stay out of office politics. Very early in my career I was required by our CEO to resolve an internal dispute between my mentor and my boss. I was in a quandary because I supported the position opposed by my mentor. He gave me some sage advice: “Stand up for your principles and do not be guided by politics. Do what is right!” I did and my mentor lost that battle. He later became the CEO and so did I.

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