There is a fairly straightforward formula for career success: hard work and delivering a high performance. As most professional organisations refer to meritocracy as how their best people are promoted, the focus is then simply on the results each individual delivers. Or is it? While this may certainly be the case in the earlier stages of a career, the success formula becomes more opaque, more complex the more senior you become. Many observers in business give this phenomenon a bad name - 'office politics' - it's all about who you know and not the great job you do.
The answer though is yes and no. First, let's take a look at the definition of performance and meritocracy. In the junior years of your career, what you're delivering is direct and tangible - it's likely to be well defined tasks. This is what we call one dimensional meritocracy. If you continued to work within the bounds of well defined tasks, and tasks that are 'assigned to you', you're destined to plateau. You won't get the rewards for your hard work and commitment. You won't get the recognition for the brilliant performance of the task at hand. You eventually take on others' tasks, being a good team player, but failing to reach your potential. What lies behind this unintended consequence?
Navigating the Political Environment
Unlike university, where the benchmarks to attain certain grade levels are clear, benchmarks in business for determining 'high performance' go beyond the observable tasks - it's all about the 'soft stuff' such as your ability to influence others, build teams, think strategically, etc.
As you progress up the corporate ladder, more is expected of you. Doing the task is just the beginning. You are expected for example to manage office politics. You don't do office politics? Ignoring the political environment is one of the deadliest threats to a promising career. To have the maximum impact on an organisation, it's a given you will have to operate effectively with among people (politics). And having IMPACT is the exactly the point.
You will need to bring others along to be able to deliver your vision. You could have the absolute best solution to a problem, but unless you've involved the key players and stakeholders, your idea will remain just an idea. Business is fundamentally about people - clients, colleagues, bosses, senior management. Learning the tools to navigate these human dynamics is critical for career success. Ignore at your own peril!
YOU are Responsible for Your Own Career Development
You've earned that masters degree in business and you're now working for a very reputable organisation. Your new employer has a well developed Human Resource department and your manager seems to be interested in your career progression. Job done! Your career is just going to happen.
Think again. Who knows you better - your HR department , your manager or you? In order to move your career forward, you have to be in the driving seat. The environment around you is changing at a record pace. Restructurings are happening across all sectors and industries. Keeping your head down until the dust settles, although it may seem like a natural reaction, is one of the worse things you can do for you and for the company you work for. The irony is companies need employees to be thinking about what direction makes sense. They need employees who are putting forward suggestions and providing clarity. Lying low in uncertain times doesn't serve anyone.
Developing Your Strategic Career Plan
Stop waiting! That illustrious tap on the shoulder is unlikely to ever happen. Take the wheel. Do you have a personal business plan or career strategy? Where do you think you'd like to go next? And as you're working on that plan be sure to let others know what you're working on at the moment. You'll want to be having conversations with others about the possibilities you see. People are not mind readers. This is not a self serving strategy. You are helping others help you so that you can help the organisation. This is why a fundamental part of any career plan has to include telling others about the positive results you're providing (in a way that you preserve yourself respect!).
Rest assured that someone is waiting for that opportunity to steal your glory so speak up now before it's too late. The best plan is to be well aware of the trends, and opportunities and threats around you - in your department, your company, your business sector, your geography. When you know where you may want to go next , you can position yourself accordingly. You'll then get "lucky". You have put yourself in a position where the right people know you and where you're hearing about the exciting new roles. "Luck" in fact has very little to do with it.