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There are only 3 things you need to know

July 10, 2011

I got promoted this week. Well, if I’m honest, I made up a new title and my boss agreed to it. (Although he did agree it reflected the scope of what I do, and didn’t just comply for the sake of shutting me up).

Anyway, I’m not telling you this to show off. A conversation I had afterwards got me thinking. A colleague asked me, in a polite way, how I’m the most senior person in our office yet appear to do the least work. He didn’t actually use those words, but that’s what he meant.

You see, I don’t work super long hours. I don’t stress out and flap about. I don’t whinge about my long my to-do list. I offer to take work from the rest of my team if they are struggling.

Occasionally, when I have a boring technical piece to write, I get halfway through, wander out of my office and complain that I’ve lost the will to live.

But I’m generally cheerful and easygoing. And I can see how this could be construed as not working hard.

Fact is though, it’s taken me a long time to cultivate that appearance of insouciance.

Early on in my career (I was crying in the toilets after being shouted at by my boss), my dad shared with me his work motto. I kind of stole it and took it as my own: ‘grace under pressure’. It’s simple, but it works.

On a practical level, I reckon three things are crucial to being a successful consultant.

  1. Know which deadlines you can move. You’ll never meet every deadline, all of the time. The trick is to work out what can wait – or which one is a ‘nice to have’ deadline. As in “it would be nice to have that in my inbox tomorrow, but I am going sit on it for a day or two anyway before I look at it”. A quick chat often uncovers which deadline is moveable.
  2. Know how to delegate. I’ve taken a long time to crack this one, and it helped when I heard this line: ‘if you’re not feeling uncomfortable, you’re not delegating enough’. Because it can feel mean asking others to do stuff. Or it takes longer to brief them than to do it yourself. But it’s selfish not to delegate, because then nobody else is learning or getting the chance to shine. And it doesn’t just mean delegating down the line – sharing work upwards and sideways is important too – because that’s how you build a genuine team.
  3. Know which meetings to attend. One of the biggest mistakes I see consultants make is giving too much weight to client work.  Of course it’s bloody important, but so is the business that employs you. It drives me nuts when people constantly move – or simply don’t come to – internal meetings and events. Same with internal jobs – if you said you’d write a post for the company blog, for example, then do it. That’s how you show your enthusiasm and commitment – not just by turning up, servicing clients and going home.
What about my good readers… any tips for getting promoted?
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  1. There are two ways I have found to be effective:

    * the one mentioned above about creating your own new position and being the obvious person to fill it (and yes, basing it around a new title can be an effective way to do this – I once did a deal with the chairman and traded a pay rise for a job title of “general counsel” even though I was doing nothing extra, and it was the biggest step in my future employment I ever weaseled my way into).

    * find things in the organisation that no-one else wants to own or manage, and take them under your wing. In my last real job I collected a bunch of orphan functions like the company secretariat,the legal department, public policy, government relations, corporate social responsibility and the charitable foundation, and bingo – there was a new department with critical mass and an intriguing title called “Governance”. Then we managed to acquire another operation which no-one else had taken the time or effort to understand, and no-one really wanted either, called “inter-connect” (it’s a telecoms thing) and added that too. What people didn’t quite get about that one was that inter-connect actually provided a third of the company’s revenue, and it was like annuity revenue. It’s kind of stealth promotion, but it works.

    By the time I “retired” (i.e. got sick of corporate games and went off to play consultant), people were scrambling to own some of that stuff – you should have seen the cat-fight about who would get the charitable foundation, which turned out to be a real power base.

  2. Awesome tips. I am going to think about what I’ll call my new department.

  3. I so understand what you mean about an air of insouciance! I have cultivated what my friends call ‘dolphin face’. I look happy most of the time when I am working, even if I am on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

    I believe that my colleagues/clients take their cues from me – if I am calm and happy under pressure, hopefully they will follow suit!

  4. That’s such a good point – stress breeds stress in others, while ‘dolphin face’ (I love that term) is also contagious!

  5. Gigi permalink

    Totally agree with all your tips, they hit the nail on the head. The only other thing I can think of is don’t be afraid to say no to a request from your boss if you think you’re too busy. You are better off delivering a little less well than over committing and delivering sub-par work.

    • If ever there was a good spokesperson on this topic, it would be you Gigi. And you make a good point – just taking on more work while silently becoming a martyr isn’t worth it. Nobody loves a martyr.

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