Be Less Busy
No one will ever give you permission to be less busy. It can feel scary to stop appearing really busy if you associate your value with the amount of time you spend working. Just know that it’s not the work that matters; it’s the outcomes you deliver. You don’t win the game for running up and down the court; it’s the points on the board that count.
Refuse to burn up all your time on things that are not so important. Trust that giving yourself time to think will help you find ways to deliver higher-value business outcomes and get the right work done in less time. People will see you delivering real value, getting smarter and faster—not just working really hard. It will get less scary.
Trying to do everything may avoid some conflict and arguments in the short term but sets you up for failure in the long term. And nothing will ever offer itself up as a lower priority. You need to figure it out. You need to distinguish and elevate the critical few Can’t Fails from all the other very important stuff on the plate.
Prioritize, negotiate through the conflict, stick to your guns, and get the most important stuff done. You’re not going to get any credit for working hard on everything if you fail to get the critical things done well. If you must be known for working hard, be known for working hard on things that really matter and for keeping those on course amid distractions.
Make More Time
Urgent business demands will always come up. The pressure to schedule more than the time that you carved out for yourself will be strong. Your time will feel less important in the moment. You will feel guilty trying to reserve the time you need to think and build your energy.
Sometimes you will need to work around the clock and give up this time, but make sure that it is for special situations: crises, emergencies, big deals, and so on. In the general course of business, you must claim time for yourself. The world will not come to an end if you are not available for two hours a week. Just take it.
The Agony and the Paycheck
As much as we all crave someone to tell us what we should be when we grow up or to discover us and put us in the perfect job, it doesn’t happen. Understanding your strengths at a core level is not easy to do, and it takes real time. But that investment of effort will give you a better roadmap to a successful, fulfilling career than anything else can.
You shouldn’t be killing yourself working. It’s up to you to tune and renegotiate your job over time to better suit your strengths. If you simply leave this to the natural course of events, it will not happen. Jobs don’t rewrite themselves just to suit you. It’s a negotiation. Figure out how to align your strengths with something the business needs, and then make it happen for yourself over time.
They Shoot Workhorses, Don’t They?
When you are a workhorse, people value you for your work output; they don’t value you. They don’t care how hard you work; they only care that the work gets done. Your company can absorb an unlimited amount of work from you.
It can feel scary to break out of workhorse mode if your value has been associated with amazing throughput. But just keep in mind, if you could be replaced with a black box that they could insert the work into and it would come out complete, that would be fine with them.
But this is actually good news. It doesn’t matter how much time you personally spend at the work, as long as it gets done. To break out of workhorse mode, you need to invent systems and processes that use less of your personal time to handle the work. Show that you can get the work done. But also show that you can free yourself from being overwhelmed by the work. When you get above the work to do higher-value things, this is when you will get noticed.
The Level Dilemma
No one will specifically instruct you how to change your job when you step up. You need to have your own plan to let go of the content and take on new leadership responsibilities. Don’t try this without a mentor!
Don’t get stuck leading an organization that can’t grow (or can’t live without you) because you misread the real requirements of what leadership is about at your level.
You need to be prepared emotionally for not being the expert any more and for finding your value elsewhere. You need to earn your team’s respect with your leadership skills, not by trying to stay as smart as they are on the detail.
If you keep working at the wrong level, it will have a very high cost to your team, your business, and your career. Rise. Everybody up.
Delegate or Die
Delegating is actually harder and slower in the moment than just doing the work yourself. And you remain responsible for the business outcome even if your employee screws it up. So it’s just easier to keep control. That’s all true.
But the reality is, you can pay now or you can pay later. If you invest now in teaching, in getting clear outcomes and measures defined, and in building confidence through trials and risks, then yes, it takes more time now, but it pays big dividends in the future.
If instead you take the shortest, easiest path and do stuff yourself because you can do it well and quickly, you will pay later. Your organization will not grow, and your effectiveness will degrade over time as the business gets harder, you get busier and busier, and you have failed to build a team who can step up. You have more important things to do than cover for a low-performing team.
Better with Less
Dealing with shrinking budgets and increased responsibility is a way of life. As a leader you can’t let that prevent you from raising the bar and driving higher-value business outcomes each year. No one will help you with this. Your team will get annoyed that they have less money to do the same stuff. It’s up to you to lead.
Your choices are either to negotiate for more budget or to make room in the budget you have to do new, higher-value stuff. It is never a choice not to do higher-value stuff. Remember, you need to rise above the work—it’s not the work that matters, it’s the value of the outcomes you deliver. Find a way.
Not raising the bar is a path to failure over time. This is the reason that some leaders don’t “scale” as companies grow. Scaling is about changing and reinventing the way you work as the company gets bigger, to do things in bigger, more efficient, higher-value ways. If you can’t figure out how to step up each year, no matter what your budget, your company will bring in someone who can scale.
Credibility and Relevance
Building credibility feels like extra work that you shouldn’t need to do. You may resent it. After all, results should stand on their own. But your results will get lost and your career will stall if you don’t do things on purpose to build your credibility.
Make sure your hard work is recognized. You need to be the one to demonstrate why your results matter and how valuable they are to the business. Connect the dots for people. Make sure the points actually make it onto the scoreboard. Otherwise your hard work will just be absorbed and largely unappreciated by your company, and you will continue to waste precious time defending your decisions, resources, and career.
Your Personal Brand
If you like the idea of developing and using a personal brand, be prepared: defining it can be a difficult task. If it feels really hard to do, you are doing it right! It can take a lot of time and work to get a really solid definition of your personal brand. But once you do it, it will help you go faster, be more decisive, and be more effective in all your interactions.
It will remind you to put your best foot forward all the time. And it will give you the confidence to do so!
Having that checklist of how to behave in both ordinary and challenging situations will seriously help you build credibility and visibility as you grow your reputation and career.
The important thing here is to not get stuck in a rut. People who are not into fashion can tend to get comfortable with how they have dressed for decades; they don’t pay any attention to how that is translating today or ever bother to get any feedback.
Make sure that your appearance is serving your goals. Ensure that there is nothing distracting from your competence. If you are selling yourself, or aspiring for more, put some focused effort into your appearance. Go to the professionals.
Be Visible, But Not Annoying
What happens to most people (including me) is that they get burned. They get passed over, demoted, or blacklisted because of a misunderstanding or because they were invisible.
Then we have the conversation about the fact that they failed to build a network of support above and around them in the company. No one was watching out for them or advocating for them.
After you suffer a loss or a big setback, it becomes more personal—and much more obvious—that you need to make the effort to communicate with stakeholders. So you finally move it to the front burner. Try to prioritize this before you get screwed. It’s worth it.
Selling Your Ideas
It actually takes some real discipline to get in the habit of selling, performing, and motivating instead of just talking or presenting. It takes a lot more thought and planning on the front end, and it takes guts.
You need to be willing to put yourself out there and engage people with enthusiasm. It might feel strange. It probably feels safer to just keep it low key and communicate the facts. But just know that you are doing your career a disservice if you don’t step up. If you want to own and drive meaningful business outcomes, not just talk about them, you need to actively sell your ideas.
Asking for help is an asset, not a liability.
Asking for help is a fundamental trait of the most successful people. If you are not comfortable with doing this, you’d better get comfortable, or you will dramatically limit your ability to excel and advance. Don’t let your ego get the best of you. Never suffer or fail alone.
Authentic Networking, Not Politics
What most people struggle with is making the time to build value into their networks when they don’t need anything. When everything is going great, the motivation to connect with people (if you are not a natural connector) just isn’t there. You are busy and focused on other things.
It’s important to fight this tendency, step away from the work, and schedule some time to stay connected with people. If you don’t, you will be very uncomfortable and embarrassed when you ultimately need your network after you’ve failed to stay in touch. You put yourself in the awkward and much weaker position of having your first contact in years be an ask.
You don’t need to be a “natural networker”; just schedule time and start doing this. It gets easier as you go, and it is vitally worth it.
No one is going to guide you here or make room for you to do this
To stand out as a leader, you need to imagine what is possible, set the right course, and then drive significant changes to get there.
If you rely only on your own ideas, you will have a disadvantage in creativity and confidence. When someone triggers something in your imagination that you could never have conceived of on your own, and they help you realize you can actually do it, it changes the world for you. You must cultivate this kind of connection with others if you plan to advance.
The Experience Paradox
Most work environments don’t make career development obvious or easy. Don’t wait for help. You’ll be better off if you consider yourself to be on your own. If you know what job you want, get busy meeting people who have a similar job. Learn about it, and negotiate projects that will give you the experience you need. Start getting recognized as a candidate by taking on the right extra work and getting some visibility. Don’t wait for your manager or company to make this happen for you.
Work and Life: Be Better at Both
Part of your job is to figure out how to not be fully consumed and burned out. The better you get at your job, the more you can get done in a shorter amount of time with less effort and energy. You’ll then have more time and energy to do things outside of work.
You need to take responsibility to make time to do the things over and above your job description that will make you successful, including claiming some time to get better at your home life. Your company wants you to have a good life that you enjoy. They know they will get more out of you at work if you are happy outside of work.