The rat race. The corporate ladder. The corporate game of thrones. Whether you like it or not, chances are you’ll end up in one of those models as you progress in your career. But how do you make the best of it?
Paolo Gallo, chief human resources officer at the World Economic Forum, gives his answers in the Italian book La Bussola del Successo, or The Ladder of Success. His insights are based on his own career in HR, during which he’s seen many people succeed, many people fail, and many people get up again.
Here are some of his takeaways that stood out:
1. Don’t be afraid to tap into your network to get acquainted with a job, person or company
We all belong to several networks: our country’s, our university’s, or our religion’s, to name just three. When you’re looking at a job in a certain organization, you shouldn’t hesitate to make use of that network. Write an e-mail to fellow people in your network who work at the company and ask them to meet for coffee. Ask them about their experience, their tips, their other contacts.
Gallo recalls the example of an Indian woman he met at the World Bank. By then appreciated for her work ethic and intelligence, she had come to Washington, DC never having travelled outside of India. To get acquainted with the new country, city and organization, she had reached out to fellow countrymen (and women!). They gladly helped.
2. Don’t ask what your employer can do for you, ask what you can do for your employer
It’s a mistake too many people still make when applying for a job. They see a job opening as filling their need for a new job, salary and status. But if that is your attitude going into the application, it will likely make you stumble. That’s because your reasons for applying aren’t the same as those the employer has for creating a job opening. They created the job opening to fill a certain need – a job needs to be done – and they’re looking for someone best suited to fill the role. You have to be smart and present yourself as meeting that employer's need, rather than your own of getting a job.
3. Make sure you fit in with the company’s culture
Every company has a distinct culture. Does it fit with yours? It might not be easy to find out what a specific company’s culture is, so Gallo proposes doing a few things to get a sense:
– Find out the company’s profit/loss, number of employees, median age, turnover and diversity figures – they will give you a clue as to the culture.
– Check if you can find the compensation of the CEO and the lowest paid worker; it reveals a lot about the power dynamics.
– Spend a few hours around the company, perhaps in the lobby, talking to a receptionist, or meeting a few employees for after-work drinks – you can learn a lot by listening and observing
4. Get to know your manager’s management style and personality – it’s what matters most in your daily work relationship
The person who will probably matter most in how you function at the company is your boss. They are the person you report to, who gives you orders, and who ultimately judges your performance. Very often, a good relationship with your boss will lead to great job satisfaction, while a bad one is often a reason to quit.
To make sure you get along well with each other, nothing matters more than knowing your manager’s style and personality – and adapting to it. Does your boss prefer long meetings or short ones? E-mails or phone calls? Informal or formal interactions? Do you have any hobbies in common? Finding this out (quickly) is important, because it will determine your working relationship.
5. Don’t ask how to get a promotion – ask yourself which sacrifices you’re willing to make
A promotion or salary increase is the most sought-after reward in the corporate rat race. For this reason, many people will want to find out sooner rather than later how they can get one. But, says Gallo, asking your boss how you can get promoted is asking the wrong question. After all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
More often than not, a promotion or raise will go hand in hand with increased expectations, goals and work. It is therefore more important to ask yourself whether you are willing to make the sacrifices that come with those expectations. Do you know what they entail for your personal life? Who will ultimately pay the price – your partner and children, you, or both? These are questions that matter more than how to get the promotion in the first place.
6. Find out who is who in the informal power structure
The corporate hierarchy and the informal power structure of a company are two different things. To successfully navigate through a corporate environment, you have to be familiar with both.
In the formal hierarchy, you should find out who is at the very centre of power, and who merely holds a position in title.In the informal sphere, you should find out which colleague people turn to for advice.
Having this knowledge will allow you to understand what is happening at a company, and who is behind it. It will be beneficial for your steps on the corporate ladder sooner or later.
7. When confronted with moral choices, don’t make a pact with the devil
We all know the moral choices some historical figures had to make, Gallo notes. In war, people had to choose to collaborate or resist. In segregated societies, people had to choose whether to accept the system or fight it. And in countries plagued by internal struggles, people have to choose between one side and the other. With the benefit of hindsight, we know who made the right decision – and who didn’t.
But at work we also have to make moral decisions, and that’s not always straightforward. If your boss asks you to sign off on a contract for a friend, would you do it? If a company that wants to do business with you offers you a paid trip to a conference, do you accept? If you have to fire a subordinate for questionable reasons, do you execute the request? When faced with such decisions, you shouldn’t make a pact with the devil, Gallo says. You always have a choice, and the right choice to make is always the one that gives you the feeling of freedom and a clean conscience.