We all know at least a couple of people in our company whose rise has been nothing short of meteoric. And we’ve all wondered, how do they do it? Sure – they’re smart, but so are you. They work hard, but then, so do you. So what is it? What do they have that you don’t? And more importantly, what do you need to do to have the same trajectory?
We spoke to fast-track executives at a number of Fortune 500 companies, to understand the secret tactics that they used to get ahead in the race. And we’re excited to be able to share these strategies with you.
It takes one event to break the bridge
In our interviews, we heard the story of a financial analyst at a global tech CRM company, Salesforce, who had a great relationship with his manager for many years. They would often have drinks together and go on outings. One night, the topic of salaries came up and the financial analyst asked his manager how much he made per year, which is often a touchy subject. The manager avoided the question and the analyst jokingly said "come on, we're both in the finance team, these numbers are what we work on..." — in essence, hinting at the fact that he could look up that information.
Two weeks later that same analyst was part of a layoff group and had to leave the company within a month. The tactics below, are not case studies — they are tactics. While these tactics might help you, keep in mind that it is more important not to break relationships than to use these tactics.
Don’t Just Work Hard; Show People You Work Hard
Anyone can work hard if he’s motivated enough. However, for those on an accelerated career path, making sure other people see how hard they work is just as important, perhaps even more. To them, their growth in the company is directly linked to their perceived performance and effort.
And while obtaining results naturally carries the most impact, you can further improve your chances of being promoted at the next review date by showing everyone how hard you work.
Now, does that mean you move your desk to the front lobby and chain yourself to it? No, not really. Not unless you want people coming up to you and asking for a visitor’s pass.
The most common tactic that fast-trackers use to demonstrate their commitment is to stay on top of communication, especially outside of regular office hours. This group of stars makes it a point to answer emails, phone calls, and texts as soon as they can, even if it’s late at night, beyond regular hours, and during weekends.
This is a strategy that has to be used carefully because it can easily backfire and you could end up being taken for granted. You do need to be protective of your downtime. However, when used in the right situations, it can gain instant acknowledgments of your efforts and willingness to work hard and put in the hours.
This may not sound like much, but over time, these subtle displays of hard work add up and can make all the difference during a group review when promotion lists are discussed.
Pro tip: you don’t necessarily have to stay up late just to fire out emails, but you can draft your responses and set a timer for it to be sent at a particular time, such as 11:30 PM.
Carve out twenty minutes in the evening to acknowledge emails that you receive. Put all responses in your ‘Drafts’ folder. Once done, set an automatic timer on your emails going out, so you don’t have to be awake when you send them.
Make Your Boss Look Good
There’s an old saying in the corporate world. “The fastest way to the top is to make your boss look good.”
Intuitively it makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, your manager is an employee, just like you, and she has a manager, just like you.
Her fundamental wants and desires as an employee are no different than yours – pay, recognition and progress. If she impresses her stakeholders and clients, she’s going to rise.
And if you can help her do it, you will share in that growth as well.
Fast-trackers internalize this mindset and are always looking for opportunities to make their boss shine, without coming across as kiss-asses.
Instead, they focus on the tiny details of their work that can impress. When they work on deliverables that are intended for circulation with top management, they go the extra mile to add tiny bells and whistles. This could mean clean, crisp presentations, or print-formatted spreadsheets.
They also use skip-level meetings to score brownie points for their manager, by giving them credit for good work that they’ve produced. If they’ve received guidance from a manager, they make sure they talk about it. Managers who have a reputation for grooming top talent typically rise faster than others. Fast-trackers know this and position their managers accordingly.
Pro tip: if you’re gunning for a promotion, error-free deliverables aren’t nice-to-haves. They’re table stakes. If you’re building a presentation, ensure there’s a definite flow, use appropriate graphics, and make your slides ‘pop’. Check out the pre-built presentation templates we have here at You Exec. As for spreadsheets, build in drop-down menus. Use formulas as often as possible to automate things.
Also, always format deliverables to be print-ready. In most organizations, the higher you go, the less likely it is that executives are going to look at tiny computer screens. Most executives want hard copies to review and make notes on. Saving your manager the time and effort of having to reformat your deliverables for top management consumption, will pay off over time.
In group situations, especially with outside teams, always represent your manager in the best way possible. Publicize the excellent guidance and opportunities that your manager gives you. And avoid embarrassing them at office gatherings.
Don’t Just Be a Problem-Solver; Use the Language of One
Top performers know that their managers don’t want employees who just bring problems to them. They want people who offer solutions as well. They want people who can ‘get shit done.’
But many fast-trackers have reported that using the language of a problem-solver has worked in their favor.
For example, when a manager comes to them and asks them to carry out a task, they don’t just offer a weak confirmation like ‘Yes’ or ‘Okay.’ Instead, they look their manager straight in the eye and say ‘I will handle it,’ or ‘I will close this for you.’
The message is still the same, but by using these words, fast-trackers provide a powerful reinforcement to their managers that they can handle the task, and they will not fail them. In performance reviews, managers have revealed that these words gave them confidence that the job would get done and an assurance that their task was in good hands.
Pro tip: the next time your manager comes to you with a request for something, be strategic in your choice of words. Don’t just say ‘Sure’ or ‘Okay.’ Use more powerful phrases, such as ‘Consider it did,’ or ‘I will take care of this for you.’
Of course, you have to deliver as well, but the combination of powerful language and a job well done is a potent 1-2 punch that reinforces your top-performer status.
Get Comfortable with Ambiguity; Connect the Dots
In today’s fast-paced environment, fast-trackers know and expect that they’ll be given problems to solve without all the relevant information they need to perform said task. They understand that things often move at the speed of light, and they may need to get the ball rolling with only a few facts.
This presents an excellent opportunity to show initiative and connect the dots, fill in the missing spaces, and run with it.
Top performers try to think about the problem and the desired results from their boss’s perspective - “What is he expecting? What is he trying to solve?”. Then, they approach the problem with the relevant assumptions and facts.
Of course, as a precaution, they ensure that they check-in with the manager after they’ve made certain assumptions, and ask for a quick sign-off before they head on to solve the actual problem.
But doing this shows the manager that the employee knows how to operate in an ambiguous environment, and uncertain and dynamic environments don't faze her.
Pro tip: the next time your boss hands you a task with a lot of ambiguity, try to anticipate what your boss is trying to solve. Ask yourself, “What is the overarching objective here?” “What is our team attempting to address?”. Cultivate the ability to think two steps ahead
Do your homework and try to find out more from other people - be resourceful when you don’t have all the details in front of you.
Instead of asking all your questions right at the beginning, make a few assumptions and get to work. Managers value employees who can take the ball and run with it.
As a safeguard, schedule regular check-ins to provide a summary of everything you’ve understood, and seek clarity on the assumptions you’ve made.
Be Relentless in Your Quest for Champions
The final strategy that most fast-trackers use in their quest for a promotion is to actively seek out champions for their cause in other parts of the business.
They also know that working in silos is often the riskiest thing they can do because it limits their visibility and potential network.
To find champions in other parts of the business, they actively seek out and work on new projects with cross-functional teams. This gives them the opportunity to interact and network with other leaders, and get to connect with as many people as possible.
Doing this allows them to increase the size of their political base and capital, and in discussions over talent reviews, this increased visibility often makes all the difference. The more people who know them outside of their immediate organization, the stronger their chances are of moving upwards.
Pro tip: sometimes, it’s important to recognize that your growth in an organization is dependent on not just your manager’s approval, but the recognition that you can gain from outside teams.
Always ask your manager about critical cross-functional projects that are ongoing, and request permission to join them.
Once you join these teams, do your best to build a good impression on people outside of your team. Follow all the other strategies we’ve laid out above.
And there you have it. These strategies aren’t taught at business school, but they’re the secret sauce that has resulted in tremendous career growth for many executives.
Of course, all of these strategies are worthless if you don’t produce good work. Being a good performer is par for the course.
However, employing these strategies into your everyday interactions at the office can make all the difference between being a ‘great employee’ and a true ‘high potential fast tracker.’