Corporate Rockstar
January 31, 2008 9:31 AM   Subscribe

How do I become a cubicle king and a boardroom baron? How do I become a corporate rockstar? I am in a typical corporate office environment and am wondering why certain people climb the corporate ladder and others do not. What techniques and tactics have you personally applied to move ahead? I am looking for things related to work ethic, communication, self-promotion, appearance, relationships, use of technology, methodology, GTD, etc. Do you send emails late at night to appear to be working late? Do you suck-up to the CEO's personal assistant? Or do you simply work your ass off and get sh*t done? Take me from the mailroom to the boardroom.
posted by jasondigitized to Work & Money (34 answers total) 73 users marked this as a favorite
It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
posted by bryanjbusch at 9:37 AM on January 31, 2008 [5 favorites]

In my experience, the guys who got ahead in medium-to-large companies were the ones who had no qualms about taking all the credit and none of the blame. Basically, I can only think of one corporate exec (operating, not financial) that wasn't a complete prick.
posted by notsnot at 9:39 AM on January 31, 2008

Stop surfing ask.metafilter and take the first step on your next project.
posted by kaizen at 9:40 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have not made it to the boardroom yet but I have moved up from a domestic sales rep to international sales manager. I attribute it to two things.

One, work ethic, you might not get noticed immediately but hard work does pay off especially when you provide results. This element to success is completely within your control.

Two, you need to be in the right place at the right time. You don't know when an opportunity will arise so prepare for the possibility that your next break will come today or tomorrow.
posted by prk14 at 9:43 AM on January 31, 2008

In just asking, you go part-way to answering one of your questions. Many of the people who do not climb the corporate ladder are averse to self-promotion, strategic image management, basking in the limelight, etc. Personally, I recommend being good at your job and getting shit done, but then, I don't climb ladders, and find type-a personalities to be harrogotha. Whatever you do, please don't be a dick, though. There are too many corporate dicks already.
posted by mumkin at 9:44 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can only speak from personal experience (I was able to rise to being an executive by my late 20s) I would suggest the following:

1. You have to love what you do otherwise you'll never succeed at such a high level. So do what you love first.

2. Be the first in the office and the last to leave. Don't just do this for the sake of doing it. Do it to accomplish more. Even if you only add 30 minutes on each end of the day it gets noticed.

3. Be passionate about your ideas, but welcome input from your co-works, employees and bosses. Good executives always listen more then they talk.

4. Learn to be comfortable in social situations. I've found that 90% of relationships are built outside of the office. But you have to legitimately care about the people you work with and/or for in order for that to work. People see through BS pretty easily.

5. Read as much as you can about your industry. Be obsessive about it. Make sure you're an expert. This will help you to consistently put forth good ideas and become someone your bosses come to for insight.

6. Don't be afraid to sacrifice your own self interest for the interests of the company if you need to. I'm not saying you should do this all of the time. But you have to be willing to put all of yourself into the company in order be a big player. CEOs work 70-80 hour weeks for a reason.

7. Be respectful and look the part. Appearance and attitude matters a lot. Not to say you should give up your identity, but be mindful of how your actions and appearance reflect on you.

8. Above all else, be sincere. You're always dealing with people. Executives who are successful and make a lot of money do so by making others (whether clients, investors, etc.) even more success and even more money. That's capitalism.
posted by tundro at 9:47 AM on January 31, 2008 [15 favorites]

Here's an example of how I've succeeded in business. When answering a question, instead of saying the first thing that pops into my head ("Well, your question is so broad and ill-conceived that any answer you get is going to be anecdotal junk or preening bullshit. That's OK, though, as we only need to wait a week or two until we get to solve a whole new set of your problems"), I'll pause to reflect a moment before replying, "Ask Jim. I'm on my way to a meeting."
posted by MarkAnd at 9:48 AM on January 31, 2008 [6 favorites]

I have twice worked in executive level positions in media and now am starting at the bottom of the ladder again.

In my own experience, I discovered the key things that got me noticed were:

1. Strong personal work ethic

2. Congeniality for co-workers and office events

3. Ability to become an expert in areas where my company quickly needed to focus or to find experts to guide us through a difficult process.

I think 1 and 2 are pretty important because it's very important to keep up a good profile. When you go out stick to water after your first drink, that kind of thing. But number three is extremely important. Too often, people come in with a needed skill, but once they apply it, other people learn it too (most often this is the case except in some engineering situations). So you should always look for new avenues for personal growth.
posted by parmanparman at 9:50 AM on January 31, 2008 [5 favorites]

In my experience, the guys who got ahead in medium-to-large companies were the ones who had no qualms about taking all the credit and none of the blame. Basically, I can only think of one corporate exec (operating, not financial) that wasn't a complete prick.

I second this, and add that sucking up to people with power is a proven way to get ahead.
posted by languagehat at 9:50 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

I got 3 years at a bigass company now.

As uncynically as possible, here's my impression of how to do it without losing your soul:

A) Be really good at what you do (this is sadly not enough, but c'est la vie.)
B) Maintain an impeccable reputation. Companies are very small worlds and people talk.
C) Be able to show improvement and progress that people above you can take credit for.
D) Think critically about your job and the company, make improvements without asking anyone. Let the people above you take credit for them.
E) Make genuine relationships with the people you work with, not fake, schmoozy bullshit ones.
F) Learn to hold your liquor! A lot of drinking goes on in corporations, don't embarass yourself.
G) Play golf or whatever else the people above you play.

and finally,

H) Be aggressive but not ruthless. Be a good person. Live a decent life. Your soul is more important than the modestly inflated paycheck of yet another middle manager.
posted by milinar at 9:51 AM on January 31, 2008 [5 favorites]

What notsnot said. I've worked in corporate America for more than twenty years. Not being a ladder-climber myself, and just interested in doing my job (I do not regard this as a career), I note that the most successful corpos are almost always the biggest shits. Being successful in a corporation is a full time job in and of itself, unrelated to your actual job title. My current supervisor is a very nice guy; but after nearly 15 years here he is still in a cube, dislikes his job, and although he is competent at his job and knows all the buzzwords and is universally liked, he is a colorless drudge who is not dynamic enough to rise above his current level (my perception).
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:51 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

I recommend subscribing to the Manager Tools podcasts. Although the web site is not much to look at, the podcasts are filled with valuable and insightful information from two seasoned, successful professionals. The podcasts focus less on "how to get ahead" and more on how to be the most effective, valuable manager and an asset to your organization.

The people that have risen the fast in my experience are the ones that actively seek more responsibility. You just can't sit back and hope that a promotion will come your way after X amount of years ... you have to demonstrate why you're entitled to it.

Sending e-mails late at night or on weekends just makes you look like you're a tool. Just concentrate on constantly learning, improving your skill set, and network as much as you can. You should aim for one networking lunch a week and several dozen contacts in your personal network.
posted by Ostara at 9:53 AM on January 31, 2008

Read this. No amount of competence and hard work can undo the damage of others not liking you.
posted by Nelsormensch at 9:54 AM on January 31, 2008

Always be able to provide quantifiable results. When asked, be able to say "my work on X project saved the company Y dollars and/or Y hours, and improved processes A, B, and C" and things like that. Even if it seems stupid or pointless, do the best you can to make it better.

design8r is right to an extent, but be careful whose toes you step on on the way to needing to ask forgiveness. Even though it's corporate drone-world, there are still egos and fiefdoms - be aware of the politics of your workplace.
posted by pdb at 9:57 AM on January 31, 2008

Be tall and attractive.
posted by amtho at 9:58 AM on January 31, 2008

The short answer is that those who climb the ladder often have bosses that go to bat for them and advocate for career advancement.

But generally, be willing to take on more responsibility, do your job thoroughly and carefully, don't whine, dress better than you have to (but no so much out of the company culture that you look weird), answer e-mails and phone messages promptly, stay late for project-related reasons if necessary, but don't just hang around for the sake of appearances.

If you have a boss that's lazy or on bad terms with whoever makes the promoting decisions, you're going to have a much harder time getting yourself noticed as a standout.
posted by desuetude at 10:02 AM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

Networking. Lots and lots and lots of networking.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:09 AM on January 31, 2008

Certainly you must have the talent and work ethic. And certainly you must be polite and and cordial. But every single top executive I've seen – nice person or not – has to make tradeoffs you may or may not find acceptable. The first set of tradeoffs comes from affecting the relationships with your family and friends because there are only so many hours in a day. I don't know how you work 12 hour days and be a good spouse or parent without amazingly understanding kids or partner. The second set of tradeoffs will involve you making a decision that will further your life while overtly affecting someone else's. Those decisions fall somewhere along the line of "Hmmm, I can go along with plan and get rid of these workers and look great for being a cost-cutter ... or ... I can say no so their lives aren't turned upside down but put my future career path at risk."

So to summarize, assuming you have the ability and drive, how willing are you to make the tradeoffs and accept the impact that will have on the future life you envision for yourself?

(Oh, and I remember reading an article where former CEOs remarked on life after being in power. Many of them commented that one of the most surprising things was that as a normal person, they just didn't seem to be funny any more. In short, they never realized people were just fake laughing with them because, well, they were the boss. I found that terribly sad.)
posted by lpsguy at 10:15 AM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'd slightly modify the advice above about having a good work ethic to having the sort of work ethic that leads others (read: your boss) to trust you not to drop the ball on the stuff that is important to them. There's a difference. You don't necessarily have to stay in the office until 8pm every night or come in every weekend, but being willing to do so when something must.get.done and out the door is key. I suppose the best way to put it is that it's about taking personal responsibility for making sure the important stuff gets done. (Being the guy who stays late or comes into work on the weekends just to show how hard he works is fairly transparent and annoying, and may just give off the impression that he doesn't know how to manage his time. This is doubly true if you're staying late just to finish off your own work rather than pitching in extra effort that goes above and beyond your job description--if you have to stay late just to get your own job done, what does that say about how good you are at it?)

If you're working for a functional business--there's not really weird or destructive personal vendettas playing out ('cause then getting ahead is a whole different ballgame)--then becoming the person who people can trust to get things done without excuses will get you more responsibility and move you up the ladder fairly quickly. If you work really hard, but generally take the position that it's not your personal problem to get the TPS report out when you got the data late and the printer is broken (after all, it's not in your job description) or to fix the bug in the software that's getting shipped tomorrow (after all, it's the other developer's faulty code that borked it in the first place, and your project manager will deal with it), you'll probably get bitter watching other people in the office who don't seem to work as hard get promoted. But it's not about the hours, it's about the mindset. I think sometimes the perception that "suck ups" or people who play office politics get promoted ahead of the guy who really works hard is a failure to see that promotions are NOT about doing your own job well, but doing someone else's job well. In fact, people who do their superior's job well can even slack off a bit at theirs and get promoted, which I'm sure is infuriating to watch as a co-worker.

So, with respect to your last point--do you simply work your ass off and get sh*t done?--it's not about just getting any shit done, or even all the shit done, but rising above your job description to help get the important shit done.
posted by iminurmefi at 10:23 AM on January 31, 2008

David D'Alessandro, former CEO of John Hancock, wrote a great book about this called Career Warfare. It's not a schlocky self-help book, but rather a collection of very practical, accessible advice on how to stand out from the crowd and get ahead in business. It's full of great anecdotes, such as the one where he is given a job offer at a company in another state, gives notice at his current job, sells his house... and then the contact at the new company goes completely silent. Won't return his calls, etc. D'Alessandro is lucky that his old boss is willing to take him back on board. Years later, working at John Hancock, he meets the mysterious vanishing manager, in the context of considering his company as a vendor or commercial partner of some kind. When the two are introduced, D'Alessandro says, "We've met before." The other man says, "I don't think we have..." The rest of the story is sweet, sweet justice.

As a consummate IT-industry slacker, I wouldn't have thought that this book had much to offer me. In fact, although I don't have aspirations of boardroom domination, it has helped me take control of my career and steer it in the direction I choose, rather than haplessly waiting for good fortune to fall into my lap. I'm 27 years old and just changed jobs for the fifth time in less than ten years. Each new position has been a major promotion over the last, and I attribute that mostly to my own refusal to settle for the status quo.
posted by autojack at 10:33 AM on January 31, 2008 [3 favorites]

The person I saw rise the fastest, from new hire to VP, worked all day and night when needed and never complained. Most importantly, he was very relaxed all the time and likable, even after working 24 hours on some emergency. I agree with a previous poster that of all these qualities likability is probably what got him promoted so fast, and maybe a certain amount of equanimity regarding whether or not a project or idea of his failed. He took it in stride, so you hardly noticed the failures. This guy had zero interest in rising up in the company - this is probably what saved him from being the total ass most executives are.
posted by xammerboy at 10:40 AM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

Besides a lot of the general advice above, you really should find out what types of behavior your company rewards and is looking for in a person that they promote. You should be cultivating relationships with people a level or two above you so that you can find out this information.
posted by mmascolino at 10:42 AM on January 31, 2008

Results and Relationships.
posted by drinkcoffee at 11:36 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Of all the people I've known to be "successful", in whatever way you define that term, they each have had a very good memory.
posted by mikeinclifton at 12:16 PM on January 31, 2008

xammerboy describes someone I know, but he didn't have to work "all day and all night" to get ahead. He worked longish hours (in line with the advice on this thread) but not excessive. By his early 40s he got up to VP level in a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.

It's good not to settle for the position you've got; be prepared to move up. But make sure you are grateful for what you've got. If you like what you're doing you naturally appear more positively. If you don't think you're getting your due and complain about it, word will get around that you're a malconent.

Agreement with the idea of finding a manager to help you advance your career. I work for a big company. My current manager took me into his group a few years back when I was at a career dead end. He revived my career. A year after he hired me into his group, he took a promotion at another division. Last year he came looking for me to fill a position. To be actively sought after for a job is quite a confidence builder. The project he hired me for may be tanking soon, but my track record with this manager greatly reduces my fear of losing my job. I may be moved to something different perhaps, but he will take care of me. The other side of that is that he has earned my trust and loyalty and I am a highly motivated worker that would do whatever I can to make my manager look good.

So find that manager and tag on with him. When you get to management, *be* that manager. If all your underlings feel that way about you, you will be successful. It isn't that he's always good to me; sometimes there is bad with the good (as with any job). But our relationship is built on honesty and integrity, and my manager is highly motivated by the success of those under him. In a situation like that, everyone wins. I've worked for other very good managers, but the difference here is that this guy is genuinely interested in my success.
posted by Doohickie at 12:23 PM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

make friends with the secretaries. they are the gatekeepers.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:02 PM on January 31, 2008

Do you suck-up to the CEO's personal assistant?

No, you need to take this further & sleep with the CEO's PA. However - and this part is absolutely crucial - you must put on a show of being the most clumsy, clueless lover in history. This way, she'll end the affair after no more than one or two woeful attempts at lovemaking, but will retain a potent mixture of flattery & pity for you, whilst bearing no grudges, and this will open every door in the company for you.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:56 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Something else that's a handy trick: during quiet periods at work, when you have nothing to do other than surf the web, grab one of those fancy portfolio things & a laptop, and walk purposefully around the building. Everybody will think that you're off to an important meeting, and nobody will be able disprove it - it's always somebody else's meeting. During these walks, catch as many elevators as you can. While riding the elevator, open your portfolio and calmly but rapidly flick through a heavily marked-up copy of an important looking strategy document. Your attitude should be like that of a top student doing a final skim of material they already know inside-out, just before entering an exam.

When you end up meeting with new people from other departments who've seen you walking around as Mr Busy-&-In-Demand, they'll already feel familiar with you and assume you know your stuff, putting you in the driver's seat & allowing you to say pretty much whatever you want & get away with it, although your actual talk in the meeting should mostly be psychologist-style "mirror talking" - paraphrasing whatever they say to you & saying it back to them - but that's a different story for another time.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:15 PM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

make friends with the secretaries. they are the gatekeepers.

I haven't seen a secretary in years.
posted by Doohickie at 6:03 PM on January 31, 2008

UbuRoivas- that whole "Mr Busy-&-In-Demand" thing.... please tell me that's tongue in cheek? (Or you write for sit-coms?)
posted by Doohickie at 6:05 PM on January 31, 2008

no, i actually do it.

(to be honest, it's more a way of scouting out any new hotties in the building & looking like a go-getter in the process, but if it creates a good professional impression, that's a collateral benefit)
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:11 PM on January 31, 2008

All of the above (positive) stuff, and:

1) Never be indispensable. Always train your replacement(s). You want someone to be able to cover things when you are out of the office, whether it's vacation, sick or golf-schmoozing. Who gets the promotion? The person whose department will run just fine when he leaves, or the guy from the department that needs to be babysat?

2) Be helpful and available, but be able to say no when you have to. If you don't have a life, they won't respect you, they will be taking advantage of you.

3) Be strategic. Be able to see further into the organization than your peers. And further into the market, etc.

4) Know *when* to ask permission and when to ask forgiveness.

5) Don't try to be liked, behave in a manner that commands respect.

6) Don't pass the buck. This is bad: "Yeah, hey Bob, Phil up in corporate crammed down this policy, you know I don't mind, but you can't wear that anymore." If you are the supervisor, you are the authority.

7) Always coach/correct/discipline/scold/beat people in private, praise them in public.

8) When you get a complainer in your midst (and the complaining is unreasonable), and they are calling you a shit just for getting a promotion, and you can't take it anymore, give them responsibility for whatever it is they are complaining about. They will learn their lesson.

9) Self control.
posted by gjc at 6:51 PM on January 31, 2008 [4 favorites]

I entered the workplace at 15, which means I have been in it for 28 years now.

A long time ago, my father (who went from the mail room to the board room) taught us: "I may not be the smartest guy in the place, but I'll outwork ANYBODY."

These days, an old-fashioned work ethic is gone. If you do any reading about managing what they call "millenials" you will see that the attitude is more about "what can my office do for ME" than "what can i do for my office". Many comments here also reflect that.

Don't just do what you are told. Do it, but think about how to do it faster, quicker, better, MORE.

here's a small example: When I was working as a secretary out of college, I had one manager who would come over and dictate a transmittal letter to me every single time he had something to send. One day I was at the ladies' room when he came out, so he left the memo on my desk, thinking he would come back and dictate then.

When I came back, I saw the memo, pulled up an old transmittal letter, filled in the blanks, and put it on the desk along with the right size envelope and two labels, one if he was sending it via messenger, one if he was sending via mail, along with the appropriate billing slips. (None of those would go wasted since we were sending things daily to this client.)

When he came back and saw the results, he was completely taken aback. He was used to someone who just did what they were told. No, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what else to do, but the point is, no one else ever did. He treated me completely differently from that point on.

Again, simple, but it is amazing to me how many people don't ask questions, don't think about how to do it better, don't think, "well, if I have to do X, what about Y and Z??

Don't worry about being early so much as BE ON TIME. Being early and staying late is good if you are actually accomplishing something. But be punctual to a fault. Personally, I liked arriving 15 minutes early so I had some quiet at the start of my day, and staying 15 minutes later so that I had time to put things in order before I left at the end of the day. Also, that way, when someone said, "Hey, it's 5:45, all the others are gone," I could say, "I know, but I like the quiet time to review the day's work so I can be ready for tomorrow" and sound completely sincere.

Do what you say you're going to do. So many people do not.

If you don't know, SAY SO. Don't bullshit. Don't lie. BUT - and there is a BUT here: there's a mile of difference between "I don't know how to do that" and "Mr. Smith, I don't know the answer to that question, but I will go and find out and get back to you. Can I circle back with you by 5pm?"

And then, at 5pm, you circle back with him, even if all you're going to tell him is, "I'm sorry, I didn't find the answer to that question, but I have a few more people to ask. I'll check in with you again tomorrow by 10:30."

Be pleasant and civil.

Don't be a jerk to anyone. The old adage that you can tell everything you need to know about someone by how they treat the busboy is true.

Grammar and spelling are important in business, EVEN IN EMAIL.

Dress up.

Your job is not the place to express all your personal quirks and oddities. It took me a very long time to learn that lesson. Sure, you can choose a different kind of job, but you are asking about business.

You have to pay your dues. Graduating college is not paying your dues. You are going to have to do grunt work for X amount of years, and you are going to have to do the work that no one else wants to do. The whole "if you say yes all the time they won't respect you" - good luck with that in an entry-level job. You will be the person I never take seriously if you do that.

Finally, you need to care. You really do. Because good bosses can tell.*

*Not everyone is a good boss, and some offices are so poisoned that none of these tips will help you. But you should be able to figure out where you are.
posted by micawber at 1:08 PM on February 1, 2008 [6 favorites]

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