Work Your Way Up

Many years ago, when Millennials were first entering the workforce, several archetypical stories circulated in the press. (Today they would have circulated in social media; in those days, they circulated in newspapers.) One trope had to do with applicants bringing parents to job interviews with them – although this never happened to me, friends told me that this really happened to them. One highly-talked about WSJ article told the story of a young man who, recently hired into an entry-level job at a large organization, sent the CEO a letter describing all of his big ideas for the organization. And, if I remember the article correctly, he may have gotten a promotion out of it.

I sometimes wonder what happened to that young person.

As a manager at the time, I met a lot of young people who had big ideas. Some of them persuaded me to put them in charge of things. I learned that, while big ideas hold great potential, they mean nothing if you cannot execute on them.

Too often, young people aspire to leadership positions right away. But those execution skills are what you learn by working your way up to that management position. Skills such as:

  • Putting a system of work together – establishing roles and responsibilities, workflows, standards for how long it should take to produce the work, checking quality without getting hung up on perfection, developing and managing a budget and supply chain, and maintaining a system of work once it’s in place, with the natural ebb and flow of the team that operates it.
  • Building and leading a team – finding the right candidates, evaluating them as candidates, onboarding them for success, setting goals with them, mentoring them, motivating them, evaluating their performance, and helping them transition to their next role, whether that’s within your organization or off the team. This also includes evaluating candidates for the diversity of skills, experience, and ideas that they bring to the team, getting the people who work for you to work as a team, resolving conflict within the team.
  • Developing cross-functional relationships – building an internal network that enables you to influence how to work happens across departments, with people who don’t work for you. Determining who to spend time with, how to get access to them, what’s important to them, how that can help you improve results, and how to maintain the relationship even when you’re not directly working together on something.
  • Reporting out on your work – determining what kind of KPIs will tell the story of the work in your area, your successes and opportunities; putting systems in place to share these KPIs both through formal reporting and informally, as you chat with other managers and your supervisor.
  • Building relationships with those above you – helping your supervisor understand the story of what’s going on with your team, building trust with your supervisor, helping them understand your strengths so they can better leverage them or provide mentoring on areas you want to improve.
  • Adapting your work style – as you move up, how you apply these skills shifts. As an entry-level manager, I spent more time focused on my team; as I moved up the ladder, that shifted and I spent more time building relationships with people in other departments and managing cross-functional projects and working groups; people at higher levels spend much of their time focused on things outside the company altogether – assessing the competition and the market, negotiating agreements with outside organizations, representing the company to the media, dealing with a board.

It would be very challenging for any person just entering the business world – regardless of whether they hold a business degree from a prestigious school or not – to step into a role where they are expected to demonstrate these skills. Starting in an entry-level position gives you time to apply these skills to your work, and make mistakes, and try again, and find a way to make them work for you. Then to do it all again in another situation, whether a similar-level job in a different department or company; or in a different-level role. And to begin to develop a reputation as someone who gets results, who teams love working for, who people in other departments find a synergistic partner.

When you’re young, you think nothing is impossible for you – at least I did, and I’ve had a number of people working for me who thought nothing was impossible for them, including one young man who told me his five-year plan included becoming CEO of the organization. This is a highly-motivating attitude, one that I like to see in people that I hire. (I once passed someone over for promotion because they just wanted to keep everything the same in their failing department, which, as I pointed out, is why the previous manager had to leave.) At the same time, just because you believe it, doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy for you, especially if you haven’t done it before.

It’s really easy when you have a passion for something to believe that is enough – because you are really into widgets, that you know more about widgets, and have a skill for evaluating widgets, and maybe you can make an exquisite widget, that you should be in charge of widget production. But just because you are very good at widgets doesn’t mean that you have the skills to manage the team that produces them, in the same way that a baker who produces the most scrumptious cupcake would not necessarily be good at managing the bakery. It’s not about talent; it’s about skill.

Unfortunately, people with passion often underappreciate the management skills that will allow them to execute on that passion. Instead of building a team with skills that complement their own lack, they hire people who share their passion; or, forced to hire managers, they get frustrated because the manager wants to put structures in place to manage the work. I’ve met a number of people who see their jobs as ideas; they consider executing on those ideas to be “project management” overlooking that one of the definitions of a project is that it’s a temporary endeavor, not ongoing management of the operation.

Leaders have an obligation to hire managers who we feel confident will succeed in the role; an obligation not just to the rest of the team and the company, but to the candidates themselves. After you have over-promoted someone and seen them fail to thrive, seen what that does to them personally, what it does to the team, and to the team’s results – and, by extension, the impact on the company’s goals – you learn to be skeptical of people like the entry-level employee who told his CEO everything he would do differently if he were in charge.

You learn to question whether he could actually execute on these big ideas, without the skills and experience he would have learned in the entry-level role that he felt so confining.

What do you think?

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