Seven secrets of successful career progress

28 May 2015


As new OECD research shows that many young people are locked out of the labour market, a leading business psychologist offers timeless advice for career advancement

Professor Adrian Furnham

So, you’ve just got your first serious job in management and leadership. Well done! But this is but your first step on the ladder – and there’s a lot of work ahead of you to shin up the next few rungs.

How best, then, to start the climb up that greasy pole to board level and the corner office?

For starters, listen in to my Seven Secrets of Successful Career Progress…

1. As quickly as possible become, or at least appear to be, indispensable

Having any skillset that others need yet do not possess is a wonderful asset. In the land of the blind and all that, being the only person to speak Mandarin or understand Structural Equation Modelling, or nurture a temperamental machine, or person, bestows special status. Explore your particular talents and hone those that the organisation both wants and is running short on. Equally, seek out organisations that value your particular skillset. The emotionally intelligent might thrive in organisations of autistic-spectrum techies; the numerate among creative airheads.

2. Always (appear to) be a committed, open, enthusiastic team-player

Learn to cooperate, to include others, to be supportive. Management is a contact sport. Develop a reputation for being committed to the team, group and organisation. Stress the “we” over the “I”. Attend social events – better still, organise them. Bring people together. Share your ideas and assets. In giving, you receive.

3. Work out the real power structure, establish useful alliances and find soulmates

Get connected and embedded throughout the organisation. Get out of your silo and do your own matrix organisation. Understand, through relationships, how the whole organisation works. Never believe the organisational chart. Informal leaders are very influential. Find them. Charm them. Befriend them. Get savvy as to where the power lies.

4. Be positive, don’t whinge and never get caught gossiping

It is the alienated, passed over and angry who spend their life sniping. They are not fun to be around and they sap team morale. Positive people, by contrast, are life-enhancing, fun to be around and at the heart of a good team. Do “can” and not “can’t” and see the upside first, long before the downside. Never put down colleagues in public. You can evaluate ideas, but never attack the proposer. Treat setbacks as learning opportunities and move on.

5. Know when to attract and when to avoid the limelight

Make sure you get noticed by the right people at the right time. There is little worse than an egocentric, attention-seeking, narcissistic young person whose self-obsession is very off-putting. Less is always more. It is better to give a few brilliant presentations than many good ones. Pick your opportunities, prepare to the point that everything looks natural and easy, and praise others openly when they have done well.

6. Manage up and across as well as down

We know from multi-source feedback that, of all the people who come into contact with you, your boss knows you least well. Your staff know about your management style, your colleagues about your abilities and your boss about the consequences of your work. You have to beat your colleagues to get your boss’s job, so make sure he/she is kept well briefed on all you want him/her to know. Remember, talent management will be in his /her remit. Keep on good terms with colleagues and reports. Never forget the “little people” in support roles, who often have disproportionate amounts of power.

7. Keep your options open, your CV updated and your skillset sharp

The career is not dead. But “snakes and ladders” behaviour may be required to do well in many jobs. You may have to leave the organisation and rejoin to overcome some obstacles ahead. So, welcome headhunters, read the appointments pages, know your market value. And where necessary, update your skills and knowledge. Technology changes everything.

In short, cultivate and guard your reputation. Be proactive and aware of what is going on.

Be adaptable and flexible. And – what is more – you’ll be a man(ager), my son!

Adrian Furnham is a business psychologist and author of 80 books and 1,000 scientific papers. He is an adjunct professor at the Norwegian Business School. Find his website here.

Read more opinions