Five Tips for Getting Ahead in the Workplace

The old rules don’t apply

By Pat Olsen

In 2014, when Tania Moya, 28, landed her dream job with IBM, in Dallas, she was thrilled. Moya, who emigrated from Mexico when she was six, was the first in her family to graduate from college. Hired as a sales representative specializing in big data and analytics, she sold IBM software solutions to small and medium-sized companies. Less than two years later, she was promoted to business development manager, analytics, responsible for larger retail accounts.

Moya had acquired sales experience working for a small business services company while putting herself through college at night, which helped her get hired. But she was promoted in what some people would say is record time. How did she do it?
She worked hard, it’s true. But her success went beyond that. She also did her due diligence and studied what she needed to do to get ahead in her particular field, and then took action to achieve her goals. Today, employees can’t assume that if they just work hard, their efforts will be rewarded and they’ll rise through the ranks as a matter of course.

One prerequisite to getting ahead, according to two workplace experts, is to learn the culture of the organization you join, because it will affect everything on your road to success. Connie Glaser, a motivational speaker who presents seminars to Fortune 500 companies on workplace diversity and women and leadership, says, “Find out what is valued in your corporate culture. Is it good work? The ability to schmooze with the department head? Going out for lunch or a drink with the group? You may not want to socialize like this, but if it’s important to the group, you need to get on people’s radar. Remember, too, that even different departments may do things differently.”

Meg Bond, PhD, a psychology professor and director of the Center for Women & Work at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, says that you need to learn the informal hierarchy in an organization as well as the formal one. “Who is really setting the tone?” she asks. Watch for patterns of behavior and who interacts with whom, she suggests, because this will affect how you act and how you go about getting ahead.

Here are five essential tips that will help you move up in an organization.

1 Learn as much as you can about your organization

The first step happens before you sign an offer sheet. Bond says that it is crucial to learn about the company you are considering during the interview process or even earlier.

Check LinkedIn to see if you can source information about the company and to find former college classmates, friends, or colleagues who work there now, or worked there in the recent past, and pick their brain. Peruse websites like Glassdoor.com and Careerbliss.com for reviews of companies, making sure to read them critically. A handful of disgruntled employees could be responsible for negative reviews, and some positive reviews based on anecdotal evidence may not be genuine.

As you research the company, Glaser suggests you come up with a checklist of questions that matter to you. These can include the following: How much does the company promote diversity? Is the culture collaborative? Does it reward people who want to push the boundaries? Are new ideas more welcome than in an established company? If diversity and inclusion are a priority, Bond suggests other questions: Am I going to be seen as the representative of a particular group, or do I have more flexibility? If there are 10 other minority women in the unit, for example, you may have more degrees of freedom because you may be seen more as an individual.

Also, Glaser advises, make sure that you find out not only the standard compensation levels for your position, but what people are actually being paid, inside your company and elsewhere at your level. Again, Glassdoor.com, which has collected eight million company reviews, compensation and benefit information, and interview questions from employees at thousands of companies, is a reference. Bond likes Wageproject.org, which has a wage calculator and “gives a sense of what people within their geographical area tend to be paid for their job or similar jobs and is very useful for benchmarking.”

Lastly, find out about the opportunities for promotion—and their frequency. It may sound counterintuitive, but your boss can be a resource. “Make that person your ally,” says Glaser. “Say you feel you’re making progress and contributing to the organization and you’d like his or her guidance in pursuing careers that would be advantageous to you and the company. Given your skills and achievements, where might you look and how can you enlist support? Or consider a lateral move if it means you can work under someone who can be your champion.”

LinkedIn can be a resource: research the job history of former employees to learn about how frequently people are promoted.

2 Get noticed
Moya offers a perfect example of how to stand out in the workplace. First, she joined internal groups to raise her profile in the company, including IBM’s Women in Business and Technology. She also became part of Women in Technology and helped plan quarterly events. In those groups, she met a number of women who could help her in the future and, in the process, demonstrated she was engaged and enthusiastic. In addition, she joined the IBM Toastmasters Club, another way to network as well as to learn public speaking. Many companies have groups like these, or you can look into starting one in your organization.

Second, Moya asked for more responsibility. “When my manager took maternity leave, I became team leader and handled some of her responsibilities,” she explains. Third, she volunteered, an easy way to get noticed and to get to know colleagues. “I now lead an October charity event, part of the company’s Employee Charitable Contribution Campaign,” says Moya. In addition, she spent a day at an animal shelter with a group of IBM volunteers. If a company doesn’t have organized volunteering, you can take the lead in starting a program, even on a small scale.

Moya has one broad suggestion for women about getting noticed: step out of your comfort zone. For example, introduce yourself to people you don’t know, even if it makes you uncomfortable. “I stepped out of my comfort zone by taking risks, by doing things that were outside my job description, by volunteering for leadership opportunities, and by networking,” she says. “A lot of times, I’d never handled the tasks I was assigned, so I put on my learning cap, took deep breaths, and just accepted the challenge and immersed myself.” 
In addition, Moya says, develop expertise in an area. During a performance review, when her boss suggested that she do this, Moya wasted no time delving into the retail industry.

“I learned that you become essential at IBM by becoming an expert in something. I wanted to position myself so that I was necessary to future projects or opportunities. When the leadership saw me take steps to become an expert, they wanted to invest in me and that really helped me get the promotion,” she explains.


3 Ace the performance review

Earning a good performance review requires many steps. Most important of all, of course, you need to excel at your position. Many women do a great job, but they don’t always get the stellar performance review that often translates into a significant raise.

Studies and anecdotal evidence have demonstrated that women are not as comfortable as men at self-promotion. For better or worse, tactful self-promotion is key to earning a good performance review. “You have to become more visible,” Glaser recommends.

Fortunately, this is a learnable skill. Study how other women do it, and use self-talk, if that will help. Work with a mentor. Or for models on performance review sessions, search YouTube.

Understand that everyone feels awkward or uneasy about performance reviews—not just you. Your supervisor, who has many other performance reviews to complete in a short period, doesn’t like them, either. Go in with the idea of making the process easier for your supervisor. Do that by preparing well. Keep a file of your accomplishments and compile them into a list before your appointment.

Include anything you have done that has contributed to the bottom line and be very specific and provide numbers, if possible. Be as objective as you can. Present the document to your reviewer. This gives the reviewer talking points, and since you have provided them, you have enhanced your ability to help direct the conversation.

4 Ask for a raise

The performance review is often the time to discuss compensation. When making your pitch for more than just a cost-of-living raise, Glaser suggests framing your pitch in positive language and using specific examples. “You want to both talk about and demonstrate the value you have brought to your department,” she says. List the reasons you deserve a raise and then, in advance, share the write-up with a colleague or mentor and role-play with that person as your boss.

Keep the conversation on an objective plane. Never bring emotions into it. Glaser says, “For example, if your boss says ‘I was disappointed in your numbers,’ return to your accomplishments. Pinch your wrist or dig your nails into your arm to maintain control.”

This is not the time to rebut. “Listen and say, ‘Thank you, I appreciate the constructive advice,’” Glaser advises. If a comment is really unjust, address it afterward. This is an opportunity. There are not many occasions for you to talk about how well you’ve done, so if the conversation takes a different turn, get it back on course.

5 Choose a mentor
Bond suggests that the definition of a mentor is broader these days than in the past. You can request help with one aspect of work from one person and on other aspects from someone else, she says. For example, one person might help you navigate the substance of your job, and another may offer guidance on the office politics. You can also get mentoring from your peers. A trusted colleague can help if you’re wondering, for example, “Did that really just happen in the meeting? Did I say something I shouldn’t have?”

Your company may have a formal mentoring program. Or you can ask your supervisor or another person within the organization you admire if he or she knows anyone who might mentor you. Moya inquired around IBM and found two employees on her own. Both are in other areas of the country, so they talk by phone. One helps her with sales advice, and the other provides career advice.

Remember, says Glaser, a mentor is different from a sponsor. A mentor serves as a sounding board, as someone who can offer advice. A sponsor offers guidance and critical feedback, and is in a position to help you move up. If you can find both, you’re lucky indeed. DW

Pat Olsen is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and other publications.

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