Work Yourself Up and Out of a Job

I once had a speech teacher describe his experience as a member of a sales team for a large corporation. As I recall, he said he had been a productive member of the sales force. Then one day he was summoned into a meeting with his manager. He was asked a simple question that was evidently asked of all the sales team members: “Where do you want to be in five years?” He had some goals and ideas that he shared with the manager, but his then-current job and employer did not factor into the equation. It wasn’t long before he found himself “moving on to the next thing in life.”

The moral of his story was simple: Had my teacher desired to stay in his job and move forward in his career with that employer, his sincere answer to his manager’s question should have been, “In five years, I want your job.” Interpreted properly, this would have communicated to the manager that my teacher’s ambition was to become so productive that he would make his boss look good, help elevate his boss to the next level, and thereby claim his boss’ role in the organization within five years.

Business owners take risks everyday. They expend resources hoping to reap more than they sow. Of course, this scenario doesn’t always play out. Sometimes they hire employees who spend years draining resources without producing enough in return to justify their existence within the organization. But the good employers try to keep such mistakes to a minimum and quickly root out the “weeds” that are choking out the reliable producers for the company.

If you are employed, your company hired you because it had a problem that needed solved. Sure, it might give you warm-fuzzies to fantasize that your employer took a special concern about your life and wanted to bless your bank account abundantly with hard-earned company resources. However, back in reality where we all must learn to function, notwithstanding your intense concern for your own well-being, your employer would rather get along by just watching the digits of the company bank account increase without any corresponding drain of resources into your personal bank account.

On a more uplifting note, it’s true that you made a deal with your employer because you each believed you could benefit by working together (and forgoing alternative uses of your respective time and resources). Thus, one of the first keys to consider when trying to get ahead in your career is that you have to take care to mind the business at hand. It is natural to look forward and up toward bigger and better things. Let’s hope that you and your employer even have some degree of alignment on how your advancement might look. But here and now, your employer has a problem (or more likely, a lot of problems) that need solved. As you think about moving up and out of your current job into a better position, be sure not to neglect the necessary elements to take care of business where you are today. If and only if you prove yourself capable in “small” ways will you likely be entrusted with bigger and better things.

The key is consistency. Show up on time and deliver results that meet and exceed expectations. Nothing flashy. Be the tortoise, not the hare.

In order to work your way up and grow within a company, you must be working for an organization with a lot of growth, opportunities, and, yes, problems that need solved. As the boss of one of my former bosses once said, he appreciated employees who could “figure stuff out and get stuff done.” This is especially important in a company with a lot of irons in the fire where the managers don’t have time to babysit and hold your hand on the job.

Come up with a plan that involves your contribution as integral to the company’s sustained growth and success. This means mastering your role, standardizing its functions, and then developing the talent of others within the organization so that your role can be handed off. As your company grows, you can grow within it. But don’t expect this to happen without a plan and sustained, disciplined effort. If you merely view your current job as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, you will likely not effectively mind the details and take care of business to solve the problems your employer hired you to solve. Your plan for advancement will help you balance the details of today with the ambitions of tomorrow. Your plan will help your boss gain assurance of continuity — that the problems you are solving will continue to be managed even when you are promoted to produce at a higher level.