Career success in today's businesses

Few firms ever really tell you how to get ahead. Even those that do often leave out some critical information. If you're lucky enough to get a job offer these days - read this post.
Written by Brian Sommer, Contributor on

It's not always obvious how to succeed

The other day I had the occasion to speak with a fellow, let’s call him the “Newbie”, who had recently been given an offer to work at a major consultancy. The gist of this call was quite simple, he wanted to know how to succeed and prosper in a consulting organization.

What made this conversation so intriguing to me was that Newbie had spoken with someone else who had been hired by the same consultancy and let go some 12 -- 18 months later. We’ll call him “Surprised”. Since Newbie knew that Surprised was a bright sharp fellow. Newbie was concerned that Surprised had been let go and when these two discussed the matter, Newbie sensed tremendous frustration on the part of Surprised.

How could Newbie avoid the same fate?

I'll skip much of the back-and-forth of our conversation but it did involve quite a bit of discovery to understand why one person can work out in this type of organization and another will not.

Surprised came from a command and control career background. He awaited orders and then acted on them. When he went to work for the consultancy, he asked his superiors on multiple occasions what he needed to do and how to get promoted. He apparently got his fair share of assignments but was not going to be promoted. And, eventually, Surprised was cut loose. Waiting for orders may work in some organizations but it doesn’t in others.

That one paragraph contains plenty of clues for me. While this consultancy is a corporation today, it used to be an up or out oriented partnership. To get ahead in a partnership, one must absolutely demonstrate that one is entrepreneurial. People get promoted in this type of business based on their ability to find opportunities and grow the business. Those who wait to be told what to do, when to do it and with whom to do it are not business builders. Partners will not open up their earnings to share them with those individuals who do not help them build the business. This data point is absolutely critical for one to understand if one is to succeed in this type of business.

Just being entrepreneurial is not enough though. Being entrepreneurial means that one is taking risks. But those who get promoted are the ones who take risks but also manage downside risk exceptionally well. No one likes to see the capital of the firm, its assets or its reputation put at risk needlessly. So the challenge before aspiring career oriented individuals in this type of company is to find opportunities to grow the business without putting the fortunes of the firm's owners in harms way. Finally, I told Newbie that when I entered the partnership at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), a senior partner in the firm explained the concept of stewardship to me. In short, the concept is that I was to leave the company in better shape than it was in when I started with the company. That, in essence, was to be my job.

So, if you are lucky enough to get a job offer in this economy, the first thing you should do is do what Newbie did: talk to others and find out what are the rules for success in that firm. Assuming that your new employer works like a previous employer could be an expensive career mistake. Second, the concept of stewardship as described above is still a good concept and one that continues to serve me and so many others well in our careers. The stewardship concept one is portable and transferable. Take it with you wherever you go.

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