10 min read

It’s a lovely Spring morning, and the aroma of fresh coffee beans envelope me like a cashmere blanket. I’m at a local coffee shop about to meet with a mentee, Nate*, who I haven’t seen in several months. He reached out via LinkedIn a few weeks earlier, as he was in town for a few days and “could really use some career advice”.

After ordering our respective lattes and a bit of catching up on life, our casual chit-chat evolves into a full-on rant about how he’s being passed up for promotions at his job. 

For context, Nate works as an Assistant Brand Manager at a mid-sized company in the consumer packaged goods industry, and he’s been in his role for over 3 years since joining upon graduation.

I probe further. As it turns out, many of his peers who started at the same time, in essentially the same role, have already been promoted to manager levels in the last year. In his mind, it’s baffling because he feels just as capable as the others.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. 3 years is decent amount of time in a role, but not so lengthy that one should expect an automatic promotion, even for high performers. In some organizations, there would also be many steps in between an Assistant Marketing/Brand Manager vs. Marketing/Brand Manager, so being able to “make manager” in 3 years is actually a difficult feat. The trouble usually lies in how transparent and linear marketing careers are at CPG’s, where every marketing new grad starts at exactly the same time, and after a while it becomes very evident who got promoted even 2 months ahead of someone else.

Regardless, I can understand Nate’s frustrations because I’ve been there. I’ve even seen this happen repeatedly to perfectly capable individuals inside and outside of marketing. If you Google some self-help articles on the topic, they will usually outline the classic recipe for promotions: Be a team player! Do great work! Make your intentions known! But what if you’re already doing all of those things and it’s still not working?

Inspired by a great Mark Manson article called 6 Toxic Relationship Habits Most People Think Are Normal, I realized that conventionally accepted things can sometimes lead to bad outcomes. I’ll attempt to demystify Nate’s conundrum by discussing 4 seemingly positive behaviours that may actually be preventing you from your next step up.

1. Working exceedingly long hours

Relative to others in your field, do you find yourself staying later than everyone else? Working during your commute, late at night, and even over the weekend?

On the one hand, some managers appreciate someone who shows their dedication by working overtime to get the job done. On the other, you could argue that someone who needs to put that many hours into their job may just be poor at time management.

It’s true that some managers are batshit crazy and assign too much work to their direct reports without thinking twice (more on that in the next point). But in most cases, an employee who consistently works long hours signals to me that they’re not being as productive and effective during 9am to 5pm as they could be.

Do you take long coffee breaks during your most productive hours of the day? Are you constantly jumping from one task to another, with 1000 screens open, not able to complete anything? Do you focus too much on Quadrant 4 tasks because they’re easier to check off the list?

From experience, I have not seen a strong correlation between those who work the longest hours and those who rise up the ranks quickly. Don’t fall victim to this fallacy, and work on making your hours count.

2. Doing exactly what your boss tells you to do

Now if your situation is more in camp #1 where your boss is downright unreasonable, you probably play a role in that too.

Let’s say you work in Event Management, and your boss asks you to create a detailed report outlining every client interaction and feedback you’ve ever received, separated by spend level, event type and venue. You know that this type of report will take at least 10 hours to complete.

What do you do in this case? A good employee would immediately roll up their sleeves and get cracking. Maybe burn the midnight oil to get it done. But a smart employee would ask one more question: what are we trying to achieve with this exercise?

Because you may find that your boss is really seeking to understand why the company’s upselling strategies are not working as well as they used to, leading to lost revenue. Understanding the objective, you may suggest that instead of recording client feedback, you complete a competitive analysis to see if your direct competitors have shifted their strategies at your detriment that will take 3 hours but answer your boss’s question much more aptly.

We all want to believe that our bosses know best. But sometimes, they simply don’t have the knowledge, or they aren’t in the weeds as much as you are to know the best way to solve a problem. By not immediately accepting instructions as you’re told (and doing it respectfully of course), you’re actually showing your ability to see the bigger picture, and therefore your value beyond a “do-er”.

3. Striving for perfection

In the same scenario, let’s assume the boss is adamant on this report because the CEO asked for it. So you get to work.

But there are many ways to complete the task at hand. If you have any perfectionist tendencies, you may be tempted to literally copy and paste through every single interaction ever from contact inquiry forms, emails, post-service surveys, and social media onto a spreadsheet. You then spend hours toiling over the perfect column widths and colour code all the comments.

Going back to the objective, is this really the best approach? In this case, you might be able to answer your boss’ question simply by looking at the top 20 clients over the past year, and not the exhaustive list since the company was established. Or, if you knew that the majority of feedback comes through email, you can choose to focus on that channel. Or, maybe there’s an existing list of client feedback from the customer service team that you can draw from instead of creating a new one.

One really good piece of advice I’ve been given is to identify what projects need to be your A+ work, and which ones are fine as B’s and C’s. The employees who get promoted are the ones who recognize which tasks are high priority (and therefore, get the majority of their time and mindshare), and which ones are not. Finding efficient and smart ways to complete the B’s and C’s will give you the proper focus you need on the A+’s.

4. Being too overt about your strengths

This last one is more related to the individualistic, North American corporate environment that I work in. Being a Chinese immigrant raised by pretty traditional parents, I’ve spent the majority of my career “fixing” my cultural tendencies that have proven to be somewhat career-limiting.

Things like not speaking up in meetings, not challenging an authority figure, or being too “head down” at my desk. One of the things that I have chosen not to change, however, is humility towards my work.

They say that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. Lots of people live by this mantra, and will take any opportunity they get to talk about their accolades, their accomplishments, their strengths. While self-promoting is healthy and sometimes necessary, too much of it can produce unwanted side effects.

I’ve had employees who could perfectly articulate what they’re good at, but struggled to tell me what they need to work on. In reality, everyone in the company, including the CEO, has opportunity areas. Now that I manage recruitment for the company I work for, I can tell you that self-awareness is one of the key things we look for in candidates, AND we have often hired less-qualified candidates (on paper) over those more-qualified based on that trait alone.

Being humble means being in tune with your own behaviours and how others perceive you, so you can keep getting better. It’s never about being perfect, but about being self-aware, as troubling behaviours will only get magnified as you move up the ranks.

Nate thanks me for the chat, we hug and part ways. On my walk, I can’t help but remember how I used to be in his shoes just a few years earlier, and how much experience has taught me over the years. Taking the last swig of my now-cold latte, I toss the cup in the recycling bin and hop in my car to drive to work.

*name has been changed

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