Let’s be real, whoever said that “hard work is it’s own reward” was probably a masochist.
Let’s break down the logic here. You put large amounts of energy, focus, effort, creativity and dedication into something, and that should be enough for you? You’re supposed to be fulfilled just in the doing of the work?
That doesn’t sound right.
How about this … you engage in hard work in order to create something, change something, improve something. Something you deem of value. It’s that achievement that typically gets rewarded or recognized in some way that is meaningful to you. And, that’s what gets you up out of bed in the morning with the drive, spirit and wherewithal to do it all over again and again.
And that’s what your life’s track record has looked like. Hard work followed by rewards. In school, in extracurricular pursuits, in your career.
Hang onto that thought … we’ll get back to it in a minute.
Ever shop at IKEA?
Back when Susan and I were getting our first place together we were young and in love, but not exactly “rolling in dough.” The bad news was we needed furniture. The good news was we barely had any space in our Brooklyn apartment, so not that much of it. On the advice of a friend we headed out to Norristown, PA, the site of this new and exotic furniture store.
WE LOVED IKEA!!
It was amazing. Great, funky pieces spanning every budget. And the simplest and least expensive items were still attractive! We were amused by the cool product names we found ourselves incessantly repeating, like “Sverdlup.”
We strapped the seven-foot long boxes of shelving onto the Ford Fiesta and hit I-276 and the NJ Turnpike with Springsteen blaring on WNEW FM in part to celebrate our purchase but mostly in order to drown out our anxieties that our cargo would fly off and cause someone bodily harm.
Here’s how I’d describe the shelving we bought: it was good enough for the time being. It did the job we needed it for at that point in our lives. It supported our books. It supported our LP record albums. It supported our small TV. We angled it so you’d only see the parts we wanted.
As time progressed, we changed apartments, had children, and moved out to the burbs. At a certain point – I don’t recall exactly when – the shelves couldn’t support our needs for it. Maybe there were more books, LP’s (more like cd’s at that point) and a bigger TV. Maybe, it was that we wanted something sturdier to withstand the proximity to two active kids. Maybe it was just that we wanted something that looked to visitors more appropriate to our stage in life and better financial circumstances.
They were no longer good enough. They no longer did the job we needed at this new point in our lives. They couldn’t support the burdens of our newer broader needs.
That’s okay – They were never meant to. They did their job.
Anyway, back to my complaint that “hard work is its own reward,” is a nutty proposition …
I’d bet that your hard work has been met with rewards in school, extracurricular pursuits, and in your career. Further, I’d bet that this has only reinforced your solidly held belief that if you work hard and get the job done well that you’ll continue to get promoted up your organization, all the way into a senior role. Maybe, even C-level.
That makes sense from your personal experience, right? You worked hard in high school, got into a good college. You worked hard in college, got a good entry-level job. You worked hard on that job and got promoted. Several times.
Besides, it also comports with our principles of fairness: people who work harder and are more committed deserve promotions. They’ve earned them.
So imagine how hard it is for me to break this to you …
This belief of yours did apply. Just, only up until middle management.
Up and beyond that point, it’s more competitive. The higher you go the fewer the positions and the greater the number of hungry talented, people vying for them.
Also, the internal environment is more political. People are jostling for power and stature. Even your boss is more focused on his or her own career than yours.
And yet many talented professionals don’t recognize that their hard work, alone, no longer differentiates them.
I’ve coached several hundred people over the past twenty years. This is a recurrent refrain, even for some coachees recently passed over for a promotion they thought was theirs. “I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing,” they tell me. “They’ll reward me at some point.”
It reminds me of the old expression, “Resentment is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die.” Except this one is (admittedly, a bit less dire and) more like, “Putting your head down and doing more of the same is like hiding in the dark and expecting key executives to come look for you.”
It just doesn’t work that way.
Even young children are wise enough to not play hide and go seek alone.
Your hard work and commitment to get things done turn out to be a lot like my bottom-of-the-line, particle-board apartment shelving from years ago. They’re no longer enough to do the job needed at this new point in life. They won’t support the burdens of the newer broader requirements. You’ve matured past that stage.
I wish more talented professionals understood that.
Listen, hard work and commitment are still required. They’ll always be. But, they’re the price of buying the ticket to play. “Table stakes,” as one of my clients says.
The solution is to understand and master the three arcs to become C-Suite eligible.
The 3 Arcs
Arc #1. Wield Influence to go from Competing to Leading
Executives are looking for colleagues who can get things done through other people. At this level of an organization, the incumbent must be skilled and experienced at leading leaders of leaders. Being the smartest technically or a great lone ranger isn’t particularly useful here. Shaping opinion and mobilizing groups, departments and divisions is. To do so, you can’t be competing for attention. You need to have others looking to you for direction and guidance.
First, master your rapport creation skills. Develop the ability to strike and keep a real and trust-building connection with anyone you choose. Second, consistently add value to others by making them better off than they were before they interacted with you. Also, remember to master the language of the C-Suite by framing and presenting your thoughts like you’re a CXO.
Arc #2. Build Profile to go from Face-in-the-Crowd to Rock Star
Internal stealth candidates don’t get senior level promotions. Those go to the known quantities who make visible contributions and whose names come up in conversation as rising stars.
First, elevate your bearing so that you’re carrying yourself like an authentic leader and an executive. People in the CSuite tend to look and act like it. Next, navigate your organization deliberately. Develop a broad and deep knowledge of key stakeholders and how the dynamics work at and near the top of the company. Don’t forget to leverage external platforms, i.e., engaging professionally outside, so that others know and validate your market value.
Arc #3. Ready Promotability to go from Plateaued to Ascending
Chances are that you’ve participated in some kind of talent assessment in your company. The one where leaders plot employees in one of nine boxes by level of performance and potential. When your execs are convened to conduct that assessment on you and your peer group, you need to occupy that top right box deeming you “Immediately Promotable.” This is about being seen as ready for more. And, where your organization feels the pressure to give you more.
First, own your business. In other words, make sure that you’re the leader of your area or function. The buck stops with you. At the same time, invest your time and effort to build your bench. Do what’s necessary to have a team of talented high-performers reporting to you and visibly over-performing. Also, importantly, activate your boss to behave as a resource for you.
No, “Hustle & Hope” is not a Strategy for a C-Level promotion. Nor should hard work be its own reward to you. Instead conscientiously work the three arcs. That’s your strategy.