The simple psychology behind rapid career advancement

In a sense, this is a blog post 25 years in the making. What I mean is that I have been fortunate enough to have navigated my way up the ladder in both large and small organizations. More personally, I have now had the the privilege to steward a business that has flourished — and within our firm's growth have seen the corresponding personal growth of others. But even before then, I have been fascinated by the attributes of those who made it to the top and, by contrast, others with more impressive intellectual firepower and skill sets who have seemed to be perennially wondering (to themselves and unfortunately out loud to others) why they haven’t moved up. I'm not much of an observer by nature, but this is one area where I have been observing. And what I have learned in these 25 years is actually quite simple — not just in practice but in the psychology that goes into it.

As it turns out, there is a singular quality that just about every successful employee shares. So much so,  I was going to title this article, “How to Get Noticed by Senior Level Executives and Managing Partners” — but the fact of the matter is, if you have this quality or are flexible enough to learn it, being noticed is second fiddle; you are going to be promoted quickly and often. I would also go as far as to say that if you are lacking it you are naturally on a countdown in the wrong direction. You will either burn out or stay stagnant.

Here is the good news: anyone can acquire this quality. There is nothing I am about to say that is codified in a specific gene that you are given at birth. It is yours for the taking.

The Simple Rule of Rapid Career Advancement: Commit to the Greater Cause (The 50-40-10 Rule).

This, by far and away, has proven in my experience time and time again to be the greatest determinant of career upward mobility. It involves one simple question:  “Are you putting yourself, your career goals, or the organization first?” But while the question is simple, the answer is most often unfortunate. I'll get to just how unfortunate and self-defeating that is soon, but first, here is a rough breakdown of how that question is answered by percentage of employees, if we were to all answer it objectively. I should note again that this is based on my 25+ years of observation and not on a survey or research study.

50% (roughly) of employees put themselves first. Is work interfering with their passions, hobbies, time to relax, etc.? If so, work is seen as an impediment that has to be done with the least amount of time and resource commitment. Put another way, these same employees are always asking themselves and their superiors, “What can this organization do for me?” For example, “Can you pay for my parking?” or, “It’s been a year, can I have a promotion?” or, “Can we get new furniture in our offices?” These are all questions I — and so many others — have heard. The questions all have one commonality: they come down to, "What can you offer me?"

40% of employees put their career first. These aren't necessarily bad for an organization – in general, as long as they are ethical, you want them. They are doers. But they are also often gossipers and manipulators. They do their jobs well, but that doesn't mean they are necessarily advancing the organization. Why? Because it is still only about them. What can they do to get to the next rung up? That's a small worldview, at times disconnected with the goals of the company, and it can lead to some corrosiveness in culture. These employees are not moping or complaining, but they might not be the loyal ally they pretend to be. Often they also fall prey to "The Peter Principle," and their career eventually stagnates, because their talents may seem superior than they really are. Again, they are driving themselves to the top — not necessarily the organization.

10% of employees put their organization first. These are the keepers — the ones who will get promoted because you see quickly that they are invested in the mission and not just themselves. Things are happening because of them, yet often they aren't bragging to you or telling others about it. Still, you notice it. Intrinsically, they believe in something beyond just themselves, and that is their great motivator. They can work long hours, but the times passes quickly (again without telling you), take initiative, and empower and encourage others. Most noticeably, they are the most ebullient, happy people. They seem to enjoy coming into work and the work itself (obviously not every day or every aspect of their jobs). And here is the point: these are the people who you promote and keep promoting.

There's both a happy and a sad ending to this – it rests in the oxymoronic nature of it all. Those who put others first, the greater mission, are the happiest and the most rapidly promoted. Those who put themselves first are the least happy and the least promoted. Why? Half of the answer is easy and has already been explained. As a manager, you notice good things happening around your employees who invest in the culture. In the firm. For that matter, you also notice good things happening around those who invest in their careers, it's just that eventually you see it is still all about them – which puts the greater cause (the organization in this case) still at some risk.

There's a deeper psychology to it all, though, as well — and it involves the psychology of hope. Hope is simply our desires plus our expectations, and as humans we all have them. In fact, we uniquely have them. But our hopes are actually problematic at times (we still want them, of course), because many are unattainable. You hope for that magic moment the first time you fell in love, that time you ran your all-time fastest race, the best piece of poetry you ever wrote, etc. All of these hopes are hoping for an individual "it" in your life that you aren't going to acquire. So you will inevitably be disappointed. When you hope for something beyond yourself, however, there isn't an attachment to an "it" that anchors your self-identity. Rather, its very nature is beyond your self-identity. You are much more apt to be happy with the result and the pursuits of it. Which is why you see the happiest employees in that magical 10%. That is where you want to be, as you will be both more satisfied and more rapidly moving up in your organization. Just by thinking bigger than yourself.

It is that simple. No “top 10 lists," no need to make sure you wear collar stays with your Brooks Brothers shirt. Commit to the greater cause, and I promise you someone at the top will notice — because they are looking for it and don’t see these nearly as often as you might suspect. I wish you rapid success in your career!

- Mike