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Is Leadership a Relationship?

The conventional employee mindset could be holding you back, keeping you from climbing the ladder as fast as you could with a different outlook.

If you’re like most employees, you think of yourself as a pawn. You think it is up to ‘’them’’ to promote you. Being honest, you don’t want to ingratiate yourself with your boss, flatter him or butter him up. You might also hate selling yourself if that means talking a lot about how great you are. So, you keep your head down and work hard, waiting for your boss to come along and tap you on the shoulder. When it doesn’t happen, what do you do? Again, if you’re like most employees, you start showing your resentment. You start complaining about being overlooked, demanding your rights.

But this is a lose-lose strategy. Try viewing yourself as a business, say a self-employed consultant or service provider. If you were indeed running your own business, how far do you think you would get complaining to your customers for not buying your services? Or, what is almost as bad, just waiting around doing a good job hoping that your customers will see your worth and voluntarily start giving you more business.

The problem with the employee mindset is that you think you don’t have to keep selling yourself once you’re in the door. This is just not reality. You can never stop selling yourself. The only question is how to do it without feeling that you are compromising your integrity.

The first step is to start viewing yourself as a business, one that needs to keep selling in order to prosper. Then you have to cultivate the attitude that you aren’t asking your boss or other potential internal customers to do you any favors. Instead, you need to beat around the bushes looking for ways you can help them. There is no use going to them and asking if they have a better job for you. That’s like a consultant asking a client what other work they could give him. The problem with this approach is twofold. First, you’re making the customer do all the hard work of figuring out how to use you. Second, you’re putting both you and the customer on the spot by asking a closed (yes/no) question.

What you have to do instead is grab every opportunity you can with them to ask diagnostic questions that will help you figure out for yourself where they might have some gaps that you could fill. Ask questions about what your existing main customer (your boss) or other potential customers are trying to achieve, what’s important to them, what’s keeping them awake at night, how their big projects are going, etc.

This strategy has a number of benefits. First, by just asking questions like these, you show interest in your customer’s business. Showing such interest is a much more effective way to sell yourself simply because you’re focusing on your customer’s needs, not your own. Boasting about what you can do focuses on your own needs and can be simply boring, if not actually annoying. People like to talk about what’s important to them and they welcome anyone who wants to listen, who shows an interest.

Second, questions like these help you gather important intelligence. You may not find an unfilled vacancy in their department, but your questions might provoke them to think that there might be a better way of doing something. You don’t even have to suggest such a thing. Questions alone, good brainstorming in other words, can lead to new ideas even if they don’t come from you. It’s well known that employers will hire people who are really interested in what they are doing and who they like. So, your strategy is to build a relationship with a few key internal customers by asking them questions and showing an interest in their business whenever you get the chance, however brief. Even if this doesn’t lead to a new position being created for you, which it might, your customer is likely to think of you when an opening does come up.

The bottom line is that you have to dig out your own career opportunities, take more ownership for promoting yourself, not just wait for someone to approach you. It is no wonder employees feel frustrated in their careers. It’s not just that they aren’t getting promoted as fast as they’d like; the real problem is feeling so powerless to do anything about it. This is where they are wrong.

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