Stan Peters is frustrated with his career. He feels he is being held back and can’t understand why. Most annoyingly, three friends he doesn’t rate are one or two steps ahead of him. As a 32 year old engineer with an excellent track record, Stan feels he should be at least one level higher by now.

For the past 3 years he has managed a small group of products in a large company that manufactures telecommunications hardware. Stan has an eye on his boss’s job, a role that manages a much larger group of products. Stan’s boss, Jim Bates, is actively seeking a successor as he has been offered a bigger job starting in 3 months.

Stan has known for several months that Jim would be moving on soon and he has actively lobbied for a promotion. Jim has been evasive, complimenting Stan on his results, acknowledging his readiness for more responsibility, but avoiding any promises. Jim keeps telling Stan that it’s not up to him who gets the job. It’s Jim’s boss, Fred Anderson, who will decide. Jim said that he can only recommend candidates for the role and Stan is just one of three top performers to be considered. He also said that Fred likes a short list of 3 candidates and that this is HR policy anyway to ensure fair promotion practices. He also told Stan that HR might want to use the position as a development opportunity for someone from a different part of the business and that he would just have to be patient. Stan had to struggle to control his temper at this point. Jim said that Stan should have made more effort to get to know Fred Anderson, adding that Fred hardly knows him. Stan protested that his job has been so demanding that he has had no time for networking.

Stan rushed to make up for lost time by seeing Fred Anderson immediately. Fred listened patiently while Stan listed his achievements and his argument that only an insider could get up to speed quickly in the role. Stan could feel his anger rising as he spoke but he managed to stick to the issues and keep his cool. When he finished speaking, Fred was very complimentary and reassured Stan that he would be a strong candidate for the job when the selection process rolled around next month. But he refused to make any promises. Stan left Fred’s office feeling pleased that he had found the courage to assert himself and hold Fred’s attention but he also felt a bit humiliated with having to sell himself so blatantly. Stan’s resentment made him start thinking about exploring opportunities outside the company.

Dave Roberts, one of Stan’s competitors for the job, was two years younger than Stan, had only been in his role 2 years, but had an equally good track record. Stan felt that his extra two years of experience gave him an edge over Dave. He couldn’t see anything else to separate them. But Dave’s approach to managing his career was dramatically different from Stan’s. From his first day on the job, Dave made a point of learning all he could about what was important to Fred Anderson. He didn’t do anything special to endear himself to Fred or be friendly with him. Dave simply focused on trying to understand what Fred wanted to achieve for his part of the business and not just by talking to Fred. Dave grabbed any opportunities he could for quick chats with other key players to ask questions about business goals, opportunities and challenges. He learned that Fred was frustrated that his product group was seen as a cash cow, that his set of products was old and not very sexy. This knowledge led Dave to learn how other parts of the business and competitors were innovating. Through brainstorming with anyone interested, Dave developed some ideas on how innovation could be improved in Fred’s part of the business.

Dave didn’t want to tell Fred how to do his job, but by asking subtle questions across several short conversations, he managed to plant some seeds in Fred’s mind that made Fred see a way to improve his business. One day, Dave’s questions got Fred quite excited and they started talking about how to implement their ideas.

When Jim Bates moved on, Dave got the job. Why? Not because he had ingratiated himself with Fred but because he had focused on Fred’s aspirations and the needs of the business instead of his own. Stan failed because he thought only of his own needs, showing no interest in Fred or his aspirations. Dave succeeded because he saw career management as a search for leadership opportunities, ways to improve the business. His focus was not on making friends or networking to develop relationships but on thinking of new products or ways to improve processes.

In addition, Dave saw himself as a business with Fred and other senior managers as potential customers. He realized that no business can succeed by complaining to its customers for not buying its services. But this was precisely what Stan had done. He complained to Jim and Fred about his career not progressing fast enough, but this only annoyed the customers he wanted to buy his services. Stan only reluctantly recognized that he needed to sell himself at all, but when he did, he made the mistake of directly pushing himself the job. Dave’s selling style was much more indirect. He didn’t try to get Fred to like him and he didn't talk about what great work he was doing. In fact, he didn’t talk to Fred about himself at all. Instead, he thought about Fred’s needs and found a way to help Fred meet them. As their conversations developed, Fred started to ask questions about Dave of his own accord. Dave sold himself to Fred by showing a passion for the business and by asking questions that showed how interested he was in finding ways to improve it. He realized that talking about yourself only bores people and that showing interest in others is a much better way to sell yourself.

In short, Dave succeeded by showing leadership in the business while Stan failed by simply being a hard worker wrapped up in his own needs and interests. Dave realized that leadership opportunities can only be discovered through a process of continually asking questions and by brainstorming with a variety of key players. Stan kept his head down, just trying to do a good job. He made the mistake of leaving it up to his customers to recognize his value on their own. He saw himself as a traditional employee instead of a leader or business person trying to sell services in a competitive market.