When I tell people that I left school at 14, they usually wonder how I made it to where I am now. And my answer is usually disappointing.
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I think people expect I was a child genius trapped by formal education, and this was what allowed me to smash through all the usual blocks between dropping out of school and climbing the corporate ladder.
Unfortunately, the truth is much more mundane – but it’s also more useful. It’s not intelligence that allowed me to move through the org chart, but an understanding of the mechanisms at play in workplaces that eventually placed me in charge of teams, departments and companies.
My career wasn’t built with genius but through the very long process of trying and failing, falling, and getting back up.
Here are a few things I’ve learnt along the way from school to CEO:
1. School doesn’t set you up for the workplace
The most important thing I learnt is to forget about fairness – the workplace does not reward you fairly. You won’t automatically get what you deserve, progress isn’t linear and the quality of your work is only a very small factor. School sets us up with an expectation that doesn’t translate to the business world.
Outside of school, progress won’t be connected to the work you do. No one will make sure these things are correlated, so you have to take care of it yourself.
To move up within a company, be clear and communicate what you want, and understand how you can get it. Don’t wait for the things to be given to you, be proactive instead. Be open with your colleagues and managers about the place you want to be, and the right people will help you get there.
2. Never ask for a pay rise
Although this might seem to contradict my first tip, I don’t think you should ever ask for a pay rise. There’s a danger that you could be seen as complaining that your manager isn’t paying you more, which creates a problem and pits you against them.
A better way would be to ask your manager what you can do to get a pay rise. Something like “I would like to earn x amount. Is that achievable and if so, are you able to help me?” I’ve always found this to be much more successful, and it’s the closest thing to a career cheat code that I have ever found.
3. Look after your circle
A common misunderstanding is that you need to do a certain among of gameplaying or backstabbing to climb the ladder. I’m sure there are lots of people who have found success through these methods, but from my experience, the truly successful ones don’t.
I was promoted several years ago by someone who ended up being one of the best managers I’d ever had. He had only just joined the company and didn’t know me too well.
When I asked him why I was chosen (there were several other candidates more qualified for the role) he said “Good things always seem to happen in your neighbourhood.” Although he couldn’t directly see what I was doing, he’d noticed the work I was involved with always seemed to go well.
In his book It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be, Paul Arden attributed his success to sharing opportunities with those who would have a competitive advantage over him.
It seems counterintuitive, but by looking out for his neighbourhood he made sure he was part of teams that improved him and meant he had colleagues who respected him and chose him for opportunities.
To have a great career, ignore office politics as much as you can and help those around you. If you make sure that positive things happen in your circles, good things will come back to you.
4. Don’t be scared to rock the boat
I often see people waiting until the perfect opportunity to move, which I think is a big mistake. It often happens with people who have a job that they don’t hate, a boss that’s fine, ok co-workers, and an average salary. It’s a good job (not a great job), so they don’t want to leave. They feel scared to rock the boat, just in case the next job isn’t as good.
The path to the job you really want won’t be easy. As you get closer to where you want to be, the steps will become more daunting.
It’s easy to leave a job you hate for one you might like, but to reach the top at some point you will probably have to take a leap, and leave a job you love for one that could be a complete disaster. Don’t beat yourself up when things don’t work out, but continue to take chances.
You will just need to keep taking steps and you will eventually get to where you need to be.