Principal, Executive Career Consultant
About the time you’ve logged in your second decade in PR you become a magnet for questions about how to get ahead in the agency business. It’s expected, and you marvel at how direct and specific some of the questions are. “Exactly what do I need to do to become a VP by the time I’m 25,” as if there were a checklist.
When you’re in the on-line “decider” position, your answers are often very specific to what you require from that employee at that time: “Vice Presidents need to build business units of no less than $__, develop talent, get their time logged promptly, etc.”
Once you step back from the day-to-day agency business, as I have done as an executive career consultant, it’s interesting how the questions remain the same, but the answers are far broader and more fundamental. I often ask my clients about the 3-4 things they have learned that are their absolute principles or philosophies for success. More often than not they answer with attitudinal and behavior lessons that they wished they had learned earlier in their career.
On my list is “Perspective.” What I’ve learned from personal experience, working with professionals at all levels in the business over the years and through my very successful executive clients, is that getting the right “lens” through which you view your position is critical.
In short, the earlier in your career you can flip the focus from yourself—what you want, offer, aspire to, are interested by—and onto others (your boss, your client, your CEO) the faster you’ll progress on your career path.
What do I mean by Perspective? A few general principles.
Perspective is the point of view you take on your position, any situation and your future.
The most beneficial perspective is to learn, as early in your career as possible, to put yourself in the shoes of the highest person impacting your position…even the CEO…and to view your contribution in terms of the whole organization.
This is also very difficult, particularly in the early or mid stages of a career. At these times our perspective is typically on ourselves. We are working hard and proving ourselves everyday and want to be valued for every detail of our contribution. We want to be recognized for our performance, to be noticed. We can easily get frustrated if we feel we aren’t being given enough autonomy, if we have to re-credential ourselves with a new boss after an organization shift, if we don’t get a significant enough role in a meeting or presentation, if our achievement hasn’t been appropriately credited, or for a myriad of other reasons.
This frustration can lead to a lack of confidence or impatience with your job. If it happens more than once it may even cause you to look around, perhaps even wonder if other organizations might value you more.
But let’s consider those frustrations through the lens of perspective. Your direct boss, your group head, even your CEO all have their own long lists of what they want as they work to prove themselves to a exponentially broader scope of audiences—internal and external. And, the higher up they are, the more broad based and critical the issues become. These can range from the extremely difficult (how to realign, deploy and deal with the organization-wide ramifications of a reorganization) to the jockeying inherent in the business (how to shift gears in a meeting that isn’t going the right way) to the human issues involved with the day to day (the crisis call that came just before walked into your meeting). Much of perspective is about understanding that those you deal with have all of your concerns to the power of a hundred or more, and that they are human too, and will have bad days along with their wonderful supportive, nurturing days.
So, the next time you are frustrated that the report you so carefully prepared didn’t get the time, attention or recognition you feel it deserved, or that your comments in a meeting overlooked, put it into perspective. Think of what your boss is going through right now—what pressures are on the plate, who may have grabbed them on the way into the meeting with a problem, what they may be going to face in the next meeting–and act accordingly, as if it were you yourself in that situation. Is there a better time to meet, can you swing around to get your points across in a follow up, etc.
Mastering perception — how to get it and hang on to — it is critical. And, the sooner the better.
2. Read the room.
It’s not all about you and how well you feel you’re presenting you case, it’s about how they’re buying it…or not. We’ve all been in circumstances where we feel we’ve nailed a presentation or a project only to hear something negative out of left field. As a junior team member, you are in a virtual master class in every client meeting, able to watch facial expressions, body language, and to note when things are working or not.
One exceptional agency executive tells me she always focuses on the hardest case in any presentation, knowing that if she turns that person others will follow.
3. Watch and learn from others who are leading.
Your role in a meeting may be small, but it’s an opportunity to learn. Often younger people are so focused on their role they are clearly not paying attention to the rest of the meeting, or look bored. It’s the excited person who’s an enthusiastic sponge that will be noticed as a valued team member who doesn’t miss anything and has a valuable contribution….and perspective…on the situation.
4. Understand that what you think is key may only be part of the picture.
I’ve seen many junior people bite the dust by taking incomplete notes, telegraphing their misguided opinions through judgmental facial expressions, and the aforementioned boredom. Understand that your role is as important as anyone else’s in the meeting or on the project—a team is a mix of talents and experience. The more you pay attention to the whole, as opposed to just your part, the more you’ll be contributing and offering ideas, and the faster your opinions will be valued.
5. Earn your spurs.
We’re all impatient, and if we’re in this business we’re all ambitious to get into roles where we can have significant impact. Sometimes these moves can take longer than others, sometimes other factors impact mobility like changing businesses, the economy, specific agency or corporate culture.
There was a beautiful phrase in a recent New York Times Business Section where Terry Lundgren, CEO of Macy’s was told by an early boss to “bloom where he was planted.” No truer words were spoken.
Do whatever you’re assigned exceptionally well, don’t show frustration or do a mediocre job even if you feel it’s beneath you. Performance and lack of performance are equally noticed.
6. Pay it forward.
Mastering perception shouldn’t be a secret. Make sure you build it into your own personal list of skills that lead to success, and pass it on to those you supervise.
(Former president of GCI Dragonette, Rita now heads her own executive career consulting firm, Dragonette Consulting. Earlier in her career she was a Senior Vice Pesident at Edelman).