To your surprise, and possible delight, you hear from your old school. No, not a begging letter. Rather, someone has recognised your contribution to business and has invited you to give a speech at the sixth form prize giving. They suggest you offer advice about how to “get on” at work. 

Perhaps you have already given the same advice to a son or daughter (or those of friends), or plan to share your wisdom at the appropriate time.

Advice of this sort comes in various guises. One is the bland, old-fashioned ‘do your best’, ‘Play up! play-up! and play the game!’. Another version might indulge in the most wicked cynicism, suggesting various somewhat unethical and super-competitive techniques to achieve success. Narcissists can simply tell their own life story. 

So should your speech be a “motivational”, all-can-have-prizes, feel-good talk, or a dose of realism from the school of hard knocks? How about a venture into futurology and scenario planning to show off a tad? Or motivate by fear with reference to those hard-working East Europeans, happy to work twice as hard as the natives and steal their jobs?

You could pad the whole thing out and spend more time on how to get a job rather than how to climb the greasy pole. But most already know about good grades, getting an internship, and using mummy and daddy’s network.

So: The Young Person’s Advice for Advancement. Or The Seven Secrets of Successful Career Progression. 

1. As quickly as possible become, or at least appear to be, indispensable.

Having any skill set that others need yet do not possess is a wonderful asset. In the land of the blind and all that, being the only person to speak Mandarin or understand Structural Equation Modelling, or nurture a temperamental machine, or person, bestows special status. Explore your particular talents and hone those that the organisation both wants and are in short supply. Equally, seek out organisations that value your particular skillset. The emotionally intelligent might thrive in organisations of autistic-spectrum techies; the numerate among creative air-heads.

2. Always (appear to) be a committed, open, enthusiastic team-player.

Learn to co-operate, to include others, to be supportive. Management is a contact sport. Develop a reputation for being committed to the team, group and organisation. Stress the ‘we’ over the ‘I’. Attend social events – better still, organise them. Bring people together. Share your ideas and assets. In giving you receive.

3. Work out the real power structure, establish useful alliances and find soul-mates.

Get connected and embedded throughout the organisation. Get out of your silo and do your own matrix organisation. Understand, through relationships, how the whole organisation works. Never believe the organisational chart. Informal leaders are very influential. Find them. Charm them. Befriend them. Get savvy as to where the power lies. 

4. Be positive, don’t whinge and never get caught gossiping. 

It is the alienated, passed over and angry who spend their life sniping. They are not fun to be around and they sap team morale. Positive people, by contrast, are life-enhancing, fun to be around and at the heart of a good team. Do “can” and not “can’t” and see the upside first, long before the downside. Never put down colleagues in public. You can evaluate ideas, but never attack the proposer. Treat setbacks as learning opportunities and move on.

5. Know when to attract and when to avoid the limelight.

Make sure you get noticed by the right people at the right time. There is little worse than an egocentric, attention-seeking, narcissistic young person whose self-obsession is very offputting. Less is always more. It is better to give a few brilliant presentations than many good ones. Pick your opportunities, prepare to the point that everything looks natural and easy, and praise others openly when they have done well. 

6. Manage Up and Across as well as Down.

We know from multi-source feedback that, of all the people who come into contact with you, your boss knows you least well. Your staff know about your management style, your colleagues about your abilities and your boss about the consequences of your work. You have to beat your colleagues to get your boss’s job, so make sure he/she is kept well briefed on all you want him/her to know. Keep on good terms with colleagues and reports. Never forget the “little people” in support roles, who often have disproportionate amounts of power.

7. Keep your options open, your CV updated and your skill set sharp.

The career is not dead. But ‘snakes and ladders’ behaviour may be required to do well in many jobs. You may have to leave the organisation and rejoin to overcome some obstacles ahead. So welcome head-hunters, read the appointments pages, know your market value. And where necessary update your skills and knowledge. Technology changes everything. 

In short, cultivate and guard your reputation. Be proactive and aware of what is going on.

Be adaptable and flexible. And — which is more — you’ll be a Man(ager), my son!

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