This Is The Secret To Getting Ahead At Work

Here’s what I thought about my career in my 20s: work hard, over-achieve on deliverables, be the one who can be trusted with the tough assignments. Then, get the raise, get promoted, become CEO. And, yep, most of the time, working hard does yield results. But then there was that time I was running Merrill Lynch and was "reorganized" out of a job — even though the business was growing, ahead of plan, and gaining share. Oof.

That’s when I learned the hard lesson that (as Carla Harris, a senior banker at Morgan Stanley, articulates): All the important decisions about your career are made when you’re not in the room. People decide to hire you, fire you, promote you, fund you, send you on the overseas assignment, all when you’re not there. As I called around to the members of the company’s board of directors the day after I lost my job, what I heard was that no one in the room was fighting for me.

Let me add one other lesson to Carla’s: It doesn’t cut it to rely on human resources (or Talent Capital Management or whatever your company calls it). There are no HR fairy godmothers. The idea from your parents’ time that HR will steer your career — and serve as the person who fights for you — went out the window with MySpace. So how do you ensure that you have someone in the room fighting for you?

Well, you still need to work hard, and you still need to over-deliver, but I would strongly argue that you also need to have in place your Personal Board of Directors. Those are your mentors, your sponsors, your confidantes, the people you can turn to when you’re thinking about a career transition — for the kind of advice your boyfriend, your parents, and your best friend from college just can’t give you.

Ahead, some advice on how to set up a Personal Board of Directors. These people won’t guarantee that you’ll be protected from sudden career shifts, but they will be there to help you if (or, in many cases, when) the rug is pulled out from underneath you.
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Sallie Krawcheck’s professional mission is to help women achieve their financial goals. She is the CEO and Co-Founder of Ellevest, a digital investment platform that is re-imagining investing for women, and she is the Chair of Ellevate Network, a global professional women’s network. Before she found her life’s work, Sallie ran Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch. She’s been called “The Last Honest Analyst” by Fortune Magazine and was named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business.
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Illustrated by Norah Stone.
Networking is the number-one unwritten rule of success in business. But I can’t tell you how many young women tell me that they think it’s sort of “cheating” and that they would like to get ahead based on the quality of their work, rather than who they know.

Newsflash: Who you know can be what you know. And a strong network makes you better at your job, because you’re expanding your insights well beyond what comes across your desk or makes it to the dozen people immediately surrounding you.

Having a strong network ensures you’re hearing about the new research that can affect your product, the start-up that’s going to upend your business, the new job that’s opened up, the great intern looking for a full-time position, and so on. All things that can make you better at what you do.

How do you form a network? Reach out to people, grab a coffee, swing by their office. Start sharing what you know, generously; and, no, you’re not too junior. I’ve learned more about social media from a single mentee of mine in her 20s than from all my more “mature” contacts. You have plenty to give here.
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Illustrated by Norah Stone.
Okay, you’re networking now. Time to turn some of the members of your network into mentors. These are people who answer your questions and who will give you feedback.

This is important, because women tend to get less feedback at work than men do; that’s particularly true of the in-the-moment, “Boy, you really stunk it up in there” casual interchange that can make us so much better at what we do. Those can be much more helpful than the big, stagy year-end performance reviews. These types of “micro-lessons” and the rapid feedback loop can help us become great leaders.

So start asking for feedback — from almost everyone, almost all the time. Some will decline; those who provide it will become personally invested in your success and will have a stake in wanting you to succeed.
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Illustrated by Norah Stone.
Women are actually pretty good at getting mentors. Now, it's time to get a sponsor — or two, or six. These are the senior folks who are in that room where the decisions are made, fighting for you. Because mentors are great, but sponsors are gold. And the truth is, women tend to have half as many sponsors as men, according to Sylvia Hewlett of the Center for Talent Innovation.

How do you get a sponsor? As you’re getting advice from your mentors, start asking, “Should I raise my hand for that job? And will you support my candidacy if I do?” or “What would you need to see from me to recommend me for that assignment?” I personally get the hives when I think about having those conversations, but the worst thing they can say is “no” — and a “yes” can literally change your life.
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Illustrated by Norah Stone.
Think you’re going to get fired? Reorg’ed out? Me neither. But it happened to me.

Think you might want to leave your company one day? Perhaps even years from now? Yeah, I thought you might.

If you don’t have a network of mentors — and sponsors — who extend outside of your company, I promise you it will hurt your career. Either you'll need them one day, or you’ll be caught in the cocoon of your company, missing out on opportunities you don’t even know exist.

Stay in touch with people who leave your company, keep your work antenna up at social events, and attend industry conferences if you’re able.

What’s a complete waste of time? Trying to link cold with people on LinkedIn. Maybe a friend of a friend struck gold that way at some point, but that’s pretty much an urban myth. And sort of irritating.
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Illustrated by Norah Stone.
It’s also key to inject diversity into your group of advisors. Yes, that means diversity as we typically think about it (you don’t want everyone to be of the same gender, for example). But it also means that everyone plays a different role.

Do you have someone who is an optimist to your realist? The peer who is facing the same types of challenges but isn’t in competition with you, who can give you a different perspective? The creative? The “agony aunt” with whom you can be vulnerable (please, make sure this person is not in your company)? If you’re at a big company, someone at a start-up? If you’re at a start-up, someone with experience scaling? The individual in a completely different industry, who can ask you the “But why is it that way?” questions?

You get the idea. The core of it: Surround yourself with people who help you think, keep you on your toes, and aren’t just like you or each other.

And a great question to ask them, when you hit career inflection points, is: "What would you do if you were me?" If you build a diverse group of advisors (and you get to know them, and they get to know you), their answers can propel you further than you would think.
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Illustrated by Norah Stone.
This may sound like a lot of work. But it can also be a lot of fun, because it gets you into a learning gear.

Make no mistake: You need to drive this. If you wait until these folks check in with you, ask you out for a coffee, call you for a quick update, you may be waiting a long time. After all, people are busy. And newsflash: Your career may not be exactly the most important thing on their plate.

But it is for you. So check in with this group pretty often, perhaps dropping an email every time you read something that you think may be of value to them; if that doesn’t happen (seriously, you can’t come across something, anything, that’s of interest to these folks every month? Seriously?), then just a “Hi, how’s it going” email can go a long way.
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Illustrated by Norah Stone.
What, wait? Did I just tell you to have a financial advisor on your Personal Board of Directors? You may be wondering what the heck I’m talking about. Okay, stay with me.

Did you know that money is our number-one cause of stress? And that we can lose two weeks a year of work productivity worrying about money? Did you further know that women today are doing most of the heavy lifting (remember that stuff about getting your assignments in on time, being the go-to person for the hard projects), but if we’re not investing (and women invest to a lesser degree than men do), then we may be only getting about half the monetary reward available to us over the course of our careers?

You're more likely to go for that new assignment — the one that excites and scares the living bejesus out of you — or join that super-interesting new start-up or ask for the overseas work if you have more money stashed away. Investing and career are not separate; they are completely intertwined.

So, find a firm like the one I'm building, Ellevest, to help you with this. Or one of the others out there. And have someone push you to invest. This is as important to your long-term success as building that network.
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