I’ve written extensively about how to get laid off in order to get a severance package and ultimately live a more purposeful life. While learning how to get laid off is a fantastic way to learn how to never get laid off, in this post I’d like to share some direct advice on how to excel in the workplace so you can make more money, get promoted faster, and reach financial independence sooner.
So, what are my credentials for advising people how to get ahead in the workplace? I’ll sum it up this way: at the age of 27, I made Vice President at my Wall Street firm from a non-target, public school with no connections.
The VP title is generally reserved for people with at least eight years of experience out of college, or with at least three years of experience after attending business school. I had just finished up my fifth year out of college and my first year of part-time business school before getting the nod. The percentage of students getting into an institutional front office position at a bulge bracket firm like Goldman, Morgan, and Merrill from a non-target school is probably less than 1%. Of that 1%, less than 25% make it directly to Associate. And of the 25%, less than 40% make it to Vice President after three years. Basically, if you can get your foot in the door, I estimate there’s only about a 10% chance of ever becoming VP.
Most people don’t last beyond three years on The Street, one of the most unforgiving industries on the planet. It’s an environment where your competitors are not only smart and ruthless, they’re also willing to consistently work insane hours to get ahead. The pressure is unbelievable. In fact, the longevity of a Wall Street employee is very similar to that of an NFL player. Like a halfback who’s plowed through a career’s worth of goal line surges, my “legs” finally gave out. I was done after 13 years.
This is the environment in which I learned five key lessons applicable to all industries I’ll share with you here. I’m pretty sure if you take my advice to heart, within a year you’ll see a noticeable difference. Like making more money, it’s up to you to decide whether you want to put in the effort or not.
GETTING PROMOTED AND PAID TAKES STRATEGY
1) The 50/50 Approach. Most people I know (myself included) hate self-promotion. People think their good work alone should rightfully get them to the Promised Land. Unfortunately, you are sadly mistaken if you believe that simply doing excellent work makes you more money. Nope. Excellent work helps, but what you really need is a balanced strategy of actively selling yourself.
“Balanced” means selling yourself 50% externally, and 50% internally. The more valuable you become to your customers (selling yourself externally), the more valuable you become to your firm. If you don’t have a revenue-generating role, then it’s even more important not only to do your work well, but to spend at least 50% of your time becoming the most well-known, helpful, and likable person in your department (selling yourself internally). Most of what follows pertains to this internal salesmanship.
Tooting your own horn is a very delicate process which can easily backfire. You know that person who always sends out blasts e-mails to tell everyone what they’ve done? Don’t do that. Instead, work on selling yourself by promoting other people who are on your team. The more you can make someone else look great, the more other people will root for you to succeed.
Unless you’re the type who takes pictures of yourself in the bathroom mirror in your underwear and blasts them online, you’re probably going to have difficulty with self-promotion. Don’t worry, I’m here to help you tactfully get ahead in the workplace without looking like an insecure, pompous idiot. Remember, it’s all about balance.
2) Why talk to the ass when you can talk to the head? Whether your goal is simply ensuring your survival (at the minimum) or boosting your career to light speed (at the maximum), you must develop relationships at the very top of your organization. When you’ve got the ear of your boss’s boss, you are golden.
For the first two years at my previous job I studied my department’s organization chart and made a goal of developing relationships with all senior leaders (e.g., Head of Equities, Head of Prime Brokerage, Head of Derivatives, Head of Sales, Head of Research, etc.). I shot every single one of them an e-mail to invite them for a drink or lunch (on me) to listen to their roles and responsibilities. I wanted to see how I could help them do their jobs better. Nobody turned me down because nobody turns down a free lunch from someone who just wants to listen and help out where he can.
I learned about developing senior relationships during my first year at GS, where a bunch of us analysts proactively pinged Michael Mortara, one of the founders of the mortgage-backed securities market and President of GS Ventures. Mortara, you may recall, was also known as “Fat Ankles” in Michael Lewis’ classic book, “Liar’s Poker”.
Mike graciously invited us to the partners’ eating quarters at 85 Broad Street for some salmon eggs benedict to share his views on the business he ran. He also listened to our aspirations, taking questions from around the table.* It was an amazing experience that taught my friends and me an important lesson: No wall existed between the peons of the organization and the elites who took helicopters in to work from their homes in Connecticut. The people at the top were just like us. And they are just like you.
So do not be afraid. Develop direct senior relationships.
* Sadly, Mike died at 51, just months after our breakfast meeting.
3) Build an invincible web of support. After locking in steel beams of support with senior managers and executives, continue the same strategy with direct supervisors and colleagues. You’ll find building relationships with people who might view you as a threat much easier when they know their bosses speak to you. But don’t rely on that alone; you’ve got to be genuinely nice and sincerely interested in listening and learning.
From the very beginning I went out of my way to be helpful to as many people of different (but related) departments as possible. I wanted to be the guy who colleagues knew would be happy to help out if their workloads got too heavy. The downside was that I had to work 12-14 hour days and many weekends for the first two years at each of my two jobs. But the payoff was more respect and better friendships.
Once you’ve built your support network, getting paid and promoted is an inevitability because everybody in the company will be cheering for your success. Even if someone doesn’t like you, he or she won’t be able to speak out against you for fear of retribution from all those who do like you. The naysayer will look like the jealous colleague, and nobody wants that. Never underestimate peer pressure and politics when it comes to promotion!
4) If your boss speaks Korean, you too shall speak Korean. This is the section where brown-nosing comes into play. You should try and like what your boss likes, without making it seem forced. If you know that your boss grew up in Korea, has a Korean wife, loves soccer, and went to Ohio State University, you better learn all you can about Korean culture, the World Cup, and college football. If you are caught making fun of Korean culture, calling soccer a wussy sport, and rooting for the Michigan Wolverines, your career just imploded.
Brown-nosing is perhaps the hardest thing to do well in the workplace. If you are a poor brown-noser, it becomes blatantly obvious what you are doing. My recommendation is to work on defense first; i.e., learn everything NOT to do. Be careful not to say or do things that are insulting to your boss’s sensibilities. If you know he’s a hardcore Republican, then telling him you’re going to a Democratic fundraiser is not wise. If you cannot assimilate, at the very least don’t overtly run counter to all your boss’s views.
Once you’ve mastered defense, you can slowly roll out offensive brown-nosing one element at a time. He loves the San Francisco Giants? Well, so do you, as you memorize the entire lineup and come up with pitching rotations. His favorite charity is Save the Whales? What a coincidence! You are a regular Marine Animal Rescue donor! Her favorite TV show is Breaking Bad? Funny, because you’ve memorized all of the classic Walter White lines (“Who do you think you’re talking to, Skyler? I am the danger!”). In short, your goal is to build commonality.
5) Treat your junior employees like the CEO. Finally, the greatest test of character is how you treat people who have no leverage or influence over you. If you’ve been lucky enough to ascend, become a mentor to any and all junior employees who seek your help. Spend time developing a good relationship with the mailman and the receptionist.
Junior employees tend to be the ones who complain or crow the loudest. You don’t want them saying you’re always too busy to give them the time of day. You do want them profusely singing your praises, raving about how you helped them with a project or took them out to lunch. Remember, one day your junior employees might become senior employees, and they will never forget the people who helped them along the way.
Every lunch break I’d spend several minutes talking to Conrad, the receptionist and mailman to see how his day was going. I learned about his interests collecting samurai swords and other memorabilia. He told me about his dreams of doing more, but how he couldn’t leave his $32,000 a year job because his wife’s business wasn’t doing well. They had bills to pay and hardly any savings. At the age of 54 he said, “Sam, you will regret more the things you don’t do, than the things you do.” Conrad was the one who not only looked out for me when I needed a conference room to take a 20 minute nap, he also signed for my packages when I wasn’t around, and helped give me the courage to leave.
THE BOTTOM LINE FOR GETTING AHEAD AT WORK
We like, trust, and support what we know. And what do we “know” best? Things that are most similar to ourselves.
Take a look around at work. What similarities do you see? The most obvious similarities include race, sex, school, and hobbies. The world of politics provides a perfect illustration of the practical leveraging of such similarities.
In 2012 President Obama won 93% of the Black vote, while Mitt Romney won 79% of the Evangelical and Mormon vote. Do you think if President Obama had introduced more conservative policies during his campaign the Black vote percentage would have been any less? Do you think if Mitt had stopped fighting to lower taxes for the rich, fewer Mormons would have voted for him? Of course not, and we all know it. When Hilary runs for President she will enjoy overwhelming support from female voters; if she wins, more new leadership roles will be filled by females. That’s just the way it is.
At the end of the day, managers simply want to promote people they trust and like. And whether it’s politically correct or not, the fact is that people trust and like those who look, talk, and come from the same background as themselves. This same phenomenon plays out across America in its Chinatowns and Little Italy’s. Trust, comfort, and familiarity cannot be underestimated.
I’m not saying you should change the color of your skin, give up your religion, or get a sex change to get in the good graces of your boss. What I am saying is that it’s important you seriously learn to connect with your bosses by understanding their backgrounds so they don’t feel you’re some ignorant buffoon who can’t be trusted. Coming in early, leaving last, being a team player, showing proactivity — these are all good things to do, but today they represent a minimum. To compete in the current job culture and truly excel, you have to connect— and at all levels.
My five strategies are tried and true. By age 31 I was promoted again to Director, where I remained for four years until I concluded I could go no further in a satellite office where there were already two Managing Directors on the floor. It was either relocate to NYC or Hong Kong for a chance at a promotion in several years, or be happy managing my business as a Director in San Francisco for the rest of my career. I chose San Francisco and all that a life of entrepreneurship and freedom have to offer.
SICK OF WORK? START A BUSINESS
It’s been around six years since I started Financial Samurai and I’m actually earning a good passive and active income stream online now. The top 1% of all posts on Financial Samurai generates 31% of all traffic. The average age of the top 1% posts is 2.3 years old. In other words, after putting in the hours to write some very meaty content over two years ago, 10 posts consistently generate a monthly recurring income stream that’s completely passive.
I never thought I’d be able to quit my job in 2012 just three years after starting Financial Samurai. But by starting one financial crisis day in 2009, Financial Samurai actually makes more than my entire passive income total that took 15 years to build. If you enjoy writing, creating, connecting with people online, and enjoying more freedom, see how you can set up a WordPress blog in 15 minutes with Bluehost. You never know where the journey will take you!
Updated in 2015
Photo: Redwood Forest, Marin County, Sam.