How To Get Paid And Promoted Faster: Is Your Nose Brown Enough To Get Ahead?

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 get paid and promoted faster.

After all, for most people, the quickest way to financial freedom is by earning more through a day job. The more you can make and the faster you can get promoted, the more you can save and invest. The more you can invest in passive income investments, the sooner you can be free!

My Experience With Getting Paid And Promoted Faster

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.

Surviving The Grind Is Hard

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. 

How To Get Promoted And Paid Faster

Here are all the ways to get paid and promoted faster. I'm so happy to no longer have to play corporate politics or work in banking. However, if you're still in the work grind, these tips will help you.

1) The 50/50 Approach. 

Most people I know (myself included) hate self-promotion. I'd much rather be rich and not famous.

Naively, 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.

People tend to support people who they like and who look like them.

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.

Getting Ahead At Works Takes Building A Network Of Supporters

We like, trust, and support what we know. And what do we “know” best?  Things that are most similar to ourselves. The best way to get paid and promoted faster is by building a strong support network.

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. Hillary Clinton will enjoy overwhelming support from female voters in 2016. When 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.

You Will Face Disadvantages

Given the way the world works, minorities and women face more disadvantages than white men if most of the people who have the power are white men. You must realize this situation and the biases it causes and keep trying.

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 Executive 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 ED 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.

Related: Your Chances Of Becoming A Millionaire By Race And Sex

Recommendation For Leaving A Job

If you're not getting the love and respect from your job, you need to negotiate a severance and leave. If you negotiate a severance like I did back in 2012, you not only get a severance check, but potentially subsidized healthcare, deferred compensation, and worker training. Since you got laid off, you're also eligible for up to 27 weeks of unemployment benefits. Having a financial runway is huge during your transition period.

Conversely, if you quit your job you get nothing. Check out, How To Engineer Your Layoff: Make A Small Fortune By Saying Goodbye, on how to negotiate a severance. I first published the book in 2012 and have recently expanded it to over 200 pages with new resources, strategies, and additional case studies thanks to tremendous reader feedback.

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Financial Samurai started as a personal journal to make sense of the financial crisis in 2009. By early 2012, it started making a livable income stream so I decided to negotiate a severance package. Years later, FS now makes more than I did as an Executive Director at a major bulge bracket firm with 90% less work and 100% more fun.

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Photo: Redwood Forest, Marin County, Sam.

35 thoughts on “How To Get Paid And Promoted Faster: Is Your Nose Brown Enough To Get Ahead?”

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  4. This is exactly right it is almost impossible to get noticed and “get ahead” without a little bit of self promotion. Working hard and smart and hoping someone will notice will wear you down if everything keeps staying the same.

  5. What if you had fervidly promoted your team and help support the seniors but they would take all the credit? What if higher degree of PhD is only valued in your company? I’m currently getting a Master and MBA but I think PhD with that many years devoted doesn’t make financial sense. What do you think about PhD?

    Is brown noising the only way to connect with your boss?

  6. Interesting post. I am like the majority of people out there. I am not huge into self promotion. I think your points are really valid. I try to treat everyone junior to me really well, but that’s just a human code.

  7. Good article. As a ‘boss’, I see the brown-nosing all the time. As one would expect, some are very good at it, and make it seem pretty natural (hell, some of them may genuinely like me). Others, it’s a little painful to watch them flail about. I grin and bear it, knowing that they’re making an honest effort to network and career build.

    One thing that’s probably unique to aerospace: my people are paid hourly and report overtime. I think it’s a government thing; it helps assure that you’re not killing your people with overtime on government contracts. Given that, I’d temper the ‘first in and last to leave’ advice for my workplace. I monitor overtime, particularly disproportionate overtime, as a sign that I’m not managing the projects well. You’ll also get hammered for trying to work “off the clock”, so there’s nowhere to hide. To convey the attitude you’re trying to foster in my work environment, you might arrive 15 minutes early, stay 15 minutes late, and always volunteer for overtime to meet work group goals.

    With early retirement in sight, I actually will miss my work friends. It’s a good group of folks. I won’t miss some of the silly stuff that flows down from corporate – that’s the stuff that makes me shake my head, say, “Two more years” and re-double my efforts to make sure the workforce is well prepared to keep our work flowing as a bunch of us retire.

  8. Joseph Ontiveros

    Hi Sam,
    Joseph again, I was curious as to where you stood at the age of 21, what did you focus on/what was important to you….also any advise looking back would be appreciated…from anyone for that matter…

    1. Basically a college senior looking to find a job in finance. Went through 7 rounds and 55 interviews at GS before landing a job that wasn’t finalized until the month I graduated. Pretty dicy, but after the 3rd round I knew I was going to land somewhere at the firm, just didn’t know where.

      Around Junior year I knew I wanted to get into finance after my dad showed me how to trade online. I was hooked ever since and did everything possible to get my foot in the door e.g. career fairs, cold calling, cold e-mailing, asked around etc.

  9. Sam, this is the best article of yours that I’ve read.

    I learned lesson 2) the hard way when my boss (who saw my contributions first hand and valued my role on the team) decided to quit and I realized I had a very poor relationship with his boss, the consulting practice Partner.

    It literally changed my career for a short time. I’m still trying to bring myself back from the setback but it served as a lesson that I’ll never forget.

    1. Thanks JW. I’ve experienced and seen your situation all the time, and I’m sure it happens all the time for others. This is why we’ve got to continuously be building senior relationships across the board. After about 10 years, I started to tire about always building relationships with others. I only had energy to focus on doing the best job I could do (which is what I think most people do). Of course my biggest connection left, and new powers ascended I did not know. They of course took care of their own guys.

      Good luck!

  10. I probably sucked at brown nosing in the workplace. I don’t think I’ve ever had a boss that I could really stand. Most were asshats. This may have contributed to my desire for early retirement. I’m sure if I stuck it out, I would have eventually found a manager I respected.

    Once you aren’t dependent on a paycheck, relationships are largely voluntary.

    1. I think in a way you are luck you didn’t respect any of your bosses b/c it motivated you to retire early. My brutal work environment the first two years in NYC made me save 50%+ of my income forever b/c I knew I couldn’t last on Wall St. past age 40. I didn’t even think I would make it past 30.

      1. Absolutely. I learned pretty early on that employers don’t really value you. Bosses find you useful until they don’t. Late nights and hard work might lead to a reward. But maybe not.

        The only way to guarantee I was rewarded long term was to keep the majority of my earnings and invest them to benefit myself. And to realize a better employment opportunity when one materialized. This attitude might seem a little mercenary, but it reflects the workplace environments I experienced.

  11. “2) Why talk to the ass when you can talk to the head?”

    What do you do when the head is a total ass?

  12. Ryan @ Impersonal Finance

    Well said. So true. I hate to say it, but I know i’ve received the promotions I have because my bosses like me. Some of the best advice I got was keep your mouth shut and do your work. I’ve got enough of a personality for it to come through, but I don’t rub anyone the wrong way, and I’ve got a solid rep within the company. It’s really not about what you know, but about who you know and how much they like you.

  13. I really agree with #1…building up the good will because people see that you get things done and are willing to work alongside them in the trenches is huge. That good will carries you a long way, but you have to really earn it.

    Other one I kind of live by is sort of what I call my “reality TV” scenario…and that is live your life and have your actions be something that you’d be proud of (and comfortable) with if you had to watch it back on TV with your family and friends sitting next to you and for all the world to see. Admittedly there are few wild weekends here and there that I’d probably be slightly embarrassed to watch unfold again!

  14. As a former financial (CFO) executive, you always have exposure to all levels of management. I think that exposure, as you point out, is very important. My daughter had that exposure through weekly meetings representing the department. What is unusual was she was not the department head or even close. This exposure put her on the fast track to promotions. She is a director and has been one for 5 years. Her next step is Vice President.

  15. I used to work with a guy who had a nuclear engineering degree from the Naval Academy. He was brilliant and always interesting to talk to. One time he told me, “no one is going to manager your career for you, you have to manage it yourself”. He was just a few years out of active duty and quite clearly on the fast track.

    One thing I regret about workplace environments is the frequency with which “squeaky wheels” can get themselves paid more and/or promoted. I don’t understand it and it’s kind of sickening to me. I’ve seen PhD engineers complain their way into upper management and I’ve seen administrative staff complain their way into professional positions.

    1. Hopefully you understand the “squeeky wheel” more after this post. It’s about trust and a network of strong relationships. Those who don’t build trust and strong relationships tend to float along the wave.

  16. Good ideas here, Sam. Do you think you’ve received promotions you wouldn’t have otherwise received due to your relationships? I’m all for building commonality but did you feel weird or in any way undeserving of promotions or accolades received that were due, even in part, to relationships?

    1. That’s a good question. In short, no. When I’m working, I give things 150% when all that is required of me is 100% for the negotiated pay and level. My goal is to always try and deliver more than is expected until I top out.

      When you are in a revenue generating role, there is always huge upside for argument. For example, you generate $1 million in revenue and you earn 10%, or $100,000. Who is to say you shouldn’t earn 50% more to $150,000 when the total cost is say only $300,000 to generate the $1 million?

  17. The First Million is the Hardest

    Self-promotion is something I’ve always struggled with, I’ve always prefered to try and let my work speak for itself. Cultivating relationships and getting to know (and relate to) my bosses and coworkers interests is something I’ve done really well in each career stop. Like it or not, having “friends” really does help you get to where you want to go.

    One of the biggest career limiting moves I can think of is to be the office gossip or complainer. Every workplace has one, and everyone knows who it is. Don’t be the one always complaining about every little part of your job. Coming in a close second is the person that spends more time telling everyone how “busy” they are than they do actually working on that “overwhelming” workload.

  18. I agree with your points! It takes work and going beyond your basic responsibilities to get promoted. A lot of people think that their careers and promotions are just going to fall in their lap. Doesn’t work that way!

  19. Chaz@christianlifehacker

    I love that all 5 of your points are also directly applicable even if you don’t work inside a larger organization. As the point man for a succession of micro-business I’ve started, I’d have to say that points 1-4 are integral to establishing relationships with targeted decision-makers you’d like to get your story in front of. And point 5 can turn hourly employees into advocates of your business with street cred.

  20. Constance Burris

    After 11 years of working for the state government, I’m finally venturing out into Industry. This post is just what I needed to read! Thanks!

  21. Spot on! It doesn’t matter where you work (Wall St, 7-11, etc) these principles apply. I have gotten more recognition for helping and promoting my team than I ever received for individual contributions (sales commissions don’t count).

  22. Done by Forty

    Telling it like it is, Sam! The advice of finding similar interests with your superiors can’t be overstated. Talking about work all the time is as tiresome for leaders as it is for anyone else: being able to chat about football or hockey has been a great way to build better relationships with my leaders. It seems simple, but like you said, the people at the top are people just like us.

  23. My advice would be always have somebody around beneath you capable of getting promoted into your position. Some people would look at that as threatening but it’s easier to get promoted if there’s somebody around who can fill your shoes at the old position.

    My other advice would be to befriend the talented people regardless of their current position. Don’t view the talented people as threats, a rising tide lifts all boats. Maybe this advice varies by industry, but I find if my friends do well (even if they do well before I do) eventually I also do well.

  24. SavvyFinancialLatina

    These are great tips. It took me almost a year at my company to start weaving my way through people and start building relationships. It’s getting better. One thing I need to do is wisely promote myself more and find a way to connect with my boss. I’m not the greatest brown noser.

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