I didn’t receive much guidance growing up. I fumbled my way through school not really knowing where I was headed. The only career advice I received was “be a doctor or lawyer”. I became neither.
I didn’t know much. But I did *know* (or so I thought) that working hard would pay off.
I busted my tail through college and university, and later two masters degrees while working full time. School teaches you that hard work is the key to success. It’s a reward system that I became addicted to and could manipulate to my advantage. Work hard, study hard and get my dopamine fix through my good grades.
I was a great student!
In school I was consistently near the top of my class and I figured I was on the right path to success. Unfortunately, school doesn’t really prepare you for the corporate world.
In the corporate world, hard work will only take you so far. In fact, it can be counterproductive at times. It is in the first phase of your career that hard work matters the most.
During the early stages of your career, you need to learn a lot and prove yourself. Nobody knows you so you must deliver a lot to succeed. This means taking on and learning as much as humanly possible. It means working long days until what once took you 3 hours to complete eventually takes 30 minutes.
Junior employees are ditch-digging foot soldiers. The only thing that matters is how well you can take orders and use the tools provided. Call this Phase I of your career.
Once you become a master of your tools (physical or intellectual), you start to add value. You generate your own processes, interpret and analyze information and communicate recommendations to senior staff. This is the point of your career where those who create value can progress quickly, often by jumping from company to company.
Call this Phase II of your career.
So now you’re a middle-manager in some corporate behemoth. This is where many careers fizzle out. Why? Not because people can’t handle their new positions. No, it’s because they keep applying the same strategies as they did in Phase I and II of their careers.
It is in this third phase that the marginal benefits of hard work start to decline. Sure, a hard worker will be valuable to the team. You will get a decent paycheque and occasional recognition. But working super-hard during this third phase of your career could counterintuitively limit your upward mobility.
When you’re working hard, your time is gone. You’re busy managing multiple projects at the same time with little remining time to think. And by the time you have a moment you’re too drained to be productive.
Doing a lot is not the same as doing the things that matter.
Often, time to ruminate is needed to prioritize the work that has the biggest impact. Executing on 3 high impact projects very well will get you noticed far more than doing 15 low impact activities moderately well. People are remembered for their pinnacle work, not for all the shit they shoveled for the firm.
Another reason to work less hard as you rise in the ranks is so you always have spare capacity. When the big boss has an urgent request, the person with spare capacity can more easily and quickly jump into action and save the day. Meanwhile, people bogged down by meaningless tasks miss those opportunities to shine in front of senior executives.
Perhaps most importantly, unfortunately for the introverts out there (e.g. me), managers who aren’t glued to their desks make connections and get noticed. I’m talking about facetime. Networking. Schmoozing.
Of course, meeting people for lunch or coffee requires time. But networking is critical to career progression so you better make the time. Namely, you better reallocate time from completing meaningless tasks to making meaningful connections with people in your company and industry.
Won’t people think you’re slacking?
Nope. You have to be pretty blatant about it to get noticed. So much work within a corporation is qualitatively measured, it’s almost impossible to keep track of individual capacity. In a corporate environment, determining whether someone is operating at 70% or 100% capacity is an impossible task. Usually, it’s not worth the time and effort to figure out to any degree of certainty. Moreover, if business leaders care about results (as opposed to busyness) the person operating with spare capacity will actually appear like they’re working harder than the rest.
Once you’re in that middle management phase of your career, my suggestion is to set your own agenda as much as possible. Without disregarding your boss’s requests, this means setting time aside for business and career priorities.
If X, Y and Z are critical to your company’s success, don’t waste too much time on A, B and C. Many people mistake activity for productivity. This is why bureaucrats love meetings. Meetings feel productive even though they accomplish nothing.
Many middle managers work like crazy without reward. If you prove you’re an indispensable shit-shoveler that’s who you’ll remain.