Growing up Asian, we are told that hard work is always what is needed to achieve success.Like a good Chinese girl, I followed that advice and worked my butt off at McKinsey, my first job.Fortunately or unfortunately, I learned quickly that hard work is not enough, and sometimes does not even help.

This took place just about a year after college. I was on my 3rd project at McKinsey, and my manager was a junior EM. He wasn’t officially a manager, but he was up for promotion soon. Anyway, this project was his proving ground. I was naive and eager, so I tried my best to do a good job. I worked almost every weekend on this project. I distinctly remember him asking me to work one weekend to summarize a mountain of research into two slides. I was diligent, and I worked about 10 hours each day. I was able to do it all that weekend, and sent them to him by Sunday night.

I remember feeling relieved and accomplished that night.Well, long story short, he didn’t use those slides for four weeks. When the Senior Manager finally saw the slides four weeks later, they used them in the client presentation. And guess who got the credit for it? Well, it wasn’t me. A few months later, when the client was not happy with some part of the project, guess who received the blame? Well, it was not my manager.

How did this happen, you may ask? I wasn’t in many of the senior level meetings as an Analyst, so my manager could say whatever he wanted about my performance. That included blaming me for the client’s dissatisfaction, and taking credit for my work. I only received an Average rating for that project, but I learned about office politics and what it takes to be successful. Here were my mistakes:

  • I spent 150% of my energy on doing good work, and almost none on publicizing my good work to anyone but my manager. I could have easily done some subtle PR and copied those slides to the senior manager and partner, too, under the guide of getting feedback or in case they needed to use them. Either way, they would have known that it was I who made them — and 4 weeks earlier, too!
  • I didn’t take any time to build relationships with the partner, senior manager, or the client. Nor did I take any time to build a support network at the office with other senior folks. I followed my upbringing, kept my head down, and worked hard. So, when the manager blamed things on me, no one could question him about it. They didn’t have any other reference point.
  • I also assumed that my manager would represent me fairly – a bad assumption that I try not to make again. He was up for promotion, so any blemish on his performance could affect that. He didn’t really believe in developing others, so I was a good scapegoat. Not all managers are like him, but they are definitely out there.

At the end of the day, I learned a lot during my two years at McKinsey. Years later, the Partner on that project met up with me in San Francisco for coffee (I learned and had kept in touch with him). He actually apologized for that manager’s behavior, and asked if I was interested in re-joining McKinsey after business school. I wasn’t, but it was a nice gesture.

Moral of the story:

If you are committed to developing your soft skills, then sign up for a Soft Skills Gym membership today!

Your comments: Do you agree with this article?  Share your comments and questions below and let’s have a discussion.

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- Lei


10 Thoughts on “Hard Work Does Not Guarantee Success

  1. Dear Lei,thank you so much.I made same mistakes. Now I learned a lot with your article. I know what to do.Thank you again

  2. I accidently stumbled upon your blog and really felt so connected to you after reading this article.

    I am Chinese who immigranted to U.S. over a decade ago. The sentence you wrote,’Growing up Asian, we are told that hard work is always what is needed to achieve success’ is the motto I grew up with. Now being a mid-level manager at a higher education institution, I am starting to realize there is a lot more to it than just working hard. I used to believe that I would get noticed eventually by being able to deliver the best and greatest, but when I did get noticed, that actually cause some unexpectedly heart burns as well.

    Please keep your good articles coming.

  3. Lei,

    Thank you so much. This is very helpful.


  4. Lei,
    This is so true! Many of us were brought up to work hard and let that work speak for itself, but in today’s world, that is no longer enough.

    Even when you have a great manager, there is no guarantee they will still be with the company when it comes time for promotions, etc. We always need to be prepared to sell ourselves to a new manager, to upper level executives, or if need be, to a new company.

    David’s recommendation of “How to Toot Your Own Horn Without Blowing it” is a good one. I highly recommend that book as well. You may also want to check out the new tool we created at to help people capture their success stories over time and share them with their network. I’d love to hear any feedback you have.

  5. Thanks for sharing your story, Lei. I believe that we should be able to “sell” ourselves in order to be recognized by others, including our own managers.

    In my previous employment, we had daily morning huddle where we could share anything from motivational story, our experiences when we found something new, our ongoing projects, etc.

    So, do your job well and sell yourselves to others even better.

  6. Lei Han on July 7, 2011 at 9:44 am said:

    Etwell, thanks for your comment. This is definitely true in some companies. It’s up to us to choose wisely and also interview the company about its culture and performance evaluation structure prior to joining, so we can select ones that invest on developing its people and train its managers

  7. Etwell on July 6, 2011 at 8:35 am said:

    Thanks guys for the comments. On reflection they are very true. The problem that we have is that appraisals of managers does not include anything on what they have done to develop subordinates. I think HR should include such issues in appraisals and concrete examples of what subordinates have done (projects done/ideas given/etc) must be availed. This will ‘encourage’ managers to publicise even more what their juniors are doing resulting in better teamwork and motivation.

  8. Guys, I recommend a book my mentor once mentioned to me. It’s called “The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn without Blowing It”. Let me know what you guys think. You can find it on Amazon. If you’re a woman who suffers from a natural tendency of taking a backseat at work, you should consider it.

  9. Anonymous on September 2, 2009 at 2:14 pm said:

    Lei – you are 100% correct! That's one of the big painful lessons I learned too.

    I was so busy working hard that I didn't even take the time to reflect to see what was holding me back. Now that I've walked away from my career for a while, I can see that it was my own focus on hard work & belief that hard work alone would get me ahead.

    I hope your article helps other heads down hard workers learn this lesson earlier in life!!!

    BTW – you worked REALLY hard at Deloitte too. I did so very much enjoy getting to work with you!


  10. Anonymous on August 31, 2009 at 2:27 pm said:

    Lei – I don't typically comment, but this is a point I constantly need to remind myself of. It's true no matter what industry you work in and what level you're at. Although I believe in hard work and being fair and generous with credit, it's equally important to manage your career as your manage your projects.

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