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:
- Perception is reality. Whatever others perceive about you is true in their mind. If you don’t spend time shaping their perception of you, then someone else (e.g., like my manager) will, and for their own benefit. This is why you should leverage politics to further your career, and also why the first impression you make at a company is very important.
- Self promotion is key: Hard work helps with success only if the right people know about it, and if it delivers results. Here are some ideas on how to subtly promote yourself to build your reputation.
- Soft skills help us work smart instead of hard to achieve career success. This is why I am passionate about writing these newsletter articles on the 28 soft skills every professional should learn. This way you can work smart and not just hard, and always be recognized always for the brilliant work you do.
If you are committed to developing your soft skills, then sign up for a Soft Skills Gym membership today!
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