Why hard work isn’t enough to progress in your career

What if I told you that in order to get ahead in your career you need to do more?

How would that feel?

You might be considering taking a swipe, especially if you’re already at breaking point, feeling snowed under with the sheer volume of work, the constant stream of emails that you’re battling and the long hours you’re already putting in. More, you say?

Well yes…but not necessarily more, in the way that you think.

For a lot of women I work with, they think the answer to progression in the workplace is to show people how good they are, how much they can take on, get their head down and get the job done well. Become that safe pair of hands, the person we can all rely on to get the job done. They then work tirelessly to produce the goods and wait for the accolades to come in, to be invited to the table, the promotion offers to come in or at the very least a pat on the back. But, in many cases, none of that happens. They stay where they are, fire fighting, keeping their head down and not making a fuss. They then come to someone like me, baffled as to why they aren’t getting pulled into the decision making processes, being overlooked for promotion or, in extreme cases, being put on performance review or fired. Just what is going on? Aren’t they doing all the right things?

But here’s the rub. They are good at what they do, and fully capable of moving up into the next position in terms of their knowledge and expertise, but that’s not enough. If you’re focusing all of your time on just doing the job you are likely missing out on some career strategy essentials.

It just doesn’t work like that. For a start most people in fast moving, corporate spaces are busy. It’s the modern state. We’re all busy, getting on with our own important work, often lost in our own self-important world. So when it comes to getting recognition for the work that we do, we need to do more than just produce the results. We have to spell out our value and be front of mind to those that are higher up. We need to be visible, make an impact, and show our value as well as do the job well. But how do you do all that when the job itself is running you ragged?

Well, the workplace is full of human beings who make human connections with other humans and who form opinions of others not just by the work that they produce but by the clear evidence of their results, of the impact they have on them, and on the way they make them feel. In a busy corporate environment there isn’t much time for these humans to sit and dwell on what you might actually be up to if they haven’t heard from you in a while, or go searching for the evidence that you are showing higher level skills or really get a sense of who you really are and what you stand for if they’ve had hardly any face time with you.

The onus is on you to make it clear to others what your career intentions are, the value you bring and the ideas that you have that are worth listening to.

So how do you do it?

Well, it comes down to a few basic things we can focus on to varying degrees but that do need to be there, at least in some form or other, and you can do them in a way which feels good to you. So here are 5 foundational activities and approaches that I recommend you begin to incorporate into your longer term career strategy to ensure you don’t get overlooked, overworked and instead get recognised for being the star player that you are.

Get clear about what you want from your career, now and in the future.

Start by asking yourself some simple questions:

What does your role give you?

Where do you want to be headed?

Why are you doing what you do?

If you aren’t clear on any of these questions then chances are you’re not fully in the driving seat of your career and you’re just carrying on regardless. This can lead to just saying yes to any task that comes your way, not spending time developing your skill set fully and not, as a consequence, showing others around you the commitment you have to your role or organisation in the longer term. Once you are clear about where you want to be headed and start communicating it with others you can really begin to identify what tasks you need to be focusing on, what skills you need to develop and how to you can make that happen.

Pause the hamster wheel and spend some time reflecting on these key questions. Once you have the answers to them, begin to see how you can carve out the time to make space for what you know you need to work towards. So that leads me to talk about boundaries…

Put boundaries in place

Do you have too much work coming at you? Are you finding it hard to say no to things you don’t want to be doing, especially if it’s not actually part of your remit? Do you often feel like a doormat and just wish people would back off and leave you alone to do the job you were hired for?

If you’re feeling like this then your boundaries may be in need of a look at. Saying no to work you’ve been asked to do can be a real challenge for many women for fear of seeming awkward, for not being seen as capable or a tendency to want to please and support others. But getting comfortable with your boundaries and communicating them effectively can often be a real game changer in not only reducing your workload but in also receiving respect and recognition from your colleagues and managers. Believe it or not, other people value knowing where they stand with you and seeing that you value yourself enough not to be walked over so easily. It also frees up your time to do more of what you need to be doing and focusing on YOUR career.

Speak up in meetings

I used to run a workshop for law students to help them prepare them for assessment centres. One of the exercises we did was around how to approach a group discussion activity. One of the key things we spoke about was the fact that you have to say something, anything, in order for the assessors to assess you. Kind of makes sense…if they can’t see what you have to say, how can they assess you at all? And it’s the same for work meetings. Although you’re not usually being formally assessed, you will still be noticed, as much as for what you don’t contribute as what you do. Often this is the place where you can show not just your capability to others but also your levels of interest in the role, share ideas you have, and start to build your authority. But in order to do that you do need to say something in the first place, and this can be the sticking point for fear of saying the wrong thing, being shouted over or not being able to get a word in because of all the other noise going on from louder voices. It can be a tricky one to master but there are ways to get others to help bring you in as well as other activities you can do to bolster your confidence to help you feel happier to make your voice heard.

Be visible and regularly feedback your achievements

When you’ve got your head down in your work it can be easy to just get immersed in reaching the end goal of getting the job done and delivering the result. But if that means you don’t then communicate with the people who have set the task they may be left wondering what you’re actually up to and possibly forgetting about you altogether. Visibility and self promotion can feel like a necessary evil to many women. Why should you have to be a loud mouth and braggart to get by in your job? Can’t I just show how valuable I am by doing a great job? It can feel pointless, fake, counter-intuitive and down right icky to have to tell other people what you’re up to and how well you’ve been doing it. But, going back to the point I made about humans working with humans, people often need it spelling out to them and having it brought to their attention. Believe it or not, you’re actually doing them a favour by telling them, as it’s one less thing for them to wonder about and forget. Depending on how you come at it, it doesn’t have to be done in such a way that makes you feel bad about it either. You can develop simple, comfortable techniques to feedback your results, keep in touch with your manager and “brag” to others in a way that actually starts to feel good to you.

Build a strategic career network

Networking. Love it or loath it? For a lot of us, it produces a sigh and a dread of having to do it. When we hear that, many of us are actually thinking of a networking event, a place where we might have to work a room or think of something to say to strangers on zoom. It can produce panic just at the thought of it. But that’s just one small part of what it takes to build a network and if that’s just not your bag then you don’t have to do it all. Building a supportive network in your career though is essential if you want to move up and thrive.

Having key people who will help you with information, create opportunities, champion you and advocate for you, all form part of the bigger picture when it comes to a successful career. No great leader does it alone. We all need guidance, support and allies when things get challenging and more often than not we’re not fully equipped to best deal with every situation that presents itself and that’s where other people can step in, fill the gaps and in the process enable us to learn more so that we actually become better at what we do.

Repeat after me. There is no shame in asking for help, only strength.

So there you go, 5 more things you could be doing other than the daily slog. I’m not saying that you squeeze yet more into your day, but rather rethink how you come at things. If you have too much on your plate right now to even contemplate doing more, are your boundaries nice and tight? Are you focusing on doing the things that matter, that will take you further? Have you got the support and confidence you need to get there?

Start by taking a good hard look at what you’re actually spending your time doing and get clear about where your focus needs to be and put the hard work in there. Make it your mission to mix things up and prioritise the other key activities in the workplace that will elevate your career as well as produce the goods for your employer.

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