We have all been told at some point in our careers the importance of managing expectations (“Under promise, over deliver” anyone?). But I want to provide a bit more tangible, actionable advice for people who want to outperform their peers in their careers.
Let me establish some basic foundational elements before I get too far into this. When I talk about outperforming your peers, I mean those peers who are of equal talent. When you are early in your career, you will get promoted much faster than peers who are less capable. But at some point, you are promoted to the same level as a bunch of people who have similar talent. Then you kind of stall out, and the time between promotions grows so that you are eventually performing about the same as everyone else in your peer group. At this point, your promotions will tend to happen after you serve a certain time-in-role (2 years at many tech companies). This career stall is what I want to focus on.
I actually think that the advice about under-promising and over-delivering has some merit. The problem is that it isn’t actionable other than when committing to some deadline. The application of this advice is to add some buffer, and then slide the deliverable in a little bit early. The challenge is that the way most of us work is that 90% of the work happens in the last 10% of the time allotted. So even when we provide buffer, we just postpone the hard work until the end and wind up delivering by the skin of our teeth anyway. Under-promising and over-delivering has no meaning for most of us.
So how do we apply this advice in a practical way?
Early on, people are judged on talent alone. For example, managers are trained to spot high-potential employees (high-po’s for short), sometimes special training programs are instituted, some companies use more formal mentoring initiatives… But once all your talented people are promoted into the dreaded middle management layer (or that rung in the career ladder just before distinguished engineer for those pursuing a technical track), how do you differentiate people?
The reality is that people are evaluated relative to what is expected of them. If you deliver something in-line with expectations, you are solid (along with everyone else in your peer group). If you deliver something under expectations, you are put on a performance plan. If you exceed expectations, you are noticed. This is where you have an opportunity to accelerate your career.
We all know this. So if we are trying to advance our careers faster than average, we need to be in the expectation management business. But how do we actually manage our careers?
Most of us manage our own careers by ego. We want to be on the biggest, most important, most highly visible projects in the company. We gravitate towards the sexy, eschewing the more mundane. How many of you have seen that person who volunteers to be the team lead on the biggest project at the company? SDN is hot, and your company has kicked off a massive, cross-functional SDN initiative. How many of you would volunteer for this because it will certainly be great for your career? The responsibility of managing a large team, the visibility of being on a project of such importance? Who wouldn’t want this?
This project will certainly teach you some things, so being a part of it is valuable. But let me lay some reality on you. At 99.99% of companies, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. The funding dollars rarely match what is actually needed to absolutely crush a project. And if the role is exciting to you, you can bet it was exciting to 50% of the people who are now working under you (whether they see it that way or not). So there are always going to be some emotional subtexts (aka “politics”). The time aspect of the project? It has to be done yesterday.
So you just took a leadership position on a massive project with a ton of unknowns, funded less than fully, and with a team that will have to learn to work together and for some of whom there is some political subtext. And by the way, the deadline is tight. And if you pull it all off despite these challenges? You will have met expectations.
Let me make that point clear: even if you pull off a miracle, you will have met expectations.
People flock to these projects because they think that it will be a boost to their career. But in the vast majority of cases, there is no boost. You are left in your current position. At best, at the conclusion of this multi-year effort, you get promoted (along with everyone else who has served the mandatory time-in-role sentence at your company). At worst, the project gets derailed and you are part of the collateral damage.
That’s not to say these projects are not useful. You absolutely learn a lot by managing this kind of thing, and that experience is necessary. The battle scars will serve you well throughout your career. The exposure to executive levels can be critical at later junctures. But as a means of advancing your career faster than your peers, these projects are at least as much ball-and-chain as they are rocket boost.
So how do you advance your career?
At most companies, there are about ten thousand things that need to be done. Maybe some analysis is lacking, or a process is not working. A tool needs to be developed to speed up triage, or a dashboard to manage top accounts could be useful. There is some opportunity to improve employee engagement, or maybe there is a gap in product planning. Whatever the company, there are tons of these projects sitting there unattended. And some of these have a pretty high return on investment and are actually quite impacting to your company. The best part? No one expects anyone to do anything with any of these projects.
If exceeding expectations is the path to promotion, the highest delta between expected performance and delivered performance is when the expected performance is zero. Even a small delivery over zero expectations is a big win. So these projects that no one wants to do because they aren’t sexy – they all represent a chance to outperform in a huge way. And if you knock off a couple of these, you get known as a rainmaker, as the person who is constantly exceeding expectations. Even better is the fact that these projects tend to have large impact since they effect how the company does business, not just how the company executes against a specific objective.
When I first got hired into product management, I took a couple of these on. I designed the product management website, I created a repository for presentations, I redesigned the prioritization process and gave the sales guys access to information, I took over business ownership for some internal tools. These were all crap jobs, but I fixed them one by one. My company was better off for me having done it, and four years later, I was two grades higher than most of my peers in the product management organization.
Some people surely wrote it off as lucky timing based on re-orgs. Maybe luck had something to do with it. But my project selection was not random. I had deliberately gone after anything that allowed me to exceed expectations. Now to be fair, I tackled a couple of the big ones too, but I did not let my ego prevent me from going after the less sexy stuff.
As you look at your own career, are you giving yourself the best chance to exceed expectations? Or has your ego driven you in the same direction as everyone else?