We live in an economy new to us, a new decade has emerged and in companies around the country a new corporate culture is well under way. Now more than ever before, standing out and being noticed in the workplace not only means getting ahead, it means keeping the job you have. Add the rules of the new corporate game to the recession, and on top of that corporate cliques in a cutthroat atmosphere, how’s a clutchette to get ahaed if she has to add, “not BFF’s with the boss” to her list of that which is working against her? We at the virtual headquarters of Clutch mag caught up with Akilah Richards, author of Execumama: A Pocket Guide for the Twenty-Something Mommy on the Move, an enlightening read for young moms with clear goals. Richards is also co-founder of Face Forward of Atlanta with Tawana Necole of Corporate Chics, and was recently featured in Essence magazine’s “How She Does It.”
Akilah now tells us clutchettes how we can succeed against unique odds in the workplace.
Clutch: We know that in corporate America, success is largely dependent on key relationships. What can a girl looking to move-up in the company do if she’s not exactly chums with the boss?
Akilah: The good news for those of us not born with the how-to-chum-up gene is that we always have the opportunity to use our work to speak on our behalf. Even if your boss isn’t a personal fan of yours, s/he would be hard pressed to pass up an opportunity to show off your work to their peers and higher-ups. After all, you wouldn’t be such a star were it not for the benefit of their amazing supervisory skills (let them tell it!) The effort on your part should be consistent and stand above the rest is you plan to use it to cover for your less-than-stellar social skills. Pay attention to the way your boss presents projects. This is a great way to see how his/her brain is organized, as you can use this as your framework for how to present information to him/her. Once you’ve got that covered, then you can sprinkle bits of your particular style into your work, and ease him/her slowly into your full-scale plan to shine.
Clutch: Should one go over their supervisors head and try to get the attention of those higher up in the company to reach their career goals, or should one stick to the rule of making the boss look good, even when it’s clear his/her favorites have been chosen?
Akilah: Though there are particular situations that call for one to go above their supervisor’s head, the rule of thumb is not to go above their head; it’s career suicide. Let’s not pretend office politics don’t exist. Before your boss, or even his or her superiors, your objective should be to make your work stand out. That involves a lot less risk than parrying Wonder Woman bracelets with someone who has an obvious advantage. Fortunately, since the nature of the projects are based on company objectives, your work looking good is bound to make someone else look good too. Place the focus on your best efforts, and be sure to give credit to co-workers when it’s due. Everyone loves a team player, and though your efforts to credit others will not always be reciprocated, you’ll still get the “cool points” for not trying to come off like a one-woman army.
Clutch: Can you offer us go-getting clutchettes any tips for smart schmoozing?
Akilah: If I had to place some energy into that realm, I’d say it’s imperative that you make sure the powers that be know (or at least feel) that you are learning from them, and that you value their management. In other words, make sure your boss knows that you took not of the way he handled that prickly situation with the unhappy client, and that you were impressed with his ability to turn their staffroom apprehensive to “sold” with his communication skills and knowledge of their needs. It’s the difference between taking notes in class, and simply nodding while your professor rants on. Also, be sure to volunteer to work on extra projects. It’s all about creating opportunities to showcase your brand of expertise, whatever that may be. Gain experience wherever you can, because the more your boss gets used to see your face amongst the crowd, the more opportunities you’ve created to stand about it.
The good news for those of us not born with the how-to-chum-up gene is that we always have the opportunity to use our work to speak on our behalf.
Clutch: What qualities and strengths would you say are needed to play this game and win?
1. A “big picture” mentality: You’re a big girl, so you know that the strategy of winning the corporate game has little to do with fairness or just due. Instead, interpersonal relationships and stand-out efforts run the show. This means that if you want to win a the game, you must wear the toughest skin to work every day and play your role to the max! Don’t let your personality get in the way of your progress. So, you’re more of a behind-the-scenes type of lady, and your wants you to host snobby clients at this month’s progress meeting. Play the role; carpe diem! When you’re all done schmoozing and smiling, you can go home to a good book and a tall glass of red wine. Understand that accepting the task at hand, albeit uncomfortable and against your natural tendency, is a small part of the bigger opportunity, whatever that is for you. Whether that’s climbing to the upper management booth, or reaching that 6-figure income bracket, keep at the forefront, and those points of contention will pale in comparison to what you have at stake.
2. A defined sense of your personal brand: Like running a business without a business plan, playing (and ultimately winning) the corporate game can fast become a haphazard exercise in futility without a clear idea of what you plan to accomplish. Ask yourself: What makes me an asset to an employer? Is it my honed skill of disarming clients and putting them at ease with my charismatic nature? Is it my knack for numbers? My non-abrasive way of getting my point across? Whatever the answers, use them to define and promote your particular brand of you. Play up your strengths, and observe the players that are skilled in the areas where you are weaker. You can create the ultimate weapon in yourself by knowing how and when to place yourself in the midst of the projects that lend themselves to your talents.
Clutch: When there is drama in the workplace, and you’re either directly or indirectly involved or you’ve somehow been pulled into it all, what steps do you take to make yourself look better, positioning yourself for the job you want?
Akilah: Minimize public displays of “conflict resolution.” Your intention may be to approach a co-worker to nip any miscommunication in the bud, but rest assured, to an outsider, all it will look like is you and someone else in the throes of a juicy argument. Same goes for e-mail communications about drama. That’s after-work phone call material at best. Here are my tips for how to “save the drama.”
* Get stoic! This is simply a strategy, and a great way to flex your “big picture” muscles. When Janet briefs you about the comment Spencer supposedly made about you at the staff retreat, give her to poker face, and act unaffected. In Janet’s mind, it was as if you couldn’t care less! Whether you were hurt, offended, or ticked off is no one’s business but yours and you BFF’s, who you can call on the way home to blow off some steam by calling that spineless Spencer guy every horrible name in the book.
* Reduce your “clique-ability.” Not unlike grade school, or even college, we tend to flock with birds of a feather. In the corporate world, this can do more harm than good. Just like the non-work related conversations, cliquing is best left after-work events. If you’re drawn into drama, odds are it’s based on someone you hang around at work. It will be difficult to pull yourself from the rubble if your hanging with the assailants (whether actual or perceived) every lunch break. Stay cordial with everyone, and by all means, do group lunches and the like, but reduce your clique factor by socializing with a variety of co-workers, and not just the ones with whom you happen to mesh.
* Break out the “too busy” bit! When you feel the relentless tugs of co-workers trying to lure you into the fold, get busy (or at least fake it!) At one particular company, I was the queen of must-do lunchtime errands, which in truth, consisted of me parking in a not-too-close plaza with a book and my lunch, free of misperceptions brought about by hanging too tough with a particular group. Also, if you were lucky enough, you can sometimes use lunch breaks to go have a kiss-fest with your infant or toddler at her daycare center. Either way, make an effort to separate yourself from being defined as part of a particular group because the humorous chit chat is not likely worth the potential damage to your reputation.
Overall, it’s about standing out, but with a high regard for keeping your list of enemies to a minimum. Help your co-workers if your task list is lighter than theirs. Volunteer to take on the tasks that others won’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Don’t try to outshine your boss, but do your best work consistently, and increase the odds of someone seeing your light in the sea of co-workers and pulling you one step closer to the shore.
Akilah S. Richards is author of Execumama: A Pocket Guide for the Twenty-Something Mommy on the Move, and pens the blog Execumama Online, execumama.blogspot.com.