So many times in my career I wish someone would have told me the real truth. I have, of course, had wonderful mentors and coaches throughout the years, but no one really broke down the unspoken rules, the real facts about ascending in your career and leadership.
I recently participated on a Phoenix Business Journal leadership panel and was asked to offer advise for the emerging leaders in the audience, and while I already had this column in mind before the event, it helped validate a notion I’ve been mulling over for awhile: Young professionals hunger for insight and feedback on how to advance or level-up in their careers.
That in mind, I would like to share five perhaps controversial leadership lessons every aspiring professional should know, taken from my personal experience and through conversations with a diverse set of leaders nationwide.
Your actual job (and No. 1 priority) should be making your manager’s job easier
Individuals who are quickly promoted understand that if they make their manager look good, they will themselves reap the benefits. Now, this isn’t a nod to participate in anything superficial or borderline abusive but rather encouragement to anticipate the needs of your boss and company and deliver accordingly. Deeply understanding the overall roadmap no matter what your position in the company will give you a mindset to drive outcomes even if they don’t seem directly tied to you, allowing you to be open to the concept of being fiercely committed to moving your boss’ agenda forward.
You are going to receive many requests from your supervisor to do something that may seem like a waste of time, but they are asking for a reason. Understand that reason and then do it well. Think about things before your manager does, and if you figure things out with their minimal input, you can free up time for them to go farther, faster. And so will you. That’s true leadership. If there’s one thing to remember, it’s this: if your manager doesn’t feel like you are adding value and directly helping them achieve company goals and initiatives, you are eventually mapping out your own exit plan.
Being liked is undervalued
I sometimes hear the very misguided “I’m not here to make friends, I am here to do my job” to which I would say, “Then you’re not here to be promoted either.” It’s not office politics, it’s human nature – people want to work with, root for, and be inspired by the people they like. Be very aware of how you show up to your peers and management and remember that typically being a social, positive, and generally likable person will take you far.
We have all encountered the people in our careers that are always adversarial, constant naysayers, and a buzzkill to be around. Don’t be that person, because, trust me, no one will want to rally around you or your ideas. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be authentic; by all means push back, give candid feedback, be genuine, but think about how you are presenting yourself and how that’s being received by those around.
Please note that you can be unliked, but you will work twice as hard to get promoted in comparison to someone people enjoy working with, and I would say from a personal investment standpoint, likability is a higher leverage activity than even perfecting a skill or job function. Especially if you envision yourself in a leadership capacity. Spend the time and realize that self-awareness, and how others perceive you, is a wonderful virtue.
The best idea doesn’t always win, the more compelling storyteller does
I addressed a group of young professional years ago and disclosed a hard truth: Nobody cares how smart you are or how great your ideas might be. They do care how it is told. Somewhat of an extension of my previous point for emerging leaders, you might have the best idea in the world but if you can’t get people behind it, then the idea is useless. Become exceptional at storytelling and selling the “why” behind the idea rather than focusing on the idea itself. How will it help your peers and the company overall? How will it make everyone in the room look good?
Once you master making a compelling narrative for whatever you’re trying to convince your team or boss to do, you will be able to assume leadership roles and move projects forward with ease not known before. Of course, you will have to be able to deliver and execute on the idea but that’s for a later article.
Ask questions, be curious
When I hire, the No. 1 quality I look for is curiosity – the ability to ask great questions and genuine interest in understanding the bigger picture. I would advise everyone, not just aspiring executives, to practice and understand the importance of asking questions, which shows that you are thinking beyond your role. It illustrates your hunger for knowledge and for understanding the deeper “why,” which eventually could lead to important business solutions. Besides, those who portend to know-it-all, typically don’t.
As a business and communications strategist, I spend a lot of time asking the question beyond the question. Not just for clarity, but to better understand desired outcomes and how we can back into those. Curiosity can spark a pivot in a business plan, can make an executive rethink their approach, and can, above all, show your team that you are actually listening and are invested in their success.
No one owes you anything
A harsh reality but you must be your own biggest advocate. While mentorship is abundant, you have to seek it out, and even then, you have to do the work. And while you might do a great job at the work, you have to understand that you are not entitled to anything and that you have to make your own way. Your colleagues, your boss, your company should reward you for a job well done (and I hope they do) but they also don’t have to do anything for you, and once you understand that, you will likely make very different decisions in your career. Again: you are not entitled to anything. Always try to know your own value, seek out feedback from trusted advisors, and do some introspection. Believe that while you might be great, you are the person that will have to make your own success.
I can only imagine some of the pushback that may come from this column. But I stand behind it. I readily admit that I am an older millennial that was socialized in work in a much different way than the upcoming generations. However, I do believe there is no substitute for smart work, ambition, and a bit of tough love. If my previous leadership columns tell you anything it’s that I am probably the biggest proponent of rethinking how we work: I encourage everyone to set good boundaries, to not wear burnout as a badge, and to demand psychological safety. All of those wonderful tenants of a great workplace can exist, and both support and strengthened by the advice above. Onward.
Best known as an award-winning company culture whisperer and strategy guru, Sentari Minor has spent more than a decade cultivating new businesses, building brands and moving people and ideas at several category-leading enterprises and nonprofits in the Southwest. He received “40 Under 40” leadership recognition in 2022 from the Phoenix Business Journal and is currently Vice President of Strategy and Chief of Staff at evolvedMD in Scottsdale, Arizona, an Inc. 5000 firm. SentariMMinor.com
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto