At last we come to the third leg of building career momentum: becoming an expert on something useful within your organization. If you missed them, check out my posts on understanding why your job exists and finding the biggest challenges facing your company, they’ll give you the full context.
It may as well be a natural law that leadership teams always want to do more things than the organization actually can at any given time. That perpetual gap between the company’s ambition and its capacity might seem like a frustration, and it can be, but it also turns out to be the source of numerous opportunities to own something valuable early on. All it takes is identifying things that your company, division, or team want to try but don’t have time to spin up. If you pick a project that you can take pretty far by yourself and demonstrate its value, you’ll have successfully positioned yourself as the leading authority on something new. That not only shows that you can get things done, but it naturally puts you in demand as the sole source of knowledge on something. At the risk of stating the obvious, being a scarce resource is usually good for your career.
In the corporate hierarchy of needs, tackling some unfulfilled opportunities may not be as immediately valuable as addressing other challenges. If they were, people would likely be working on them already. However, the upside to this tactic is that unlike the sensitivities inherent in uncovering problems, it often simply takes raising your hand to get cranking on a project that no one else has been able to pick up. These kind of projects also tend to be more contained and thus easier for you to move forward on your own. So rather than view these two approaches in either-or terms, I see them as complementary tools for success. Think about painkillers versus vitamins. True, when my back hurts or I have a headache, relieving that pain is more important to me than my longer-term health is. But I still take vitamins on those days when I have a headache (even though they might be a total waste of money), because they address a different need for me. Moreover, the scarcity factor of being the sole authority on something is a great way to boost your visibility within the organization.
Like many things that make you a standout in your role, some costs are involved. Extracurricular projects mean more of your time since they are in addition to your regular responsibilities. You will have to find time to work on these side projects in the off-hours. The positive spin on that aspect is that because it’s a bonus for the business if these things get done, you can go a bit more at your own pace than with your regular work. One other potential downside is that the available opportunities for you to pick up may not have much to do with your longer-term aspirations within the company or in your career. Although being careful what you learn is good advice (future post on this coming soon) don’t worry about that just yet. Right now, your object is to build momentum from scratch. So by all means make sure that what you take on is reasonable for you to attempt and has provable value, but don’t be so picky that you pass up on great opportunities.
Becoming an “Expert” Can Actually Be Kind of Easy
At the consulting firm where I worked immediately after college, I was able to put this tactic to use quickly. This opportunity I jumped on was pretty basic, and to be honest it was kind of boring to me. But it was something our clients were asking about it and no one else had time to get immersed in the issue. Around 2007, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that publicly traded companies would henceforth have to disclose how much they paid their top executives. This was around the same time that stock options backdating scandals were gaining traction in the news, with figures such as Steve Jobs and Michael Dell among many others ensnared in the controversy. The growing public debate over executive pay was unwelcome to many of our clients, if for no other reason than it was one more regulation with which they had to comply. And as with many new regulations, a period of uncertainty ensued in which companies had specific questions that weren’t addressed in the preliminary guidelines. As “meh” as the subject was to me, it was a quick opportunity to be the sole source of wisdom on something.
Uncertainty across a broad swathe of industry is a gold mine for consultants, lawyers and pretty much everyone in the advice-giving business. When a new issue like this arises, firms quickly publish white papers, webinars and anything else they can to get the attention of potential new clients. That rapid response is important, because professional services firms like to project an aura of being always one step ahead of the game. We had no content to push out to make our company part of the story, and I guess the people who would normally own this were too busy with other projects. I volunteered to put some content together, and in the grand scheme of things it was easy. I didn’t know anything about this, so I just read what the ten largest law firms in the United States had published on the subject and everything the SEC had released. I put together a simple framework for what a conservative versus an aggressive position on the issue looked like. After a few days’ work we had some content that we could publish.
While on the one hand I solved a small problem for some of the managers and was a good team player, I got more out of it than the company did. With a little extra effort, I ingratiated myself to some new people and became a small part of our company’s marketing apparatus. It gave me something else to point to during my performance review. I also now had relationships with some new people whom I could now go to when I wanted to bounce ideas around. But the real benefit was the incremental exposure it gave me. When one of the senior consultants had a meeting with a client whom they knew wanted to discuss executive compensation stuff, it was always easier for them to just pull me into the call than it was for them to read all the stuff I already had. When I talked to their clients, I showed I knew what I was talking about enough to get invited to the next call. That mini-cycle played out with a few different colleagues while this was a hot button issue, and I made new contacts who clued me in to other things I ought to do. It’s pretty simple – you lighten someone else’s load, you help them look good, and they became a channel for you to learn about the business and find opportunities. It was enough to put me in the room for discussions that were on a higher level than what I usually did as an entry-level analyst. Networking in a nutshell.
The key thing about expanding your role through expertise like this is not letting it shrink back. You want to parlay the opportunity that you just converted into the next one and the one after that. Those new connections you forged outside your role have a shelf life, and if you don’t nurture them, they’ll wither. If the project that you picked has natural follow-ups, that’s great. Many times however they won’t, and you will need to go back on the hunt to find new ways to contribute and become an authority on something. But every time you do this successfully, you’ll have more people and channels that can funnel opportunities to you. That’s the definition of momentum, and creating it from scratch can be as simple as raising your hand.