Harvard Adviser: 5 Questions to Make Sure You Don't Get Stuck at the Start of a Career

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"I thought the expectation was that I'd just do my work and go home," Jane Chen (pseudonym) recalled from her early days as a financial analyst in corporate America. "I didn't know that speaking up in meetings, having 'face time' with higher-ups, and schmoozing at happy hours were even things I needed to think about."

After seeing colleague after colleague get pulled into high-profile projects and invite-only meetings while she buried her head in spreadsheets, Chen quit.

Chen is not alone. She is one of many professionals from diverse backgrounds I interviewed for my book, "The Unspoken Rules."

My big takeaway from Chen and countless others: For every person who bumps their head up against the "glass ceiling" (or "bamboo ceiling" for Asians) are countless others who never even get close to the ceiling because they never got off the "sticky floor."

How "sticky" is your floor? To find out, ask yourself five questions:

1. Am I aware? You can only navigate what you can perceive. Chen thought she was playing the same game as everybody else — only to realize that she wasn't.

To assess your awareness, ask yourself: "Do I know which behaviors get rewarded — or penalized — in my workplace?"

If no, compare the behaviors of the "high performers" on your team to those of others. Bias, discrimination, and double standards are definitely factors. The differences you observe can also tell you a lot about what you can do to avoid getting stuck.

2. Am I visible? Chen realized too late that you can only get ahead if people know that you exist. To assess your visibility, ask yourself: "Am I as seen, heard, and known as coworkers at my level?" If no, get in the habit of introducing yourself to higher-ups, sharing your work, learning about their priorities, offering to help, preparing talking points for that next meeting, and being ready to unmute yourself to speak.

3. Am I intentional? Just because you quit doesn't mean you failed — especially if you quit something you didn't want. The opposite is also true: Just because you're staying doesn't mean you're advancing — especially if you are in a dead-end job or on a path that doesn't excite you. To assess your intentionality, ask yourself: "Am I excited about the doors that will open if I excel in my current role?" If no, it's time to rethink whether you are climbing the right ladder.

Gorick Ng.
Photo by Nile Scott
Gorick Ng.

4. Am I mentored? As true as it may be that "it's not what you know but who you know," who you know also impacts what you know — and how to spend your time. To assess your level of mentorship, ask yourself: "Do I have someone to help me navigate the system at work?" If so, you have a mentor, even if you don't use such a title (and many don't). If no, look for someone a few steps ahead of you, ask how they got to where they are, and stay in touch with them.

5. Am I sponsored? It's not enough for others to push you up; you also need others to pull you in — especially if that high-profile meeting, stretch assignment, or high-potential or promotion list is invite-only. To uncover your level of sponsorship, ask yourself: "Do I have someone advocating for me when I'm not in the room?" If no, introduce yourself to more higher-ups, volunteer for them, and do a good job so they want to invest in you.

5 important messages for managers

Do you manage others? If the answer is yes, remember:

1. You wouldn't be where you are today if you didn't know the unspoken rules. Share this hidden knowledge with those who don't know what they don't know.

2. You wouldn't be where you are today if you weren't seen, heard, and known. Find someone who gets overlooked or talked over—and ask for their opinion.

3. You wouldn't be where you are today if you didn't say "yes" to certain opportunities and "no" to others. Ask about others' goals — and help others make more informed decisions.

4. You wouldn't be where you are today if you didn't have someone who looked around corners for you. You can be this person for someone else.

5. You wouldn't be where you are today if you didn't have someone advocating for you. You can also this person for someone else.

In the end, success in corporate America requires knowing how to get things done (hard skills), how to sell yourself and your ideas (soft skills), and how to work the system (navigational skills).

If you are a financial analyst like Chen, having the hard skill of knowing how to read financial statements is necessary — but it is not sufficient. You also need the soft skill of communicating the key takeaways buried in those financial statements. Moreover, you need the navigational skill of being selected to present those key takeaways in meetings. Lack those navigational skills as Chen did and you may be good at your job, but no one will give you credit for being good at your job. The floor can be sticky, especially if you are an "outsider" to the obstacle course that is corporate America. The right navigational skills can help you get unstuck — and help you reach your full potential.

—By Gorick Ng, the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of "The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right" (Harvard Business Review Press). Ng is a career adviser at Harvard College specializing in coaching first-generation college students and professionals. He is a first-generation, low-income college student, and a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School.

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