Getting recognition and mentors in a big enterprise


So, you’re a younger person, working to climb the career ladder, but still buried somewhere in the lower-middle of the organization. How can you get recognition? How can you get a mentor — or mentors — well up the food chain helping you?

One way is to start demonstrating that you’re thinking about the business as a whole.

One of the hardest things for we humans to do is give up the things that got us to where we are. From “Ural is a Great Hunter” (but we’re now farming) in prehistory to IT managers having to stop being technicians and sales managers having to stop carrying a bag in a territory, career progression turns on acquiring and demonstrating new skills — which means your job doesn’t exercise some or all of the ones that got you to the position.

One of the toughest transitions that lies ahead is the one that shifts you from functional management — leading a function in the organization — to general management (leading many functions as an organization). Very few make that jump successfully. (It’s also a key part of the differences between being in an organization of some size and being in a start-up: in a start-up, everyone has to have some of the general management mindset.)

I watched an acquaintance of mine take all the right steps to get recognition and top-level support (mentoring and counsel) and then make one mistake.

He’d gone to work for a new company, having emigrated to Canada in the previous year. In his prior life, he’d been a general manager in a large multinational. He was used to asking and answering questions for himself about “what business are we in”, “where do our inputs come from”, “how do we add value to them”, “who are our customers” and the like.

Upon taking up a mid-level staff role attached to the Office of the Chief Information Officer, he set about understanding the business he’d joined. He analysed their inputs (this was a power distribution utility, and so the inputs were generation facilities) and discovered that the company’s internal generation capability wouldn’t keep up with demand — and in relatively short order (two or three years). They’d then have to buy power in from neighbouring utilities, which would change their cost profile dramatically. Given that they were (as are most utilities) price-regulated, they would have to fight to get the increases needed to maintain profitability.

He drew the conclusion that the company’s current strategy of doing deals with third-party power producers was equally unlikely to generate enough at low enough costs to make a difference. Then he wrote the whole thing up and gave it to his boss.

There was his wrong move. What he ought to have done is sent it to one of the senior vice-presidents, not as “analysis” but with a question attached: “I did this to understand our business since I’m new, but I must be making mistakes here. Can you help me understand what I don’t know about this?”

You see, not only was his immediate superior (the CIO) the wrong person to look at power generation questions — for the CIO, the only question this raised was “what the devil am I paying you to do, play business school? Get to work!” — but even if he had made a breakthrough insight it wasn’t in the hands of anyone who could do anything with the information.

On the other hand, demonstrating that you’ve taken the time to understand the company but have a serious question both alerts higher ups that you’re thinking like a general manager, and hands them the analysis without making any claims at all about it. “I must be making mistakes” takes all the pressure off.

(As it happens, he was right about the firm’s future — and they’re paying for it today. He, meanwhile, works somewhere else, with better prospects. But had he taken the information up appropriately, he might be one of the leaders of the firm today, and actually solving the problems he found.)

There’s a lot of advice out there about coming to interviews with questions that show you’ve taken the time to read the firm’s public documents and understand its business. Most of us then calmly drop back to the skills that got us to the position once we arrive.

Becoming someone’s protégé, on the other hand, can secure a career when all around it others are falling. A word to the wise.

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