Many big organizations have “fast track” programs. When someone is selected to be a fast tracker, it usually means that the person is recognized as being a “high potential” person within the organization. With fast track/HiPo designation comes a variety of positions, often spanning the scope of the business, within a relatively short period of time. Relatively short means a few years rather than a few decades. Being a fast tracker isn’t a cake walk. Candidates are often given serious challenges within the organization, to see how they can perform. The payoff, of course, is increased responsibility and increased compensation.
However, most organizations don’t have formalized fast track programs. Sure, you may stumble upon a gracious mentor who can give you a leg up now and then but, on the whole, you’re on your own. No fear, though. There are plenty of opportunities to fast track yourself. No need to talk about it–in fact, it’s better that you don’t talk about your plans until you’ve racked up at least a couple of successes. Until then, talk like that just makes other people nervous and more likely to try and subvert your plans. So mum’s the word for now.
What follows is the blueprint for fast tracking yourself. There are no secrets to this, it’s pretty straighforward. The hardest part, frankly, is just having the patience to follow through with your plan.
The right work in the right place
This should come as no surprise. You’ve got to actually believe in the importance of your work and your workplace. You’ve got to dig it. If you don’t dig it, what are you doing there? If you don’t dig it, move on. This the the first hurdle, and it’s probably the biggest one. I’m pretty sure that relatively few people actually think about whether they believe in what they’re doing. Curt Rosengren calls it passion. Whatever you call it, trying to fast track yourself without it is a recipe for disaster. Seriously. You want to avoid a midlife crisis? Don’t invest 20 years of your life in something, only to wake up one day and realize that it was a 20 year waste of effort. That would suck. Find your passion, or whatever, and pursue it. That’s the first step. Don’t skip the first step.
Manage the boss
I wrote about this before (Pt. I, Pt. II, Pt. III, Pt. IV), and it’s just one part of the fast track equation. If you didn’t skip step one, then you probably have a pretty good sense of self-knowledge. Now it’s time to turn your focus to your boss. Get to know your boss. And I’m not just talking about hanging out with the boss at the 19th hole, either. That can be politically helpful, but it generally doesn’t help your execution. You’ve got to understand how your boss likes their information delivered. Written or spoken? Verbose or pithy? Is the boss a data freak, or do they more interested in subtotals? Figure it out and deliver it. The bottom line here is that a well managed boss will make your working life easier. A few more tidbits about managing the boss:
- Don’t talk smack about your boss. Ever. Best policy: don’t talk smack at all, but your boss is entirely off limits. If your boss’s boss, or similar, asks you direct questions about your boss, answer clearly and truthfully. But don’t trash talk.
- If your boss is clearly negligent in their duties (stealing company money or time, or similar misbehavior), rat ’em out. They don’t deserve your respect.
- Got a micromanager for a boss? Get there first. Tell them what you’re going to do and do it. If they still hover, ask leading questions that help them remember that your work isn’t their work. Resist the temptation to be blindingly obvious (Hey, don’t you have something more important to do?), unless you have a really, really good relationship with your boss and you can both laugh at his/her micromanagement tendencies.
- Got an undermanager for a boss? CYA is the answer (Cover Your…Assets) Over communicate with them. Leave no conversation unfinished without a “call to action” that includes deadlines and responsibilities. Follow up with this information via email, requesting a response. If you regularly get no response, start sending notes with ‘read reciept’ requests. This’ll give you a paper trail that’ll help CYA in time of need. Don’t over focus on CYA–your true goal is to help your boss get things done. If it means that sometimes you feel like you’re doing double duty as an administrative assistant, so be it. And don’t be surprised if your boss gets promoted or moves on without you. It happens–this isn’t the lynchpin of your fast track strategy, anyway.
- Is your boss pretty cool? Not really a micromanager, and not an undermanager? Sweet. All you have to do is practice good communication and respect the organizational chart. Keep your boss informed of what you’re doing, but don’t ask permission to do things. That just bogs down the boss. If you have concerns, never jump over your boss to their boss. Just don’t do it. Don’t even ‘cc’ their boss unless that person has already been included in the conversation by your boss. Respect the chart.
Two to five years
Spend two to five years doing your thing, and then start looking around. If you get promoted or reassigned within that timeframe, the clock starts over. Two years is the minimum for most white collar jobs. If your job is primarily physical labor and doesn’t require specialized knowledge or artistry, then you can cut the two years back to one. Go longer than the minimum if you dig what you’re doing, or just want to milk an easy assignment for a while longer. This is the important piece to your strategy. Spend too little time in a job, and you won’t gain sufficient mastery. Spend too much time in a job and you’ll start to be seen as a “lifer.” Someone who has found their organizational resting place and is content there. Always be aware of what you have yet to learn about your job and have a plan to acquire than knowledge. Once you begin to run out of ideas or inspiration, it’s time to start looking around for the next challenge. When you find your next challenge, make sure it actually is a challenge. You don’t want decision makers looking at your resume in a few years and recognizing that you’ve been coasting. When you find your challenge, research it a bit and give yourself the edge with the 100 Day Plan and the Full Frontal Personal Marketing Assault.
Don’t pursue the fast track unless you have a clear idea of where you’re headed. Sure, it’s fun to explore the company and learn lots of new things, but you’ll eventually be asked to explain your choice of jobs. This is when you can begin to let the cat out of the bag and talk about your plans. If you’re spending at least the minimum time in a given job, then you’ll have plenty of time and opportunity to figure out the “why” of your fast track program.
That’s it. Your personal fast track. Should be obvious that this isn’t for the faint of heart or those who can’t remember to take their Ritalin. This is a long term strategy and it takes patience and courage to pull it off. Good luck.