Posted by Robert Half on 25 July 2014
Trying to become a senior executive at a top company is almost like trying to win a jersey at the Tour de France – an unenviably difficult task with few shortcuts.
It takes years of blood, sweat and tears to get into the position where you can even consider yourself a contender. Whether you're chasing the sprinter's crown, the King of the Mountains title, or even the mythical yellow jersey, you'll be up against the very best in your discipline.
Not only do you need the core skills and ability, but you have to be able to perform – no matter how trying the circumstances.
Starting your career
While some individuals are blessed with natural talent and aptitude, everyone essentially starts at the same point, with no knowledge or relevant experience. Businesspeople study in their chosen area, and begin the process of acquiring the hard and soft skills they need. Likewise, cyclists jump on a bike, learn how to ride and then enter their first races.
If you harbour dreams of success, you need to start gaining qualifications and experience to build up your CV, with a view to securing the job you want. If your ambitions are on the road, you need to win local races, then national ones, and start building up your palmarès. It's all about performance. If you prove yourself at a lower level, people higher up the chain will sit up and take notice.
Once you get a promotion, or secure a job with a larger employer, it’s the same as a rookie professional heading to Europe to join the UCI World Tour. There'll already be 20 talented and established teammates gunning for selection for the races you want to ride, and then once you've been picked, 20 other teams to race against. It could be years before you make a Tour de France squad, let alone be considered a potential jersey winner. Now you’re racing in the pro ranks, everyone's legs are stronger, the races are longer and the mountains are three times as high.
Using your talents
You may have lofty ambitions for your career, but as a newcomer, survival is the immediate priority. Regardless of natural talent and pedigree, and the grounding you've received in your chosen discipline, you need to prove you can survive in a dog-eat-dog world. This requires focus and drive – not to mention a little luck at times. Once you've established yourself in your role and are perceivably adding value, then you can think about moving up through the ranks.
Of course, there are strategies you can adopt to maximise your chances of success, largely where personal development are concerned. You can’t control what the opposition does, but you are always in a position to boost your own employability. Training, coaching and mentoring can help develop your strengths and allow you to work on your weaknesses. This means you are able to make the best of your ability, and deliver results for your employer.
Where possible, you should be looking to find something you can do better than everyone else. This makes you instantly more valuable to your employer, more respected by your colleagues and potentially more attractive to other suitors. Developing expertise in a specific area will create opportunities to show what you can do, and then it's a case of how well you perform.
Take your opportunity
Of course, you may need to be patient as you wait for your big break. There might be others who are following a similar career path to you, and who are slightly more advanced in their development. Although their chance may come first, there's nothing to say you won't catch up and overtake them in the mid-term.
It's like in road racing, where only a few riders in each squad are primed for victory in the big races. Unless you're the number one sprinter, climber or classics rider in your squad, you'll end up playing second fiddle for much of the time. Your job is to work as a domestique for the leader. You may only be carrying the water bottles or shielding your GC contender from the elements, but there's still chance to show your potential as a future race winner. First and foremost, you need to prove your credentials as a team player, and earn the respect of your peers.
Sometimes it pays to be patient as you seek career advancement opportunities, and wait for an in-house opening. Eventually, it may be your turn to take on a highly prestigious leadership role, providing you can prove you're the very best candidate. But at other times, it makes sense to move to another organisation, where there is less competition and a suitable vacancy.
Be a team player
Being a maverick talent will only get you so far in business. Employers are looking for leaders and decision makers, but they need to have strong people-management skills. Unless you're able to work well with others, and collaborate effectively with your peers, there could be obstacles to your progression.
It's the same in road racing, where teamwork is all-important. If you’re asking your teammates to ride for you and protect your interests, they have to be completely on-side. Not only must they trust and respect you as an individual, but they require complete, unwavering faith in your abilities. In a three-week stage race, it's impossible to compete at the front end of the field without their absolute support, whether on the flat or in the mountains. Unless you have your teammates around you, you'll get repeatedly attacked, swamped by rivals, and then dropped from the pack on the final climb.
This is why relationship-building is important in business, both with clients and colleagues. If you treat people well on the way up, and support them in the pursuit of their own goals, they may be your loyal lieutenants in the future. Conversely, trampling the opposition, in the ruthless pursuit of career advancement could leave you short of allies when you need them. When the opportunity for the top job comes along, employers may consider you to be too much of a risk to be a leader in their organisation.
Achieving your goals
Ability will only get you so far in business, or in the world of road cycling. In order to deliver on your potential, and rise to the top, you need more than just raw talent. It's about having a plan for the future, and being prepared to make a long term investment in your career. Every individual plots their own unique course to the top, according to their own skills, experiences and end goals. This may involve working your way up through the ranks at an organisation, or moving around in pursuit of new opportunities.
Either way, show dedication and commitment to the cause, and keep yourself in the best possible shape. To eclipse your rivals, you need a sparkling CV, fantastic employer references, demonstrable leadership experience, a positive reputation and an exciting vision. None of this comes easily, so be prepared to put in the hard yards. Do all this and you stand a chance of winning the race… and that is worth the effort.
This post originally appeared as Staying in the race: how to boost your career on the Robert Half UK blog.