I promised you that today I would be talking about How to get ahead. It is an interesting subject because nobody is going to tell you about it. I don’t mean to get ahead in a sort of negative way where you go around back stabbing people that is not what I mean. I mean advancing in your career or whatever it is that you want to do so that you can be able to achieve your objectives.
To get ahead means you didn’t go to a place to get stagnant. You want to become something. You want to grow. You want to get to the top. That is what we all want when we get into these places. This is the topic I want to share about. It’s the corporate life I lived. It was more than just the work I did. It takes more than just being able to produce, it’s about relationships. It’s about who you deal with and how you deal with them that really impacts your journey. Otherwise just doing a good job on its own is not enough.
First things first, you really need to have an honest conversation with yourself. The conversation is essentially about what does ahead mean for you? You have to figure out what ahead means for you so that when you start out the journey of going to that ahead, it is very clear in your mind that what it represents. For some people, ahead is being promoted in certain offices. For others it’s about getting a lot of money, to others it is about being recognised as employee of the year every year. Some its prestige, others it’s just getting recognition. All those amount to “getting ahead.”
The thing you need to work out for yourself, before you even begin to wonder which direction am I going to go and so on is; how am I going to get ahead? The tools you will need will be determined by the ahead.
What is it that represents progress or ahead for you? Once you figure that out, you are good to go. If you don’t, you will be a drifter. You will keep being tossed by the waves and winds. You will not be able to make the progress; you will just be going where the winds blow you. Today, you find people going to the market, you will just follow them. Tomorrow you will find those going to the night club and you follow them, you will never have your own agenda. So it is important to define what ahead means for you. That means you have to develop a personal agenda that represents your journey of progress. For example, you can say in seven years, I want to be the Managing Director of Absa Bank, or whatever it is that you want to be. Then your journey of getting ahead begins.
1 Get ahead on your own. For you to get ahead, you need to relate with/to other people. Remember one thing, you must develop what is called people skills, if you have a prickly personality; people cannot stand you, you never get beyond where you are now. Let’s start with very basic small things; try and be good company. Let’s try and being with very basic issues. If your hygiene is a problem, nobody is going to want to hang around you. The only talk about you is that ‘this guy smells’. Once you acquire such a reputation, people will never want to be in your company. Nobody wants to help you to grow. If, however on the other hand you invest in being likable, not liked. The two are completely different. People find it easy to get along with you. That is a very good beginning.
2 Get along with people. Are you able to hold conversations with people? Do you understand people? It is that one attribute that people will feel needs to be rewarded. The reward will come either with a recommendation, an opportunity. They will entrust you with responsibility. It is important that your human relations are developed over time. If you want to be a monk, go to the mountains and contemplate for the rest of your life. You can grow a beard if you wish. But, if you want to get ahead you must learn how to relate. You must accommodate different cultures. Forget about your prejudices that you learnt at home. Some of us think we have a good sense of humour when, in real sense, what we call humour is hurtful to people. Know how to relate and engage with people. Personally, one of the skills that I developed was to get along with people. Just be likable not liked. Likable. Be able to make other people relate with you at the level of conversation but also at the level of hygiene. If you don’t bathe for days or have a bad breath, stay away from people. Please, if there is only one lesson you take away today, you will need people skills if you need to get ahead. it is those people who will propel you. It is those people who will be making decisions whether they are your peers, juniors or seniors. They will be making decisions and taking actions based on their opinion of you.
3 You need communication skills. That is not a negotiable position. If you cannot deliver or express what you are expected to communicate, forget it. People will not know what you stand for or what to do for you. So you will always remain stagnant. It is such people that talk for a full day without making a point. It is always the sleek talkers who always get the best girls, best deals… those people know how to persuade. They know how to make their way. My colleague Tony Otoa is going to do a session on public speaking. It is important for you to know how to express yourself effectively.
I will never forget; I think it was my first week as a legal officer at The New Vision. Mr William Pike was the Managing Director at that time, he sent me a letter from some lawyers and asked me to write a reply to them. I then wrote a reply using the language I had learnt at Law Development Centre (LDC). I remember using the word ‘obdurately’ so as to impress Mr. Pike with my English. Those days he was very explosive. He crossed out so many things in my letter and from that he taught me very important lessons that have lived with me till today. i.e.
- Make it simple. He told me when you are communicating, communicate in a very simple language. When you are speaking, use the simplest words people can understand. Unless your intention is to impress. Make it simple. It may scare your supervisor who may think you are trying to outdo him which might negatively affect your ahead.
- Write short sentences and paragraphs. Do not write a paragraph of one sentence. Keep your sentence not more than seven words. That has worked wonders for me.
- Lord Denning. This I learnt at Law School from one of the famous judges. His style of judgment was that he indicated the decision first and then gave the justification after wards. I picked that up as a principle. In all my communication, the first thing I deal with is my request. If I am writing requesting for something, I will immediately indicate in my opening paragraph “I’m writing you to request for permission to buy a gun.” So the point is made at the beginning.
4. Acknowledge the power at different levels. I will tell you another story. when I was appointed to set up the Uganda Media Centre, I quickly realised I was dealing in a different setting, different from the one I knew at The New Vision. I had to understand very quickly how things are done in the civil service. And that there is hierarchy, there is process and procedure. Every person at the different levels is powerful and they can make your life impossible. If you don’t acknowledge that power and go with it, you cannot go there and start hoping to bulldoze your way around, so I learnt that the person I had been handed over to supervise me was a mother to a good friend of mine. When I went to talk to her, I introduced myself as a friend to her son. Immediately at that point, she changed from being the official I was dealing with to being my mother. She adopted me as a foster son. She was now invested in my success at the media centre.
She handed me over to someone and directed him to help out with whatever I needed. That gentleman I was handed to then took me to his office and gave me a lecture on how the government processes work. The thing he told me was if you ever need anything done, come to me directly. Don’t go anywhere else, at that point I learnt that there was no reason of ever going above this man ever again. It would look like I was reporting him, from that day onwards I learn to how to deal with these offices.
5. Acquire the knowledge of power dynamics. Understanding the power dynamics of the places that you are in. You must invest in it, whether it is family, business or whatever. You owe it to yourself to get ahead. You must be in charge of the process of getting ahead. You have the obligation to understand what holds what type of power. Remember there will always be all sorts of people purporting to be the movers and shakers. There will be real movers and shakers, then there are bull shitters; these are always name dropping, so you can know who is who. Never mix offices and power. There are some people with offices but do not have power. There are other people without offices but have the power. Take the example of personal assistants. I have been on the other side. I know people who have come and mishandled my personal assistants and failed to get access to me. Please be forever polite with people who control access to the people who matter to you. They are more powerful than you think. Your papers can varnish until the day you acknowledge that this person exists and it does not cost you a thing. Be polite and humble. Understand the power dynamics of the location, they will determine whether you progress or stagnate.
6. Be polite and humble with everyone and express your gratitude to these people. Always make the people you are dealing with feel important. You never know where these people will end. I can give a testimony. Because I promised myself that I would unfailingly be polite and nice to people, there were three people who were working for me. Two of them were under my training, they became Members of Parliament and another became a Minister and my supervisor. Things change, people who are below you today, have the ability to move ahead of you, and tomorrow become something.
7. What benefit do you bring to the table? If you are not bringing any benefit then think differently. Invest in knowledge or a skill that other people with power over you might need. It must be something that they might want to have. It could be that you are just the funny guy that helps the boss ease pressure in the afternoon when he is tired. Or you have such a specialised skill that the success of your supervisors is dependent on you having that skill. That though shouldn’t make you arrogant. That should instead help you leverage your growth. You can make yourself indispensable to the success of your supervisors and they will carry you along. Know your value. It had better not be a commodity.
You owe it to yourself to identify that. Some of you lie to yourselves that your boss does not like you. No. The boss has not been impressed by you. The fault is yours. Think. Why am I failing? Ask yourself that very brutal question. If you don’t, you will stay where you are.
You need to understand the other people you work with. Do you have enough emotional intelligence to understand those people and their circumstances? I used to tell guys at office to invest in understanding the circumstances of their supervisors including their personal lives. You might find that your supervisor is abused at home and they impose that on you at office. Once you have appreciated that, you find a way to handle them.
You must not only make yourself likeable but also credible. Those with power must be able to trust you with the work they are giving you. You do that by doing more than you are doing now without them asking you. Like Daudi Nanambi said recently; “If you need to do a report and the boss needs it on Tuesday, present it on Monday evening to ask for their comments and how you can improve it.” That is how people get ahead because they put in extra. Extra is not about singing praises. The moment you get in the praise singing, you are in great trouble.
8. Exercise Patience. There is a quote attributed to Warren Buffet, I don’t know whether it is correct, he says you cannot short circuit a pregnancy of nine months by making nine women pregnant and hoping that the pregnancy will last one month. Somethings will take time. Are you ready to wait for the process to play out, you’ve got to have patience? What that means is that you should have a long term view. Very few people have the capacity to develop a long term view of their lives. You should be able to visualise that ahead in twenty years. Some of you are impatient, you arrive at the organisation and within two/ three years you want to be the Executive Director. The guy in the corner has been at it for 20 years. You are going to learn to be patient. Some of the challenges you are going to face as you grow will have to deal with a certain amount of experiences, so develop the patience. The self-restraint to know that maybe you are not ready to grow. It is as simple as that. The moment you know that, certain things will happen at a certain time; in their right time.
There are exercises that you can do to build your patience. Put yourself in activities where you can feel embarrassed, humiliated or aggravated. For example, I do long distance running. I learnt this from a guy who came to work at The New Vision. He was a Senior Editor. He taught me a trick I have since applied. He said whenever he was going to have a difficult meeting, he would wake up early and go for a swim that was so tiring that by the time he came out, nothing so extreme he would meet in the meeting would shake him. I now also apply that principle. If I know I am going to go for an engagement that will try my patience, where I will require self-control, that morning I do a brutal run. By the time I go for that meeting nothing can be matched to the brutality I suffered in the run.
For women, there is a particular attribute they suffer from because of the patriarchal set ups that disadvantage girls. There is a lot of self-doubt and shyness amongst the women and some of the boys. When it comes to the brutality of going ahead, they hold themselves back in the name of not wanting to be caught up in the rat race, competition and things like that. The problem with shyness and doubt is that those who are confident then move ahead. If you doubt yourself, you need to start working on it now. You have come this far alone, why doubt your abilities. Believe in yourself. You will never move. You will step down even when opportunities present themselves. You have to deliberately fight that. That is how things will sabotage your ability to move forward. You will then never take on the opportunities when they come up. Because you are always unsure of yourself.
9. Have a sense of humour. You need it because the process of getting ahead can be very brutal and humiliating. But you need the ability to get yourself out of your circumstances and laugh at them, so that when other people laugh at your failures, you’re not discouraged. That helps you to pick yourself up and move on. If you don’t have one, find ways in which people get one. It is one thing that has worked well for me. I developed a sense of humour in completely different circumstances. In my childhood and upbringing. By the time you come to make fun of me, I have already done so. This helps me dust off the experience and move on to the next thing.
10. Know who you are. Many of you don’t know this, then you are in big trouble. You then won’t know which skills to apply. You need to invest in who you are and why you are the way that you are. The question of kiss ass. Excuse my language. If you are going to do that, then you need to figure out where the power is. If you decide to kiss ass, it’s all up to you. The thing here is that the ass you are kissing should be able to take you the places you want. People will call you names but as long as it is delivering you to your promised land, do it. But if you are doing it and you don’t know why you are doing it, then you are being used. And you are no doing anything for yourself.
Opens Q & A. Here is the link to the Q& A