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Ascending the Corporate Ladder

Shireen Alam
Shireen Alam
Director, Sapient Global Markets
Shireen Alam is a Director of Program Management in Sapient Global Markets and has been working w... more>>
I have read a lot of articles that cover this topic, and frequently find the advice interesting and applicable but funnily enough I never really did things at work to climb the corporate ladder. Early on I was lucky enough to find leaders that helped me understand that knowledge growth was more important than title changes. My project manager once told me, 'Focus on doing the right thing and the right thing will happen for you'. I was lucky that Sapient is that type of company and I have benefited greatly from this advice. As I continued learning, took on all kinds of opportunities and trusted my leadership, I grew at what I think is a pretty decent rate. Everyone's climb on the corporate ladder is different and so are the things that work for them. These are some things that worked for me at my company. I wouldn't discard these, if I were you, thinking that they only work in certain work cultures. I really do believe that most people will respond positively to the actions I have called out.

1) Multitask but devote yourself to one thing at a time.
My husband pointed out that I have quite the ability to focus on one thing at a time even when I am in the middle of something different, and that actually helps me deliver and others to trust that I will do just that. I will ask my sister-in-law to be very quiet in the car while I take a work call, or take a minute while I am walking to a meeting to check with my housekeeper that the gas has arrived. In general, in all cultures, women are always juggling multiple roles; therefore we need to be able to get varied things done quickly, one after the other. For me, that means that I can move between things pretty easily, and I focus on what I am doing at that one time completely. For my colleagues, it means I am available a whole lot more than I would if I couldn't move between things swiftly.

2) Be Goal Oriented
If you focus on setting expectations and delivering according to those goals, people will value your results rather than how and where you do your work. It makes it easier to ask for flexibility when people know that you can be trusted to meet your commitments.

3) Banish the guilt
I actually went into my office at the turn of the century to turn the project servers on and off. Believe it or not, I STILL don't regret it. It left me with a feeling of accomplishment, of being trusted by my leadership. Sure, people might have thought I had no life, or even laughed at me, but the sense of fulfillment I got, and still get from work is something no one can take away from me. I find, people expect you to manage so many other things, outside work, that if you prioritize work, you are almost disappointing people. At the end of the day though, if work is what you want to be doing, rather than the more traditional roles, do it without the guilt!

4) Be yourself
The way you behave with everyone, your teams, support staff, your leaders, all build a brand of you. If you are bubbly and loud, there is no need to cover that up at work; if you are shy, no need to push yourself to become the center of attention. Any forced attempts at being something else are always visible and most people are put off by them. If you are genuine, people automatically warm up to you and want to work with you, and there is no better way to climb any ladder than this! Frequently women are told to behave more like men, hide their emotions and so on. I have cried in front of my managers, lost my temper and told my teams when I have been down and all it did was strengthen my relationships with them. By the way, please don't read this as crate-blanche to act unbalanced, or emotionally unstable! I also don't hide the "feminine" aspects of myself, I love taking in my baking or cooking to treat the team because I know they enjoy those things. They also help build my relationship with them and help them accept the times when I am more demanding of them!

5) Find time to enjoy yourself in all kinds of situations
Life is only as fun as you make it. We don't always have time to dedicate to ourselves or to just relax, so find ways to multitask and enjoy yourself. Take a book to read or your iPad to play games when you are standing in line for immigration, or sitting at the doctor's office. Listen to musicon your way to work or make dinner while you are on a call! My husband always jokes that I will get into trouble if my mute button stops working, but I have to say, it is the best tool in the world! I am frequently cooking while working on conference calls and everyone leaves happy!

6) Be open to all opportunities
So often, I hear people ask if what they are being asked to do is a good opportunity. Before the days of extreme specialization, I have been asked to do all kinds of things, including being a developer that did content migration! I learnt some valuable lessons on that supposedly simple, boring project technology folks find a way to bring technology to all their work (e.g. writing scripts to aid migration), user experience work has more nuances that we can imagine and the folks that work in this domain have to be managed a little differently from technology people! These lessons have helped me time and again on SO many projects, it is unbelievable. I have gotten roles that I might not have had otherwise, and sell projects, and help my team and clients on their projects due to this exposure. As a result of my openness, I believe my leaders view me as a mulch-disciplinary person who can succeed in many different roles.

7) Listen carefully
People seem to only take constructive feedback when you sit them down in a room and tell them that they need to change something. Not everyone has the time to do this, or are even committed enough. You have to learn to pick up the cues people give you, it might be as simple as someone saying "I wish you had done xzy," or as blatant as your manager telling you your work product needed time from him to be cleaned up. Have you thought of "abc" might be their way of telling you to think through your solutions. Too often I see people ask over and over again why they aren't being promoted. We give them feedback, help them understand exactly what they have to do and yet they say I don't agree with this. My response is OK, that is your call but understand that this is what people think of you and until you manage these perceptions, not much will change. These people are also often those whoever paid attention when people were telling them what wasn't working!

8) Stay committed to your goals
Similar to the don't feel guilty if you love work, don't feel guilty if it isn't your primary driver either! Just be clear about your goals and stick to them. Be open to advice but don’t feel pressurized to always follow it and change direction! Also know that everyone has different goals, so their might grow at a different pace or get different roles. If you are at peace with your decisions, this won't matter to you, if you aren't, you will be unhappy. I have seen women feel like their careers are moving slower than other people, but they fail to recognize that they might have gotten other things that their counterparts haven't children, happy in-laws, a well-kept home, a calm and happy family life. So decide what you want and then work towards it and don't get carried away by other people's goals and achievements.

9) Be Patient
As I mentioned earlier, everyone grows at different rates, each a result of their strengths and growth areas. If you feel like you aren't moving fast enough, try to understand what is holding you back. Comparing yourself to others usually just leads to dissatisfaction since you won't have the complete picture. Also, six months, or even a year is hardly something you will remember over a 40 year career, so relax, you will make it up the ladder just fine, even if it takes a little longer.

10) Work hard
While some companies give employees flexibility in terms of how they work, don't assume this means you can slack off. In fact, those people that work from home or different hours, have more pressure to produce high quality deliverable. Ensure you are available by all the regular means when you claim to be working, phone, instant messenger, emails etc. Actually be on and reachable. Nothing is more frustrating for your team mates that are trying to reach you but can't.
I don't consider these tricks, at the very core, I recommend approaching your journey with openness to feedback, honesty in all your dealings, commitment to your own and your companies goals and faith in your own ability. I also think that one of the most important things you need is support in the house. I have, in the past, and even in writing this article, received a lot of very helpful feedback and suggestions from my husband. He is the one that taught me how to value my assertiveness rather than apologize for it! If you don't have that support, try to build it, after all, you will need it to climb the ladder!

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