I was chatting with a friend recently and asking her thoughts on things when she said that she was curious of my thoughts on who you should be trying to impress. That one hit me like a 2×4 between the eyes because it is something I have thought so much about and really changed over the years. I think she meant the question simply enough, should I be focused on my direct supervisor and working to impress them? Would it be better to look a few levels above my supervisor and either try to impress someone higher up or a combination of that up line? What if my supervisor and their boss or above aren’t aligned? Do I look at the organization as a whole and attempt to impress the organization? Spoiler alert, my answer to all of this is, no.
There was certainly a time in my life when my answer would have been a whole hearted YES to all of them and I could have given you a 10 step program on how to stack your value and alliance within the company on top of each other to make the best impression on all levels. I am a driven, attentive, and strategic person and I have no doubt that if I wanted to do that I could and I could coach you or her to do the same. By focusing on impressing all of the above, you could make huge advancements in your career in a short amount of time. The question is, is that who you want to impress? Who do you want to impress?
This is a question I’ve had to ask myself. I was doing all of the things and doing them well. I had learned how to impress my boss and the levels above me. I joined all of the internal organizations that would help in making an example of my abilities and work to a wider breadth of the company. I was even starting to figure out how to make myself seen at engagements outside of work that would increase awareness of just how aligned I am personally with the values and mission of the company. When you are that wrapped up in work you can do some pretty awesome things there but you only have so much bandwidth. For every evening you spend putting finishing touches on a project or presentation, there is an evening you’re not connecting with your kids or your spouse. For every early morning you spend answering emails, there is a morning you’re not working toward your own goals. For every Friday night you spend at events to show your alignment with the organization, there is a night lost building strong friendships. Every single time you make that choice you’re making a tradeoff. As I tell my kids, and my husband, there are consequences for every decision. Sometimes positive, sometimes negative, sometimes immediate, and sometimes delayed but there are always consequences. I was so out of balance that I wasn’t considering the longer-term negative consequences of the choices I was making. I looked only at the positive impact it could have on my career. I was working for the company.
This is a job, one part of life not the whole thing so get it together. (This is a thing I said out loud to myself driving in to work one day when this whole thing dawned on me.) This was a part of a bigger picture where I finally got to a point where I would remind myself that I don’t work for them. It took a little bit of time for me to really understand and come to terms with who I do work for. I work for God, I work for myself, I work for my family and loved ones, and I work for my team. I might do work for the company and want to do a fantastic job at it, but I don’t work for them, similarly to how you would do work on your home. You might do a ton of work in remodeling the kitchen. It could end up gorgeous, be efficient, increase the future value of the home, and make you incredibly proud. You would still know the difference in that scenario, of doing work on your house and working for your house. Same concept in my career, I’ll do great work for them but I no longer work for them.
Understanding who I work for had a profound impact on how I make those decisions. It realigned what I was doing with why I was doing it. If I work for the Lord (the why) and need to accomplish that by working in the morning when I’m fresh and at my most creative, then I use that to determine the task to accomplish (the what) study the Word, write, or answer emails (emails almost never wins that choice). If I work for myself and will accomplish that by working over lunch when my mind needs a break, then I decide to accomplish something for myself like a lunch meeting with people I enjoy or giving myself a full break with a quick run. If I work for my team and I need to accomplish that by connecting with them regularly, I will make consistent time to connect with them through team meetings and one-on-ones rather than emails pushing down information. Or lets go back to our kitchen example, if I’m working for my family and need to accomplish that by remodeling the kitchen, then I’ll design it in a way that is conducive to meeting their needs, like doing homework and being able to be messy while I teach them to cook, rather than meeting the magazine standards.
Beyond helping to prioritize what is done to meet the why I’m doing it, this structure also allows me to prioritize and keep things in perspective while working on tasks for work. If I am working for the Lord while answering emails, I am focused on giving grace and standing for right. If I’m working for my loved ones while checking off to-do’s, I’m working efficiently and effectively so I don’t “need” time later. If I’m working for my team while doing a project, I am giving credit for all of the hard work they put into it. If I’m working for myself in all of it, I can find margin to be part of special projects that interest me.
Like I said in the beginning, I think the original question was simple enough. Who do you try to impress? My answer is don’t try to impress your boss, or their boss, or anyone else up the ladder. Impress yourself by taking control and flipping the narrative. Ensure the organization has values that align with what is important to you. Determine who and what you work for. Then structure your time and your tasks to support that.
Things I’m reminding myself of
Your values come first. This is something that waxes and wanes with time. I am rarely walking a straight path toward my values however I strive to have the steps to the left and right to be fewer and fewer as I move forward. Work hard to maintain focus on those values, but know it is hard and you will fail. Don’t beat yourself up for going off course once in a while and working for others that aren’t on your list.