Who Are You Trying To Impress?

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.

Wisconsin Nice

Have you ever heard of Wisconsin Nice? See also, Minnesota Nice and Midwest Nice. Have you heard of these concepts? I hadn’t until I started to meet vendors and business partners from around the country. They would walk into the building, introduce themselves, and before we would even get to the conference room for the meeting, training, collaboration, etcetera they would consistently comment on how nice everyone was. They’d add some quick story about a gas station attendant or a random person who offered directions and how everyone was just so nice. Often they would follow with something to the effect of, “That’s a thing here though right? Being Wisconsin Nice?

I didn’t know it was a thing here but I did jump in with open arms. Now that I know about our nice calling card, I go even more out of my way to be nice to people. I want to be part of the quick stories about how nice we all are and I want all the people who are interacting with me to feel like those outside business partners do when they come here. I have always been nice to people I meet in passing, holding doors, smiling at anyone and everyone that makes eye contact with me, complimenting friends and complete strangers, assisting folks who appear need a hand with a cart or grocery bag, and buying a coffee here or there for some unsuspecting person in the car behind me in the drive through. Finding out about our thing didn’t make me nice but it did encourage me to up my game.

For some of us, being nice is fully engrained into us. We’re taught, especially as women, that nice is a critical part of who you need to be. For people like me, who already tend toward the more blunt and spicy side of our personalities, having the nice thing heavily encouraged is probably a positive. (Not that I wouldn’t be nice to people if there wasn’t a social norm but I do think it helps even out what would otherwise be a very spiky view of my niceness and spiciness.)There are others though that are more sweet and caring by nature, and when you pile on the nice culture, it’s just too much. I have a dear friend who is one such sweet lady. She would truly do anything for anyone and then apologize that she didn’t also provide chocolate chip cookies while doing it. To give you an idea, I once saw her apologize to a traffic light because she didn’t make it all the way through before it turned yellow. Traffic lights aside, there are many stories of her going out of her way for friends and strangers who were unappreciative or using her in some way. Each time I heard one of those stories I would quip back with how I would handle the situation only to be met with a, “oh I should, but I could never.” She never wanted to hurt anyone or cause any sort of negative reaction. If anyone was ever upset with her (justified or not) she would take it so very personally. I don’t know that any of us are ever truly ambivalent to another person being upset with us but some people, like this friend, take it as a personal assault and pile on themselves. (Could you imagine if you felt like you wronged a traffic light by driving through it how much harder you’d be on yourself if a person told you that you hurt them?!)

There was one instance where a man we worked with was clearly taking advantage of her kindness, generosity, and sweet nature. She would cover his shifts consistently at a moments notice. She would pick him up from nights out with his friends when he couldn’t drive himself home. She would listen endlessly as he described his latest heartbreak, work stress, or other general complaint. Finally when he attempted one such call she timidly told him she was with other people and couldn’t talk (while apologizing). He tried to convincer her to leave or walk into another room and she declined offering to call later. He was angry with her over this for weeks and she was distraught. She couldn’t understand how he’d be so angry after she was so nice. I explained that she sort of trained him to expect she’d always be there. Heck, she was training all of us to expect that. There were many of us, myself included, that (although the friendship was more reciprocal than how that man approached a friendship with her) had come to expect she would always be there for us. She would always be the shoulder to cry on, cover our work shifts, or heaven forbid pick us up late at night. We never would have reacted the way he did should she say no but on the rare occasion it happened you were taken aback that she didn’t just jump in. Why is that? You were rarely told no, when you were the reasons were mixed, and it was only after you had crossed the line multiple times.

This happens daily in an office setting and you don’t even have to go to the extreme of my sweet friend to have it occur. How many times you gotten feedback for the first time but the person delivering it sounds as if they feel like a broken record? How many times have you been corrected on a behavior but the reason behind the corrections keeps changing or your asked to change and they why is a moving target? Or worst yet you walk into a meeting about your performance and walk out unsure if what you did was right or wrong? If I keep this up for another six months, will I get promoted or fired? I don’t know about other areas but around here we really all are Wisconsin Nice and we don’t want to hurt feelings. Because of that we do things like wait for the problem to become a pattern. We avoid providing feedback until we’re so frustrated we’re about to erupt. We sort of dance around the problem, or my personal favorite, pepper it with so many compliments to soften the blow that no one knows what we’re saying.

There is a way to avoid this. As in most things, it can be applied to both personal and professional life alike. First, you need to create the foundation which includes explaining the intention of what you’re doing and why followed by making the plan for how you’ll execute. Second, you need to provide the feedback timely. Third, be abundantly clear on what needs to be corrected or developed and why. Finally, keep the conversation to the thing/event/problem at hand. While you may need to clarify performance on the whole compared to this one incident or area, keep 90% of the focus on the point of discussion.

Set the foundation and create a plan.
If you’re new to formally leading, or working with a new group, this could be part of your manager integration with your team explaining your leadership (including feedback) style. If you’ve been in the role a minute you can own that this is an area that you’re developing in and explain to the team your plan to improve. It might look like:
I recognize that some of my coaching and feedback delivery may have been lacking in the past. I am committed to improving that. Going forward I intend to provide frequent feedback on what you’re doing well and areas to improve. Please expect constructive feedback in your one-on-ones and in real time. My intent is to see you grow and develop and it is my job to assist you in that. If you have any questions or ever feel unsure of your performance in some area please ask.
Once you’ve laid the ground work you just need to follow through.

Provide timely feedback.
Give the feedback to the person as soon as possible. People need to understand what was done wrong and the context of the error. Waiting for review time or even the regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings can be too late for the person (or you) to remember exactly what happened and give detailed information. On the other hand, if the topic caused any sort of emotional response in either of you, it is best to allow yourselves time to think level headedly about the situation before jumping in.

Be as clear and specific as possible.
Talking around an issue or muddling many different ‘why’s is confusing. People can’t understand what it is that they are getting feedback on if you are vague, or waffling on an issue, providing a moving target. The recipient of the feedback wants to improve so they want a clear understanding of the errors and how to move forward. The model I try to follow in this, and move communications, is gratitude, why, what, and how (empowering when possible). This might look like:
I appreciate the work you’re putting into the quality of your work. The quality of your work exceeds my expectations however while looking at the metrics recently I’ve noticed that your production is low. The success of the team depends on each person meeting their goals and expectations. The expectation is that you complete 20 calls per day and your average is currently at 15 and on a downward trend. This is leaving more calls for other teammates to handle. What do you think is standing in the way of you completing 20 calls per day? _____ How can we make improvements here?

Keep the focus on the thing, not the person, or other people.
All too often people start out on the right foot giving feedback but either the recipient takes it personally or the provider of the feedback assumes they will and goes off course. They will start bringing in motives for behavior or assuming other people’s intent. This will take a turn quickly I promise you and the recipient won’t know what to actually follow. If someone tries to take you off course on a personal level, bring them right back to the objective. You’ll notice in the above example that I never said “you should be able to hit 20 calls per day” or “everyone else on the team is able to hit 30 calls per day.” That is because both of those come across accusatory and truly don’t matter. What does matter is that there is an objective that isn’t being met.

All of the above applies if you’re receiving the feedback as well. First, even if your manager doesn’t go so far as to explain their communication and feedback styles you can assume they want you to understand your performance early and often. Not because everyone wants to communicate that way but they do want you to fix all missteps quickly regardless of if they understand their role in that or not. If you’re not getting consistent feedback, ask for it. “How did you think I handled that meeting?” “Was that last document what you were looking for or do you have suggestions for next time?” If you’re getting unclear information or personal feelings are getting mixed in, stay objective and suggest a solution. This might look like:
So if I’m understanding you right I need to keep the quality of my calls where it is and increase the number I take, correct? I run into issues when customers have many questions. I’m not sure how to end the conversation to get to the next call and still provide the service they expect. Maybe I could work with someone to create a list of possible closings that allow me to get off the call sooner?

Being Wisconsin Nice is a thing we do here and it has its perks but when it gets in the way of continuously improving ourselves professionally, or personally, it has got to go. Don’t be afraid to be direct and bold in providing and receiving info on things that aren’t serving yourself or others. The perk of the nice is that it allows us to be direct and bold while holding compassion of the person and assuming the best intent.

Things I’m reminding myself of

All of this applies to giving yourself feedback (self-reflection) as well. I cannot tell you how many times I have screamed in my head, ‘OMG you are so dumb.’ (Not exactly fitting in my gratitude, why, what, how framework right?) Do not talk to yourself like that. Give yourself timely, clear, and actionable feedback often but do it constructively. Learn from the mistake and move on to improve.

Clear is kind, unclear is unkind, Brene Brown. I love this quote and have adopted is as a mantra, and I kind of think all my Wisconsin Nice friends should do the same. We are vague because we’re trying to be nice and it just isn’t. Being clear is always kind.

You are always training people how to behave and interact with you. If you tolerate something inappropriate you’re condoning it. Be that being late in a role that requires promptness, not making enough phone calls, or mistreatment of you personally. If you allow it you are training people to continue it. Remember that and set your boundaries of what is acceptable for you in this type of work, in this season of life, etc. Correct people if they are approaching or stepping over those boundaries every time.

Value Hierarchy Wrap-Up

I was in a really hard place, feeling like I wasn’t valued at all within my company, when I finally thought all the way through how organizations show value in their employees, as I briefly explain in The Value Hierarchy. As painful and frustrating as that time was, it helped me to grow. It helped me refocus on what was important and learn how to take control when it felt like I didn’t have any. It also helped me become more aware of times when the value started to build. When you have an awareness you’re able to appreciate it more and be more intentional around cultivating the response you want. I have one final thought on the hierarchy for you to consider and then, in the spirit of being able to learn from one another so we don’t have to learn all the lessons the hard way, I want to jump right into the reminders.

These last few posts we have discussed a lot of where you are in The Value Hierarchy. My hope is that you have a better understanding and awareness of where you are. If you wish to move beyond your current level I hope you feel equipped to starting taking steps in that direction. There is more than just you in this equation though. Have you thought about where your boss is in the hierarchy? Are they highly revered in the group or are they relying on their title exclusively? Do they speak to the values and the culture of the company or do they spend time tearing others down or complaining about pay? Do they seem to have their bosses ear or do they think of your team as a loan ship at sea? If you’re looking and listening for it you’ll get lots of clues on what level they are in and that is important to understand. It is nearly impossible for you to rise above the level they are at in the hierarchy if they are the only leader or mentor you’re aligned with. It is incredibly difficult to get to autonomy for example if your leader is in status/title because they aren’t being empowered to be able to empower you. If you’re in this situation, this is a great opportunity for a mentor, for someone to align with who you can choose and seek out that is where you want to be value wise, or above.

I was in this situation a few years back when first being promoted to a new role. I had come into the role all starry eyed and excited to this step toward my goals and was coming off of working with one of the best leaders I could imagine. He was wonderful and I had infinite amounts of respect for him and he was well respected and valued within the organization as well. He was often put on projects outside of his normal job, sent to different classes to learn anything and everything, and was afforded opportunities to travel and help other groups in the organization; he was certainly in the Influence level. After the promotion however I was aligned with a remote manager who, looking back, was in the Status level. She was both micro managed and ignored by her own leader and not empowered to complete much work other than micro managing us. It was so hard. To add insult to injury the assumption became that our team must be floundering for her lack of leadership which was wholly untrue. Over time, I began to realize that I would have to work twice as hard to be considered what similar employees on other teams were. There was no amount of working with my manager that would help either. So, I reached out to my old familiar mentor that I had worked so well with in the past. Not only did he help me see other areas to develop in and make actionable suggestions of how to improve, he provided a sense of inspiration and hope. This combination both equipped me and pushed me into the next step in my career. As I said, it is nearly impossible to derive value from the organization if the leaders you’re aligned with aren’t themselves valued. Make sure you’re aligned with someone who is able to bridge that gap for you.

Now, let’s look at some of the other teachings that I gained and I hope you’ll take away as well.

Things I’m reminding myself of

Never run from something, always run toward something else. Sometimes hard things bear the best fruit so don’t just rush through them or out of them. Allow yourself to go through it and feel and learn and grow from that space. If you’re in a hard season or a toxic environment take control and start planning and preparing yourself to make a change but only make the change when you have something to run to. Find something that lights you up and excites you while objectively checking the boxes of what you enjoy from the current situation and what needs to be improved.

Communicate your success. This isn’t bragging or puffing out your chest this is brining light to the great work that you’re doing. It is difficult for your company, your boss, your spouse, your friend, (the list goes on you get the point) to appreciate and value all that you bring to the table if they don’t know what that is. We all have enough on our plates and don’t have capacity to be investigating for all things done well, so share them.

Be open but intentional in all areas. Allow yourself to consider alternative options and opportunities that come your way and while keeping your intentions in the back of your mind. While one development opportunity, job offer, meeting invite, or project suggestion may not at first make a lot of sense, if it aligns with your intentions, consider it. You’ll be astounded at what you’ll get out of the out-of-the-box experiences.

Only you can put in the work to build your value within the organization. You don’t have to strive for influence or strive for any particular level really. For many people it isn’t even about trying to achieve any specific level but rather being aware of the level you’re in and what level of effort is getting you there. Sort of like a check and balance. If you’re working your tail off to bring value to the organization and but the organization is seeing you as brining value enough to supply you a paycheck that is cause for a conversation. Conversely, if your organization is valuing you to the point that they trust you to make autonomous decisions and speak for the group, be aware of the gravity of what that means from their perspective and take it seriously.

One of the most interesting things I’ve learned through developing this hierarchy is that it not only builds up, as any hierarchy would, it also cascades down naturally. On any level within the hierarchy when you make gains in the level you’re in, you are increasing your ability to make gains in the levels below it. Let’s just start with Development, right in the middle, if you increase your level of development you will increase your status within the team or organization which will likely increase your compensation. Moving up to the top, if you’re given the opportunity to influence you’re creating for yourself increased autonomy, the autonomy allows you to grow in your understanding which is further development, resulting in increased status, and likely increased compensation. It is almost as if while you’re climbing the mountain you’re adding rocks and fill to the layers below you effectively raising you even higher than you thought you could go.

Influence

Having influence is your ability to impact how someone else behaves or believes. As we talked before in Do you want influence or control, we are influencing people all the time. In the context of the company or organization showing value for your influence it would, like other topics, involve their support of your influence and the furtherance of it by putting you in situations that will better enable you to influence others.

How does it show they value me, or don’t?

The organization increasing your ability to influence and intentionally putting you in situations to use your influence and impact how others in the organization think or act says that they believe in, and strongly value, what you bring to the table. They are encouraging you to further connect with people in the organization and impact them because they believe it will have a positive impact for the organization as a whole. Think about that, that is a pretty big vote of confidence. This level is even more powerful because it is again very visible to others where the value is being placed however it is more subtle. Think of the last time you were in a staff meeting or smaller team meeting. Typically whomever the formal leader is will facilitate the meeting but at some point in the meeting they often reach out to another person who attended, Tina did you have anything to add? John did I miss anything on that point? Suzanne I’d like you to take the lead on this next item. That leader is telling the group that this is a person I listen to and care what they think so you should too. It can happen in other, even more subtle ways too. If you’ve ever come home to have a kid tattle on a sibling right in front of your spouse you’ve probably done it yourself. The kid starts telling the story and you instinctively look at your spouse for a nod of confirmation or a raised eye brow indicating the story may have changed from it’s original form. The same thing can happen in the workplace too (and it doesn’t always have to be tattling). When a person is getting new information that they are unsure of, they look to a person they value to influence them in either confirmation or questioning of that information. Often this comes when a problem is brought to senior leadership, as the decision maker is listening to the problem they will instinctively look to the person they value to influence their reaction to the matter at hand. If this sounds new to you start paying attention in those interactions either when you are in the meeting, picking up your kids from daycare, or in a group of friends and I promise you’ll start to see it.

All influence isn’t created equal and Suzanne sharing information with her own team in the meeting is much different than a senior leader taking their queue on how to react to a problem based on another’s reaction in the meeting. What that tells us is that there are a few sub categories within influence that make up their own little mini hierarchy. Starting from the base, you have influencing people with lower titles, next influencing your peers, and finally influencing those above you in title or status. All three of these are a great place to be in the eyes of the company and all exhibit the vote of confidence I spoke to above.

Influencing people below you could look like acting as a mentor to new team members, leading an explanation of a process to those with less tenure, or being the “go-to” when their questions come up. The organization, or your manager specifically, trusts that you will lead the newer employees or those who may look up to you down the right path. They value the impact you’ll have on these people’s career and long term vision. They also are confident that you’ll be able to lead other’s by following their leadership and example.

Influencing your peers can look like heading the team when your manager is unavailable, sharing grass roots communication on change in support of leadership’s decision, and being the “go-to” for their questions. This layer of the influence level tends to be more subtle than the first. It comes about organically where your peers look to you for guidance. Your manager looks to you support their leadership and the team, while pushing the team forward.

Influencing those above you often looks like being invited to join those of a higher status (could be leadership or simply the more tenured and senior status people in the organization) while they are making decisions, being asked to propose a solution to one of the problems facing the higher ups, and being the “go-to” for their questions. If you’re answering side questions and seem to be invited to meetings where you’re the lowest person on the totem pole, this is a great sign. Your organization trusts you to not only carry forward the message of the strategy and goals of the company but to help create some of those goals and develop the strategy itself.

This is the top of the pyramid so there isn’t a lot to add in how this might show that they don’t value you. The one aspect I would caution on is faux influence. If the organization feels an obligation to have you lead and as a result they put you in positions to and encourage you to influence others in infrequent situations. Beware of someone “throwing you a bone” if you’ve been in a position that should already require influence, leadership, and ability to manage. My suggestion if you’re in this place is over prepare, deliver well, and then over communicate your success. If they don’t value your ability to influence well and you believe you can do it, show them.

If this is the level I’m in, what now?

I am going to again start with, how did I get here? Being considered an influencer within the organization is no small feat. Your organization putting you in positions to influence others, regardless of what level those other people are in, is a compliment to you and your abilities as well as acknowledgement of how valuable you are to the success of the goals. So it didn’t just happen over night and it didn’t happen because of any formal change. Similar to autonomy, you could have accidentally influenced people slowly and therefor, again slowly, got noticed for doing so and were then included in more and more. More likely in this level however, you shared what you were able to accomplish through others. You mentioned to your manager that you were helping out with the new person and taught them the best way to organize their work. You spoke for the team after several members confided in you the fears they had over an upcoming change. You answered the question brought up by leadership when no one else seemed to have a solution. This level is all about communication and your ability to do so will often help you advance through each of the layers more quickly.

This is an elite group as certainly the least amount of people arrive at this level. Your determination to serve the organization and the people within it is paying off. Use this platform to build connections and relationships and never stop learning. These sound like separate calls to action but they are really one in the same. As you navigate your position of influence you will undoubtedly come to a point where your own knowledge will run out. For some of us this happens quicker than for others but it does happen to all eventually. So then what? This is when you peek because you don’t know it all? No, you’ll need the expertise of others to carry you through. As you’re put into these positions of influence build your network and strengthen your relationships with others. You can pair your strengths to propel you both forward. Lets use an example, a group of your teammates is in the breakroom getting a cup of coffee together. A few of them start venting that the new system is so much more clunky than the old one. You yourself didn’t notice but they do a little different work. Ask yourself who the most reliable and level headed person (or people) is in the group and ask more questions. You can mirror this information against the goals of the system and share problems and solutions with your manager. Being that you’re typically the “go-to” for questions and because you provided possible solutions, your manager is likely to take you seriously and push this forward and implement some sort of solution to it and make the work more efficient. Now, you were the conduit but you didn’t even realize there was a problem so you certainly didn’t solve this on your own. It was a collective effort. Go back to the person (or people) who were they most helpful and share how they impacted the success. Expressing gratitude and giving credit is a great way to build those connections so you can continue to improve things as well as learn yourself.

Finally as you’re standing at the top of your Value Hierarchy mountain do take a moment to appreciate the view but don’t stop there. All of the relationship building and learning you’re doing up there need to ultimately bring you to lend a hand to your fellow climbers. Reach out to the next one in line and allow yourself to be influenced by those around you. Increase their level in the pyramid so they’re better able to join you at the top and you can take in the view together.

Things I’m reminding myself of

Friendly reminder (and it almost feels like a PSA at this point), you do not need to be in a leadership position to be valued to the point of influence. I have watched people in positions where they had very nearly the lowest title in the organization and been valued to this point. In contrast, I have seen people with the highest title overseeing hundreds of staff members that barely made it to the status level let alone encouraged and empowered to truly influence and lead their group. Consider what you’re asked to do and how, in the role you’re in, to understand if you’re here (or any level in the hierarchy).

Influencing people all but requires a servant leadership mindset. Too often we strive to make it to the level of influencing people by bossing. That is a way to influence people, though it will often be in the opposite direction of what you wanted and the odds that your company will value your abilities here will be short lived at best. If you’re wanting to get to a point of value from the organization where you’re being asked, encouraged, and trusted to influence come at it from a place of serving them. How can you help or teach or support others? This is the way to gaining that trust and value from not only the organization but those who are following you too.

Autonomy

Being autonomous means that you’re making decisions for yourself. Everyone should have some amount of autonomy in their work, free from micromanagement, so I’d like us to think of the definition one step further. The definition that I gravitate toward is, the capacity to act in accordance with objective morality rather than being influenced. If your organization is trusting you to make decisions and believes you have the capacity to act in accordance with this high level of authority, they are giving you true autonomy in your work.

How does it show they value me, or don’t?

A person who is trusted to act autonomously in their work is truly valued by the organization. The company trusts that the person shares the values and understands the vision. This as well as being able to further the organizational strategy with decisions that they make. Because of this trust the company is able to empower the individual to further the message and be alert for if things would go off point.

For example your organization asks you to take part in an employee wellness committee that will organize activities and cultural goals around wellness as well as incentives for those who participate. They are excited to have you as a part of the committee and ask for monthly updates on the group’s progress. That was two sentences right. In those two sentences you were asked to participate, given the direction of how it should work, and encouraged in the endeavor. They are expecting you to take the topic of wellness (or any other initiative that they may ask you to partake in) and mirror it against the organizational values, mission, and strategy and they are confident you’ll get it right. The organization is showing just how much they trust and value you in this moment. They value your ability to connect those things, willingness to take on this, no doubt extra, work, and trust that you’ll bring up any concerns or disconnections in the monthly check-ins.

Let’s use another example, you’re asked to take over an assignment that your boss would typically handle. Maybe that assignment is paperwork, maybe it is attending a meeting, maybe it is overseeing other fellow employees or some of their tasks. This is a similar expectation of what you’re able to accomplish autonomously. Your boss trusts you to understand and account for the team goals, make decisions similarly to how they would make them, and understand at what threshold or level of concern you should bring them back in. Last week we discussed this as a potential down fall to development. Your boss potentially uses you as a dumping ground for the work they don’t want to do under the guise of developing you. Take the time to dissect and reflect on the situation to understand the true intention and result of the request. There are many times where development turns into working autonomously on the less glamourous side of the next step of your career. This is to determine if you’re ready and willing to put in the grunt work that next step will require.

Finally remember that we’re nearly to the peek of our hierarchy. The only space above autonomy is influence. While you may have the ability to influence well before your organization is valuing you to the point of putting you in positions to influence others; think of this as the final step before you influence. This is the step where you’re able to make decisions independently without the influence of others. To take it one step further, you’re in a place where you can decide whether or not you allow yourself to be influenced by others. You will be put into situations where others will attempt to influence you, but you will prevail in making objective moral decisions.

I do want to dissect and clarify that a little bit. I am not trying to say that the amount your organization values you dictates your ability to make sound decisions or think objectively or identify and be conscious of influencers. This isn’t as much about you and your abilities or skills as it is about the level of trust in you, and therefore the autonomy given to you, and the amount the organization empowers you to utilize those skills. Think of it this way, let’s go back to high school and pretend you had a great sense of humor and were a pretty sweet dancer. You are cultivating these abilities at home with your family and turning into skills. By the time you’re 14 you’re not too shabby but you’re a Freshman so no one is inviting you to the party. Two years later you are maybe even a little funnier and have mastered whatever was the must do dance of your high school career. You’re invited to the party, but quickly learn this is a Senior’s world and drawing the crowd to you won’t really be tolerated. You are smart enough to know you have something great to offer and a few other’s are catching on too. You get to choose if you gravitate to (and are associated with) the bully, jock, class clown, etc based on where you want to be and what’s important to you. If the one you chose starts doing something you don’t agree with, you can change course and either find a new group or leave all together. Your abilities didn’t change in the two years though they have maybe improved with practice. What changed was the organization (in this case the social structure of high school) allowing you the opportunity to utilize them. They placed more value on you and what you bring to the table to in a sense invite you to it. Now you have the added ability to decide who else, and what other goals and roles you want to associate or align yourself with.

If this is the level I’m in, what now?

Let’s actually start with, how did I get here? This sort of autonomy grows over time and while I’m not talking about completing your work without being micromanaged, it does often start there. First, you typically need to show you’re making the decisions that align with the organizational goals and values already. This can be done accidentally over time by simply making the right decision when given the opportunity and eventually someone will notice. This is probably how I’ve seen this done most commonly, but it is slow. If you’re aware of your intent and you were trying to make progress in this area, likely you drew the line from the decisions you made, the actions you took, etc to how they supported the organizational strategy and values. For example if you spent a little extra time and care with a customer, when you get the opportunity casually bring up the interaction with your boss and explain you were working toward making the customer a top priority. Subtly linking your daily actions with the company objectives with advance the ball much quicker here. Whether you did it intentionally or accidentally your team, leaders, and others began noticing your commitment to driving the mission forward and that transitioned into specific asks for your involvement in more of the same.

So congratulations on getting here! I will honestly say that not everyone does and not everyone even cares to. It takes time, commitment, and work on your part to build this level of value with the organization. This is a great place to be and will open doors within the organization as you continue to show your ability to think strategically about the business you’re in and how to further the big picture. It also increases your value independent of the organization as well. You are being given opportunities to understand and advance strategic goals with feedback on how to improve that ability. This is an incredibly valuable skill and will help you in multiple areas of life.

Things I’m reminding myself of

This stage is stand alone and often quiet and reflective. It does not require you to site your opinion or wager advice on any and all things. The organization and leadership within it very often will not have you jump right from developing to influencing others. They need the margin of autonomy to see how the development is playing out. This is something I have needed reminding of in the past and likely will again in the future. Many of us have a tendency to learn something and decide we are now the expert so we should obviously share it with everyone and tell them exactly how they should act, think, and be. Obviously. If you get to a point of true autonomy enjoy the expectation for what it is a chance to be introspective, objective, and hold a high level of moral standards.

Development

Development is the middle of the hierarchy. Compensation and Status lead up to it and autonomy and influence can follow for those who’s organization puts a great deal of value in them. As I’ve noted in prior posts, development can be found in any place and in any form, however for this context how a company or organization shows an individual how much they value them, is more formalized. For the purpose of this discussion development is the formal opportunities that the organization gives a person to help build their skills.

How does it show they value me, or don’t?

A development opportunity for an organization is an investment in you. It can be expensive and is often at least a little bit risky for the company because they are essentially making you more marketable and often times footing the bill. Development is a an opportunity to learn and show your abilities and emerging skills. While I realize that I did say for this conversation we’re using a more concrete definition of development, keep in mind that it still doesn’t need to be a class or an off sight retreat. Concrete development could come in the form of a request to have you assist with a task (building a report, taking a call, attending a meeting, etc) that typically a more senior member of the team would be responsible for.

Not every organization focuses on developing their staff and those that do don’t develop all people equally. If the organization doesn’t work to develop their people and hold this as a strong value they are setting themselves up for a very expensive model that won’t be sustainable. They will always need to hire from the outside for higher level roles and people who are finding their own means of development will go elsewhere for better opportunities. The companies that do emphasize development of their people and do so selectively as appropriate for each employee, are much healthier. When I say they develop selectively I don’t mean that they only offer it to some. I mean that they are intentional around what employees have potential in and are showing aptitude in which areas. If you are getting offers to increase your skill set in any area, they are showing the value they have in you.

Just as the organization shows value in specific people they also show value to specific traits or skills each person possesses. Again this doesn’t sound overly nice but this is a business, even if in the public sector, so they need to invest in where they see potential and where it matches an organizational need. For example, if you have skills in all aspects of communication and a real passion for presenting in front of groups but the skill that is needed is well crafted presentations that someone else will deliver, likely you’ll be driven to develop in creation rather than the actual presenting. This can be a great opportunity to dial in your skills or stretch into something completely new.

In some instances what started as development can turn into a dumping ground. For example, your manager has a weekly meeting and asks you to attend this week in their place and take notes. (Great exposure, status, and development opportunity!) Which turns into you becoming their personal secretary so they no longer need to attend said meeting because you provide such impeccable notes (dumping ground). First and foremost, have a conversation with your manager about what value this is adding to the organization and to your development. Ask if there is something specific they would like you to be getting from the meetings. If it doesn’t fit into the your schedule perhaps propose there be a round robin for the team of who attends. If this is you I would challenge you to truly understand the why behind your frustration. Then, if you are truly fed up with it and a direct yet respectful conversation isn’t resolving it, this is where the risk to the organization comes in. Consider what you’re learning in the meeting (or whatever your example is) and how you can apply it to your work, the work other leaders in the meeting are doing, and work outside the company. You have the investment of the development you’re getting, you have increased exposure, and you have the ability to take this skill or understanding wherever you might decide to go and grow.

If this is the level I’m in, what now?

Consider in what ways you’re currently being developed. Are you being asked to brush up on some general skills that you need for your daily work? For example take an Excel course, go to a seminar in your field, or create draft communications? Are you being asked to stretch your abilities into an area you hadn’t previously been involved in. Perhaps you were asked to join a committee, or test a new software. Both are indications that the organization values you as a contributor and what you can bring to those areas. At this stage I recommend that you focus on gratitude and plan to get the most out of it.

Approach each opportunity with gratitude. Too often when an organization offers someone a conference or a seminar or even to attend a webinar we look at it as, oh what’s wrong that I need to improve on. That isn’t what they are telling you. So take it as the compliment that it is. They are telling you that they see a seedling in you in that area that they want to water and watch it grow.

Make the absolute most of the opportunity you’re given. If you’re attending a workshop do the work while you’re there and take notes. When it is complete come back to the day to day and apply what you’re able and share with others what you think they might be able to make use of. When your manager asks you how the workshop (or insert any number of development opportunities here) went, share how you’re applying and implementing what you learned. Then sprinkle in some of the topics that are lofty or seem far off. This shows your appreciation for the opportunity and how their investment is already paying off. This part can be a little self serving too. You absolutely want to apply anything you can to help you be successful in your role and help the team and organization thrive. However, keep in mind that these are also resume boosters for you! Applying what you learned from a seminar and crushing the stretch opportunities that you’re given on the job will only enhance what you’re able to sell to others should you need to move on to another position or company.

Things I’m reminding myself of

Each area that you develop in is for you. Development opportunities can look like these shiny new objects and make us jealous. It can feel like a competition with fellow employees. He was selected to attend that conference, and she gets to work on that project, and all I got was this. It’s silly how our minds work sometimes. Keeping in mind how each opportunity you get is working for your good in the end will help you manage that desire to compare.

Be open but intentional around your development. Don’t close yourself off to new opportunities because it isn’t what you originally expected to get. Sometimes we’re a little blind to our talents so taking on the new opportunities can help lend some color to areas we weren’t even acknowledging. That being said, if you know the area you want to grow in, intentionally seek out, ask about, or find a way to tailor the opportunities toward it. For example if you’re assigned to help with a communication committee when you really wanted to lean into your analytical side, offer to compile and review the data around how people are getting and prefer to get their information today. If you start with gratitude and an open mind there is no telling how far you can take it.

Status

Status within an organization is essentially how ‘important’ you appear to be within the group. Your status is increased most frequently through title changes. For example, going from a Service Representative I to a Service Representative II or from a Junior Associate to an Associate to a Senior Associate. Usually these changes are accompanied by a change in compensation and sometimes they include a change in responsibility or expectations. I’ll use title and status somewhat interchangeably here. You can’t have a title change without at least some change in status but you can have a status change without a difference in title. Status is the part that matters but it is often shown formally through the title change.

How does it show they value me, or don’t?

An increase in status very often is a recognition of a mastery of skill. While the expectations of the work being performed may not change the organization is making a more formal and visible decision to allow you more independence as a result of your mastery. It may also include some form of mentoring or teaching other, more junior level, people than yourself. For example, as a Service Representative I you may need to bring any customer complaints about the widgets being sold to leadership, because they require coaching. A Service Representative II may be expected to handle those complaints independently, because they are expected to have mastered this skill. A Service Representative III may be included as part of the leadership group that provides the coaching on these complaints, because they are expected to have not only mastered the skill but be able to teach it. All makes sense right, but now think about it from the company’s perspective. The organization is assigning limited value to the Service Rep I, as they are completing the work (obviously still valuable in and of itself) but each piece needs to be reviewed and signed off on (limits the value they can add). There is greater value assigned to the next level because they can work independently and don’t require additional time from leadership. The Service Rep III is providing the most value because it is not only independent but can provide lift for the leadership group to work on other priorities.

A title change, or other forms of status change are the first form of showing value that is visible to the others within the group. Typically, no one knows what another person is earning as far as wages so when your status is increased within the group it tells everyone that the organization sees something in you.

A title change might be the first time the value shown to you is visible, it is also the fist stage where you start to see glimmers of the levels to come. For example, if you gain status (even if in your existing role and without a title change) you are likely to come up in conversation in higher levels for the efforts you’ve put forth and the goals you’ve achieved. This is might get you invited to meetings, events, and gatherings for “exposure.” While being seen with other high performing people in an organization is showing their value in you as is, it also opens the door to development (by learning from all those big brains) and in time, influence (by getting to share your big brain with them). It all starts with someone seeing an increase in your value and offering you more status.

This may have sounded elite so let’s give it an example using our Jr. Associate, Associate, and Sr. Associate from the definition. Let’s say that every Friday all of the Sr. Associates get together for coffee and to identify and problem solve any widget making problems in the past week. You, a Jr. Associate, identified an issue earlier in the week and reported it to your manager. Your manager is impressed by your ability to identify the issue and understand the root cause. She asks you to join the coffee time with the Sr’s to explain what you found. Meanwhile, another team member, Steve, was recently promoted to Sr Associate and this Friday will be his first coffee time too. In this example Steve has the most simplistic change in status, he was promoted therefore he will be invited to any meeting or social gathering that that level is invited to. You, however, simply had a status change with your manager. She saw potential in you and gave you an opportunity for exposure. That opportunity, if used correctly, could increase your status with the team and build rapport while also allowing you to learn from how the Sr’s work in that meeting. Because Steve will continue on in the meetings, he will have the opportunity to continue to do all of that and potentially get to the point that he’s influencing the group.

Status, particularly if denoted by a title, can be a double edged sword. It is certainly something that you want to be aware of and cognizant of where it falls in the hierarchy. Some people will completely discount their status within a team, department, or organization because they don’t see the value the company is placing in them at that stage and the potential of what it could grow into. Others, put too much emphasis here. Keep in mind we’re still at the pretty basic level of the pyramid, one up from the bottom, and there is room for growth beyond this level.

If this is the level I’m in, what now?

Hopefully many of you read this far and either confirmed or realized that your status within the organization is a component of the value you’re seeing from your organization. If this is you, keep building on those objective indications of the value the company is showing you. Be grateful for the status you have within the team and look for opportunities to develop and influence.

Potentially you read this far and thought yep I can see how this works for Johnny and Betty but I just don’t seem to have any status, or very limited. If this sounds more like you, take heart, while it might not be easy, there is a simple solution. You need to investigate what that next status change would look like and then lean into that, hard.

Investigating what that next status change is may look different based on size and industry of an organization. For example, if you’re in a large organization you may have access to job descriptions or development guides that can list out in black and white what those expectations, qualities, or competencies are to master your current role and look to the next step. If you don’t have access to this material (or perhaps it doesn’t exist) start looking for instances of the Johnny’s and Betty’s of the world having a higher status. Are there different expectations for those with more experience in the role? What are they? Is there someone that officially or unofficially checks all of the work like the Service Reps we talked about? What is that person looking for when they do it? Is there someone who everyone listens to in the meetings? Or looks to for guidance? What are they saying? What do they use as guiding principles in their comments?

Then, you can simply talk to your leader about it. Once you’ve picked up a few tips either from documentation the company provides or from paying attention while doing the work, you can start to ask your boss about it. ‘I’ve noticed that Betty seems to be responsible for X. Is that something I could learn more about and help with?’ ‘I saw in the job descriptions for the Sr’s they’re expected to Y. How can I learn more about that?’ ‘Are there any gaps you see in my work that I could focus on that would help me move toward Z?’ Questions like these show your leader that you’re looking for the next step, you’ve already started doing some of the work, and allows them the opportunity to clear up any misconceptions (For example if Betty isn’t responsible for X and it drives your manager a nuts that she’s doing it, you’ll see that too.) . Once you have the conversation, write down every thing they say. If you’re not able to discuss this with anyone simply make your own list based on what you have seen and determined.

Leaning in to the information that you’re given looks like actually doing the things. (Like I said, simple but maybe not easy) First things first, if you did discuss with your manager and they say that you have gaps for your current role, fills those first. Remember back to the beginning, you need to show that you have mastered the role first. Once that is done, take the original list you created from your discussion and split it in two.

The first list is prioritized based on importance. If the first thing leadership looks for in signing off on your work is the correct contract language and it’s an automatic fail if it’s wrong, you learn as much as you can and work as hard as you can to get that right.

The second is prioritized based on ease of completing. If leadership is also looking for grammatically correct information and has 0 tolerance for spelling errors, you turn on spell check and start proof reading. This is low hanging fruit and something that can be improved today. Then, because you can’t do everything, pick something from each list and do it hard. Make great strides in those two things and move the needle forward.

Finally, follow up with your leader. Let them know that you’ve been working on X,Y, and Z. Tell them what you’re focused on and how/what you’re doing in those areas. Because you chose something of great importance and something that is easy you’ll be able to showcase a quick win as well as your plans for improvement/growth long term. Discussing it with them will help you continue to prioritize the right items and communicate the work you’re doing this will increase your status with them and increase the value they place on you.

Things I’m reminding myself of

Work with your leaders and not against them. Even if you don’t like, or maybe it goes so far as to not respect, those in the levels above you, you can learn a lot from them. You can learn how to get to the next level, how the ideals of the leader department or organization mirror yours (or don’t), and so much more. All of this is valuable information that you want to have as soon as you’re able so don’t avoid the conversations.

Be objective and realistic in your recognition of and pursuit of status. There are two unbecoming ends of the spectrum. There are those who seem to think a title is the top of the hierarchy and those who never realize the status they hold within their group or organization. I hope to never be the one who gets a new title and is suddenly too big for my britches because of it. I also don’t want to down play where I am and lack confidence in the status I hold. This is a tough balance to strike that I fail at consistently however, keeping an objective eye out for the evidence of my status (similar to what I listed as examples above) is the only way to maintain that balance.

Compensation

Compensation can be looked at a few different ways. It is first and foremost your salary or hourly rate but it could also include your benefit package, profit sharing, bonuses, etc. It is often one of the first things you look at when you research or apply for a new job and the first thing people assume you want when your organization is showing that it values you. The funny thing is it is really just a base line.

How does it show they value me, or don’t?

If you took psych 101 somewhere along the way you likely learned about a man named Maslow. Back in the 1940s Maslow created a hierarchy of needs ranging from physical needs such as food and shelter at the bottom, followed by security, belonging, and esteem. It ends with self-actualization, needs that centered around achieving your highest potential, at the very tip of the pyramid. Just like in any hierarchy, you needed to fully achieve the base level and move yourself upward from there. For example, Maslow believed you can never get to concerns of security if you are still working on fulfilling your physical needs. Compensation is typically how we meet that base level. We need enough money to be able to buy what will satisfy our physical needs. We’re not able to meet that first level without some form of compensation. When you consider the security of health insurance or other benefits, we’re often not able to meet that second level without some form of compensation either.

I know what you’re thinking, surely this goes beyond the base level. I don’t want just enough money to have food, shelter, and the ability to see a doctor. I do use my compensation for other, more fun, things. I am sure you do, we all do. As we grow into adulthood we develop a standard of living. It includes our basic needs as well as other things that are important to us such as going to dinner, having a certain standard of car in the driveway, or traveling. We also plan for the future, saving for things like retirement or potential emergencies. While this clearly goes beyond a physical need, all of this becomes part of what the emotional side of us rolls into what we need‘ to cover with our compensation so we attribute it to being the baseline.

In order to feel that a company values our contributions we expect them to at a minimum meet our ability to continue those baseline ‘needs‘ through compensation. Most often, we wouldn’t even take a job if it didn’t meet that standard. In your current role, if your boss told you frequently what an asset you were to the company, provided you with glowing reviews and recommendations but didn’t pay you enough to meet the base line, you surely wouldn’t think the company valued their employees.

From the organizational standpoint, you could think of it as the foundation upon which the rest of the ways a company shows value are built. For example, when you first come into a new organization or a new position you are likely not adding a lot to the role right off the bat. The company is taking a chance and saying, we believe you to have value and that you will add value to our group, for that, we’re willing to pay. Before you do anything of value they are telling you that you are valued.

Compensation can also become a last resort of sorts when people aren’t feeling appreciated and valued within an organization. I have seen a number of people over the years lose influence and opportunities. They get frustrated and feel beaten down for months to even years some times. Inevitably they end up saying something like, “I don’t care what they ask me to do, just don’t take my salary.” To get to this point, this person has already quit their organization, they just haven’t left yet. If they get to a point that their compensation is cut either through demotion, no raise at review time, or changing expectations/responsibility in the same role, they often leave very soon after. The interesting thing is, they usually don’t get more money when they leave. They might take a lateral position with another company, pursue a completely different role/industry, or they may even knowingly take a step backward for a fresh start. This is very often because it was never about the money in the first place. These people felt undervalued and diminished for months if not years losing, or simply not making traction in getting, what would make them feel valued. Finally, that foundation we talked about was broken when compensation was affected.

If this is the level I’m in, what now?

The above likely resonated with many people, hopefully in the sense that the organization had faith in the value you would bring therefore paying based off that expectation. If that is the level you’re on and the reason you’re there, great. Keep raising the bar for yourself and the group and you’ll move to experiencing value in terms of status and title in no time.

If you’re returning to the foundational level you may notice yourself saying things like:
As long as they don’t take away my pay check. or It’s just a job. or I’ll do whatever and call me what you want just don’t change my salary.

If that is the case, I would do a little soul searching to determine if this is the right fit for you. You could have outgrown the company, the role may have changed and is no longer a good fit for you, there could have been a change in leadership somewhere that impacted you, or about a thousand other reasons. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. If the only value the company is showing you (or you’re perceiving) is a paycheck, that is not enough.

I would suggest two things, making objective lists and becoming an active participant.
List out all of the ways people within the organization showed you that you were valued. (hint the first one can be that they paid you this week) It could include that your manager is giving you clear feedback on areas to improve, you were asked what type of work you would prefer to work on, someone thanked you for your contribution. List everything you can think of. Then list the one thing that was the biggest reason you haven’t felt valued. You won’t need a whole exhaustive list for this one. Once that is done reread your list and assess how you feel. Once all of the objective points of value are listed out on the sheet are staring you in the face do you feel reassured in your position or does the one thing on the other side of the page, with all of its dread, anger, and frustration outweigh anything you could write down?
Plan for a potential job change based on this list and the emotion you’re having. For example, if once you looked at in black and white you felt more comfortable maybe you do nothing, or peruse job sites once every couple weeks to see what is out there. If you are a little more impassioned maybe you look more frequently and let a few of your connections know you’re open to new opportunities. If writing this out made you even more angry and fed up, you might update your resume and LinkedIn account, have relevant job postings delivered to you, and set up coffee dates with people who might be able to point you in the right direction.

I include emotion as a deciding factor in this, because it matters. What doesn’t matter is how your mom or spouse or co-workers feel about the circumstances. If I looked at your list and said, you’re fine stop expecting so much, that wouldn’t do anything to make you feel more valued. Conversely, if I read it and thought good grief run out of there as fast as you can, but you felt more comfortable who am I to tell you otherwise and try to motivate you in another direction? You spend far to much time at work to not enjoy it so while there are rough patches in every relationship (yes your job is a relationship) you need to decide how you feel, based on objective evidence, and act accordingly.

Things I’m reminding myself of

Money isn’t everything but it is important. There isn’t much you can do in this life that doesn’t cost something. We need it to survive in some respects and want it to be more comfortable in others. Keep in mind though, it is just the beginning.

Never run from something, always run toward something else. You might notice that I never said ‘leave’ above when describing how to plan a potential exit from the organization. It isn’t about leaving the work you’re doing or leaving the atmosphere you’re doing it in. It is about finding a position that allows you to do that work in a new atmosphere. It is finding a new way to use your skills and talents. You may know you only started planning an exit because of the situation you were in but when you find the right role at the right organization, you’ll be empowered knowing you didn’t ‘escape’ the prior environment you had to leave it behind to get to the next step.

The Value Hierarchy

Have you ever been in a position at work where you thought to yourself, what am I even doing here? No one seems to care what I think or what I’m contributing. No one seems to notice anything that I do unless there is a ball that I have dropped. No one is sharing all of the information with me therefor I can’t possibly make the right decisions. I am called out for the smallest of missteps while others are given the benefit of the doubt. I could probably just walk out the front door and no one would even notice it happened until all of the work I have done would come to a screeching halt. Yeah one of those types of jobs where you feel like your manager is either micromanaging you or ignoring you all together (some times they seem to have the uncanny ability to do both). Have you ever felt that?

While I’m sure many have experienced this exact thing there are others who don’t know it yet. For you I’ll explain, it is frustrating and demoralizing. You find yourself noticing every transgression and highlighting every slight from those above you. You question the structure, is this just my manager or is this the way the organization is run? You’re sure that not all of this can be real, some of it must be you being too sensitive or exaggerating it. This is of little comfort because it really just adds your mental instability to the mix. It hurts and it is exhausting. If you’re like me and have too much passion within you for making a difference, you can’t just let that slide. Falling into cynicism isn’t an option for you.

When I have experienced this it has been suffocating. This is partially because I invest so much into work, if I am not feeling like the investment is mutual it is really difficult for me to live with that. For me, the most difficult thing was that I was no longer allowed in the room. I had always been encouraged to be part of the meeting, ask questions, make comments, influence decisions, be a part of the process and the strategy. Then there was sudden change in the organization and when things change people hold tight to what they can control. That meant that certain people needed to hold onto what they had dominion over and what the narrative would be. For that reason I started losing my invitation, when I was in the meeting I was told to only listen or was talked over, I was no longer asked for my thoughts on the strategy. I started getting increasingly frustrated and disheartened with the culture and to be honest I started spiraling a little.

In what I thought was an effort to improve the situation, which was really a disguised effort to find a new place in the organization, I started grasping at straws. Over the course of about six months, I proposed a new initiative and suggested partnering with someone who was very respected to champion and guide while I could take the lead to actually drive it. No. I requested to be part of a group being formed to improve overall communication. No. I asked to go to classes and take webinars. No. I gave some feedback on the trajectory of the department strategy. I was told to focus on my individual work. I updated my manager of some things my team was working on. I was told to run team initiatives by him first for approval. (Like I said, frustrating, demoralizing, and suffocating.) I was told I was doing well but needed to stay in my lane.

I got to a point that I thought I’d never get to; I asked for more money. Now, I’m a pragmatic, organized, logical person. I did not just march into someone’s office and demand money because I was getting a “no” everywhere else. After discussions, research, and understanding that predated all of the “what am I doing here” thoughts, I had a firm case to request a raise. I had taken on added responsibility with my position and had done well with it for about a year. I had objective proof that my leadership of the group was improving the unit and the department as a whole. The thing was I’d been so fulfilled by the work previously that I didn’t need it or even want money for it. The fact that I asked for money may have seemed completely logical for another person in my shoes but for me it was very telling of my mental state in that job. I had personally gotten to the point that I was looking to money to motivate me.

Once I put it together that I was only asking for money because I wasn’t feeling valued in any other capacity I wanted to get to the root of it. What would make me feel valued? If asking for a bigger paycheck (justified as it may be) felt like rock bottom, what was I missing that I had before that kept me above this place? I started listing things out, reading books, and asking others.

What makes you feel like a valued part of the organization?

I came up with a hierarchy of sorts (picture the food pyramid) to help me better understand where I was at and why. At the bottom was the absolute lowest level of how a company shows they value you as an employee, they pay you. Just up from pay is your title and status. Smack dab in the middle you have development. Just above that is true autonomy. Finally you have influence at the top which can be broken into three parts, influencing down to the team, across your peers, and finally up to those above you in the organization.

Figuring out this hierarchy was so liberating for me. I wanted to share it with everyone once I saw how much understanding where I was personally helped me to take back control over my career and my feeling of worth in the organization. Over the coming weeks we’ll dive deeper into each of these levels of the hierarchy starting from the bottom. We’ll cover what it looks like to feel valued or not at each level and how you can impact your situation in each level.

Where Will I be in 5 Years?

In every job interview and in every performance appraisal I have been asked one question consistently. There is some variation of it but by and large it is the same. Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years. I can remember back to when I was trying for a promotion that, at the time, I thought would allow for my husband to stay home with our kids (apparently I hadn’t fully vetted that plan with all involved parties because it didn’t come to fruition). This goal of having a lifestyle change put a lot of pressure on the interview. I researched and asked questions. I learned about the differences in the new role that I would need to stretch into. I learned about who the interviewer might be, my goal was to think like them and answer things the way they would. The only problem was when I came into the interview there were three interviewers and all were men. I had never had an interview with that many men before and I was instantly worried I wouldn’t be able to relate to them. So naturally the right answer is to go in full on stereotype mode (the decisions we make under stress are just ridiculous). I was quicker to answer questions so I wouldn’t appear indecisive or unable to respond. I portrayed myself as being even more blunt than I am during the “How would you handle xyz situation.” questions. I overestimated my negotiation skills. I modeled their body language back at them and even went so far as to make my laugh sound more like theirs when they made jokes. I had the right intentions but it was a bit much.

Near the end of the interview one of them asked the where do you see yourself question. The only problem was that they once again threw me off. The interviewer didn’t use a 5 or 10 year timeline. He asked where I wanted to be in 2-3 years. Immediately following my thought of, this is a really silly way to ask the question, my second reaction was a little panicked around how to answer. If I say still in this role do I sound lazy? If I say I see myself in anything other than this role in 2 years do I sound like a flake or unrealistic? The truth is I did see myself in that role in 2-3 years but not a whole lot longer than that. In an effort to still play to their perceived styles but be a bit more true to myself, I settled on something to the effect of, “In 2-3 years I likely will still be becoming an expert in this role and working toward becoming a supervisor. Eventually I’d hope to be one of you.” The majority of that interview was junk because I was nervous, I was stereotyping, and I wasn’t being authentic. I like to think I got the job based on that one question because it was the only thing I said that made their faces light up.

I knew then, even before I had conducted a single interview of my own, that men would want a certain type of answer. After years of being on both sides of the table its been reinforced even more so. Why is it that there is such a distinction between how men and women respond to this question? I have no doubt that had I been an actual man, not just playing one for the moment, I would have been able to answer with confidence and likely not given much thought to the “right” answer. I am guessing, and I could be wrong, that at least part of the reason those men interviewing me used such a short timeframe was because they have no problem imagining themselves as an expert at something within a year or so. Why would you need to wait 5 or heaven forbid 10 years before becoming an expert? Women don’t typically think like that. We assume there will need to be time to master the nuances and have enough exposure to all of the circumstances to become an expert at anything. We see value in, or are valued for, our patience and perseverance. Women want to meet 100% of the criteria for the next step, regardless of what it is, whereas men only feel the need to meet about 60%. It’s no wonder we assume we’ll need more time to get there.

There is also a difference in determining what that next step is. Men that I have spoken to, or asked this question of myself, consistently answer that they are working to get to the top. They want to be head of sales, VP of the department, essentially, the king of the mountain (all in the next 5 years mind you). I actually had a man I was interviewing once respond to my ‘where do you see yourself’ question by asking, “Well, who’s in charge around here.” as he looked around the room. (For the moment dude, it’s me.) Mixing a top notch ego with a low level of awareness is not going to get you invited back for a second interview. While most people posses a bit more tact than that, it does seem as though the linear view of career progression remains. They are climbing the ladder, and when the goal is that clear it makes running full steam ahead toward it that much easier. Women tend to get uncomfortable when we’re asked those types of questions and I think it is because we often think in terms of impact rather than status or title. When the “next step” is wherever you can make the biggest difference, many more options are available but the path much less clear. I think that is why we end up sounding unsure of ourselves. Should we strive for the next position in the job family? Focus on building a great customer rapport? Improve our leadership and managerial skills? Maybe we should look into Marketing. When the world looks like a whole jungle gym it’s hard to know what the next step is.

The differences in men and women’s view of success, value, and how they go about achieving them is a book, not a blog post. This question truly just seems to highlight the very beginning of it. I am sure classes or books on interview skills would give you the right answer. It would probably go so far as to say if you’re a person in this specific demographic, X will be most effective, in another try Y, and if in yet another category you’re best suited to Z. You could take another approach and dissect from your manager’s style or your people focused company initiatives what the best answer in your culture would be for that performance appraisal. While I admit all of that sounds wildly interesting and full of psychological nuances and biases to be researched, looking introspectively first has always served me well.

If this is a question that has plagued you in interviews, appraisals, or just general development conversations with a manager or mentor I would challenge you to take a hard look inward as well. I look at it in three pieces:

Where are your natural talents? You can find any sort of personality assessment either in a book or online to help identify these but my guess is you already know. Think of projects that you’ve worked on that went well or what you frequently do in your personal time to keep things running smoothly. This could be organization, listening, thinking outside the box, creating relationships and connections, time management, the list goes on.

What do you do that gives you energy? Consider all of the work you do that fuels you right up. It is the kind of work that when it’s done you could just jump into the air like those bridesmaid photos without anyone around to join you. This could be seeing the confidence on someone’s face after they try makeup for the first time, putting together the most stunning pivot table the world’s ever seen, being there for the moment a child “gets it” on their math homework.

Where do these collide? Obviously we want to do what gives us energy and what we’re already good at but it also likely needs to have an income. This is the external work to find what position suits you best. Once you’ve done all of the internal work you can start identifying the role. It might fit in your current company or maybe this is something you are looking outside for. If you’re at a loss for what this might look like, you can honestly start just by Googling it. Some ideas to point you in the right direction will come up.

The goal in this exercise isn’t to get where you’re going immediately but to help understand yourself well enough to know where you in fact do see yourself in 5-10 years, regardless of which side of the coin you fall on. If you’re a corner office driving, king of the mountain kind of person you need to know why and how because those positions just aren’t going to be handed to you. If you’re unsure and don’t have a plan there is no way you can work toward it. If you appear frazzled at the question even someone with the best of intentions isn’t going to be able to help you pursue it either. After my I want to be you answer that seemed to do the trick but was just tossed out there out of nowhere response, I started doing the work for myself. I am a jungle gym person who is looking to make an impact so forging a clear ladder wouldn’t be an option. My response now is I want to lead leaders. It leaves the conversation open but describes where my passion is, and tells me a lot about the person I’m responding to when I say it, which is always fun. I believe it will take me to all sorts of positions over the course of my career (and I get to do the where do they collide exercise no matter where I’m at) while also allowing me to know my purpose and feel content in precisely the role I’m in.

Things I’m reminding myself of

You get to change your mind. If you think you’ve cornered exactly what you want from life and your career but it doesn’t fulfill you after a time, you can start over. That doesn’t make you ungrateful or impatient or indecisive. It makes you ambitious and an advocate for growth. See more on this in ‘When is Enough, Enough?’

Defining what you want and where you, yourself, individually are going is scary, and that is what makes it great. Write down all of the crazy things that come into your head as you’re thinking of your talents and your passions and what lights you on fire. You can always cross them off if they don’t fit after a second look but if you don’t take them down on actual paper they will never feel real.

There is so much value in doing this stuff yourself but friends can bring clarity. If you don’t know the answers do it as a group exercise. Answer the questions for yourselves and then for each other, without sharing, and see what you come up with and how closely they are aligned. People who are close to you might have some great ideas that you never even thought of before.