My own career has been successful, but hard-won. My marketing skills got me started, but only took me so far. And that's when I discovered the harder, but more valuable, lessons of career advancement.
On the eve of Thanksgiving 2016, I couldn’t sleep. I had an idea, and it wouldn’t let me rest. So at four in the morning, I brewed coffee, spilled markers and Post-it Notes onto my living room floor and started translating it onto paper.
The result was a vision for the future of content at Help Scout. It would be the biggest content initiative the company had ever embarked on. My vision was big, it was smart—and I knew the CEO wouldn’t go for it.
But instead of going back to bed, I recorded every fragment of the idea, and I stayed on that floor until I refined it into a plan.
What now, though? An idea without a corporate sponsor is just a charming diversion. I needed the backing from C-suite, so I slacked my boss, the VP of Growth, and made my pitch. I chose him not just because he was my boss; I chose him because he had vision and he was a risk-taker. Most of all, I knew he believed in me and would help.
With a C-suite-level person on board, I wasn’t just talking to myself. I had a voice at a higher level where I knew the idea would be heard. Because, yes, ideas are like trees in a forest: if they fall on deaf ears at your company, they have zero impact (or someone else takes credit for them). I had someone in my court who could help me refine the idea, communicate better, and eventually make it happen.
It did happen and it was a smashing success. This example is a microcosm of my entire career. If someone else had come up with the idea and assigned it to me, I had all the skills to execute it. That's easy—but it isn't how you elevate yourself. If you want to level up, you need to be the one who comes up with ideas, advocates for them, turns them into reality and gets them to the finish line.
The lessons below are ones I've learned in the trenches. Some came into play when I launched Help Scout's new content strategy, but all have been essential. I encourage you to consider the trajectory of your own career so far. If you believe that you're better than your salary and title, what's in your way?
Stop Doing the Work
Leaders don't “do,” they lead. In fact, when leaders are doing the work, it's a sign of failure.
This sounds counterproductive to growing in your career, but it’s actually one of the most important—and most difficult—things you can do to be seen as a leader.
After several years of executing as a content marketer, you’ve learned the best practices and the tools. You’ve learned different processes and likely chosen, tweaked, and perfected a method that you now believe in like bacon: it’s soooo good. You’ve had to defend your ideas more than a few times to your boss, quantifying the value of your creative ideas. You’ve attended, and perhaps led, countless meetings, maybe even had a few direct reports.
So what do you do with all these skills? One big mistake people make is to use them to produce even more great work. Writing, editing and content promotion skills can only take you so far. Instead, you need to use those skills to train others, guide projects, and lead meetings.
Report on Your Work (and Be Awesome at It)
Reporting is the best way to show your higher-ups that you think like them. The CEO of your company, for example, is looking for results. If they see reports full of data, they know that you aren't thinking like an exec. If you want to be the boss, you need to learn how to weave numbers into a narrative about your work that touches on impact, lessons learned, and future plans.
At Help Scout, we wanted to grow traffic by ~100k unique visitors per month. So we did an analysis of all our blog content and produced a list of the top refresh opportunities. I analyzed all our social channels and created an updated plan for how to get more engagement. We started this project in the spring, which meant that seasonality impacted our progress. (Since we were doing refreshes, that was actually perfect, because it gave the changes we made a few months to take effect. Side note: these are all things I outlined in my monthly reports.)
When September came—glorious September!—we beat our goal by 25k and I was able to articulate exactly why. And in doing so, I also owned responsibility for the success of the project.
Take Credit by Giving Credit
A good leader shares credit with the team, rarely boasting singular success. To become a leader, you need to start practicing this early.
Say you’re leading a project, and that project involves multiple people at your company. As the project progresses, give credit to individuals involved—publicly. In doing so, you actually claim credit for the overall success of the project. Even if those players are your peers, you are responsible for the project, and the more you act like it, the more you will look like a leader to your bosses.
The truth is, not everyone is vying for a leadership role. Some people love being individual contributors, because they love doing the work. Those people are happy to pass the management onto someone else, so they can focus on what they really care about.
Give a little to get a little. And the result that shines through to your boss is how well you orchestrated the successful outcomes you’re sharing on behalf of the project team.
Stay Calm and Lead Meetings
Meetings are auditions for budding senior leaders. How you conduct yourself indicates to your boss the kind of leader you will be (or not). There are a few best practices if your goal is to be seen by leadership in a positive light:
- Speak succinctly and slowly: Speaking fast makes you look nervous. Saying more than is necessary to get the point across makes you look green. Take a deep breath, and exhale what you want to say. By the time you need to breathe in again, you should have made your point.
- Ask questions: The best leaders elevate above the fray by asking useful questions that help the team come up with an answer. If you want to demonstrate your leadership skills in meetings, but you aren’t sure what to contribute, begin by asking a question.
- Listen: Listen to your boss, listen to the intern, listen to everyone. All great leaders are great listeners. You don't want to suck all the air out of the room by talking too much, so make sure you give everyone your full attention when it's their turn to speak.
- Make meetings effortless: Make meetings better by preparing. Make them more useful by taking notes, making sure everyone knows what to do next and following up on those items. The benefit to all this planning is that you have a flawless meeting where people go away feeling happy because they know the outcome, next steps, and what is expected of them.
Meetings are a great opportunity for junior employees to take on senior roles. No one loves running meetings, which makes them a perfect stage to take ownership and level-up.
Don't Lose Your Cool, Even If Everyone Else Does
I’ve experienced some of the poorest behavior in my life at work. I’ve had a CEO call me a “chicken with my head cut-off” in front of the entire company. Another CEO canceled a project during the kickoff meeting with no explanation, even after he approved and invested hundreds of human hours to it. I’ve seen executives shout unnecessarily, storm off, and generally waste employees’ time because they were unprepared, didn’t know how to lead meetings, or just plain didn’t know how to lead.
Bad behavior at work shouldn’t be an invitation to join the kindergarten class, it should be an example of what not to do. This happens in meetings all the time. An important meeting devolves into a bunch of people talking over one another, each insistent that their voice be heard. Leadership will definitely recognize the person in the room who asks a question that finally leads to a good discussion, or comes up with a solution that everyone can agree on.
Be that person even when it's tempting to join the fray.
Develop a Vision
You need to have your own opinion on what makes good content and speak confidently about it. Believe in it. Have examples. Write great content.
The truth is, even I can’t tell you what is unequivocally “great” content. What makes content great is not just the quality of production. It’s a blend of execution and purpose fulfillment. “Good” means something different depending on what your goals are.
Like it or not, that’s content marketing. But if you pitch an idea and you know what that idea will achieve, then you’re on your way to leadership status. Do it consistently and you’re there.
I didn’t move up in my career because I was right all the time. I moved up in my career because I had my own ideas, and I shared them with my boss. I created my own plans for how to execute. I did research to back up my ideas. And when I didn’t have any proof, I spent time crafting a story to advocate the idea to my boss.
A Note for Women
This article would be incomplete if I did not include a section containing the additional requirements for women — and other minorities too, but I'm choosing to only speak about my own experience — in achieving a senior role.
The rules are different for you. You could do all of these things and still struggle to get the role you've earned. And even if you get the role, you likely won't be paid the same as your male counterparts.
To this day, I never have. In fact, at several companies, I have been paid less than men who report to me.
If facts, data, poise, etc. don’t work, then you need to use other tactics. I wish I didn't have to say this, but it’s true. Here are some things to try:
- Take credit for more stuff, even if the project was collaborative. If you ran a project, take credit for the success.
- Stop saying sorry for things that don't require an apology.
- Don’t take on extra work. Leaders pass work on, then guide the people doing it.
You’re not going to get promoted by being nice or doing other people’s work. Once you’re branded as “helpful,” you’ll never be seen as more than that. Look at the female leadership in your company and other companies. Take note of how they work and how they speak. Ask them to be your mentor. (If you'd like to chat, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org).
If none of this works, leave for a more modern company. There's an increasing number of them out there, and they need your skills and experience!
Leaders Don't Wait for Opportunity, They Create It
No one is going to make you a leader. You have to lead yourself into a leadership role. Take the reins, create your own opportunity and build the career that you deserve.