Hacking your way to management: using common sense for career advancement – Part 1

Career advancement can be tricky. Some of us find it relatively easy to advance in our careers while the rest find it a challenge. Some of us get stuck in the mid-management level and plateau at that. We have to find smarter ways to keep moving forward, go uphill and make progress.

This is the first instalment in a 5-part series on some management hacks that I feel will benefit some of you, some of the time. Remember, with all self-help, nothing will work for everyone or in every situation. Self-help is, more often than not, a broad generalisation of the human condition where the uniqueness of all of us is distilled into a couple of principles explained in a few hundred pages. As you can see, it is ridiculous when you think of it. Self-help is designed for mass consumption and like any human condition, some of it will resonate with a lot of people.

I make no claims on any of these. I am merely sharing here what I thought worked for me over the years. In order to give it some structure and ease of organizing, I have taken the HBR’s 17 essential skills for managers as a structure to share these insights. The 17 skills are divided into 5 groups:

Developing a leader mindset

My experience is mainly in the Maldives and with hospitality workers. Therefore, most of what I am sharing may be relevant to heads of departments or middle management in resorts. A mindset is a way of thinking. While a lot of what we know in life, a lot of our knowledge is shaped through social constructs that may be very specific to certain cultures, there may be instances when you will think ‘wait, how is that possible?’ I talk a lot about the heuristics and biases that shape our thinking and decision-making in real life. These are shortcuts developed through thousands of years of cognitive evolution and while some of these shortcuts deceive us in certain situations, they aren’t necessarily bad. They can be quite useful if we can harness them. We have to be aware of their existence all the time. The best defence against the miscalculations is to always question what we see, hear and think. We should rethink, reconsider and re-evaluate our positions. The 4 skills in the first part are all about the self. It is about getting to know how we function as leaders and connecting with the self at a more meaningful level.

Transition to leadership

The first part of the skills is about developing a leader mindset. This is further divided into 4 skills. The first skill is about making that leap into the realm of leadership where from depending on someone else for guidance, you become the one giving it to others. You become the go-to person for your team for solutions to the team’s challenges. The Peter Principle in HR is a fun illustration of how a lot of us fail to transition from being a follower to being the followed, the one in front. This principle explains that the length of time you spend at a position or doing something does not necessarily qualify you for the next step. A great waiter is not always the best Maitre D or the best restaurant manager who would require many different skill sets.

The transition should be a deliberate, thought-out process. It is not like turning on and off a switch – where one day you are a team member and the next you become the boss. It should be more about the relationships and how everyone else starts reacting to you once you assume that role. Some of my GMs tell me that the next step is always easier in a new environment where people do not have baked-in impressions of you. This is important as the way people react to you is as important as how you react to them in situations when it comes to getting things done.

Transitioning into leadership positions can be stressful. It can be frustrating at many levels when you struggle to establish your authority while still staying close to those whom you lead. Sometimes I find peace thinking about the age-old wisdom of nothing that lasts forever. Difficult situations will always teach you something and the trick is always to learn from them and use the same insights to make your progress easier by using them to your advantage.

Building trust and credibility

Gaining trust is never easy. Especially, when you have been promoted to a new position and you are managing your friends who until yesterday were picking on the ex-boss together. Your past is the reality that everyone is familiar with. It has its own powers and perils. Use it to your advantage and use the relationships, alliances and bonds you have formed over the years to help you in the process. Having loyal friends can be extremely beneficial in building trust and credibility.

Competency is important in any leadership role and this has to be demonstrated to the team from time to time. This will show them that you know what you talk about.

The conventional wisdom we are often given as advice is that we have to distance ourselves from the team once we are promoted to a leadership role. I tend to think otherwise – I would suggest that new managers stay as close to the team as possible without getting too close to any one person or some individuals. You have to show them that you are just like them. You are one of them.

My experience in hospitality settings has shown that sometimes new managers do not understand the cultural nuances in keeping teams together. We have multicultural and multi-religious and multi-national teams where a lack of concentration from new managers to balance their relationship with all members of the team can result in disharmony and one group of individuals feeling aggrieved.

Emotional intelligence

Emotions are a human thing. There is no escaping it. We have to experience them, deal with others’ and manage the drama that comes with it. In the Maldives, ‘jazbaathu gai jehi’ meaning ’emotionally charged’ is, literally, a get-out-of-jail card – but we all know stupidity, irrationality, ruthlessness and violence do not deserve excuses. We have to be emotionally intelligent enough to keep us moving forward most of the time without making a mess and not hurting or harming others. It is about being smart. It is about understanding the human condition.

HBR’s handbook provides and 5-component construct to help us understand emotional intelligence. These are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. It is from the inside out – we have to start from within. We have to get to know ourselves better. We will not be in a position to self-regulate if we are not in touch with our own feelings. We have to know what drives us and what makes us get out of bed every day.

Dealing with drama is never easy but understanding why some of us are so dramatic can help us deal with this kind of situation better. Teams function well when they bond together as a social unit. This can be achieved through regular social activities where individual members interact with each other outside work. This allows them to connect as human beings and makes it easier for them to understand each other and agree on things.

Positioning yourself for success

Conventional wisdom, as suggested in the HBR handbook, posits that it is important for individuals to position themselves for progress and advancement. We have to look at the big picture and see where we fit in as the next step and if that position is attainable within the next couple of years, we should have a strategy to get us there.

In my experience, having a sponsor (someone who is in a higher, more influential position) within the organization can help an individual reach the desired position in a shorter time than having no one who can advocate for your cause.

Success is not a snapshot. In organizations and in professional life, success cannot be frozen into a moment or a milestone. It is about one’s brand, image, reputation and legacy. It is a dynamic thing just like our career trajectories. Personal brands will have to have consistent characteristics. We should not be known for one thing today and go off on a tangent tomorrow.

About Hassan Saeed

I am a lifelong learner. I learn every day and I learn from everybody I interact with - I live with this simple philosophy. My goal is to help spread knowledge and information that helps people get better every day. Learning should fit into everyone's daily routine. Learning should empower individuals to achieve more and drive them towards excellence and perfection.
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