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Are You Invisible?

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Jack Rosenberger

CACM Senior Editor Jack Rosenberger

Early in her career as a manager at Hewlett-Packard (HP), Patty Azzarello was put in charge of a software development team whose product lifecycle took two years. It was “a ridiculously long period of time” to develop software, Azzarello says, and the length of the development cycle left both HP’s sales team and its customers unhappy and frustrated. Azzarello revamped the team, re-invented its operating mode, and reduced the software cycle to nine months. The successful delivery of the new software lifecycle’s first product coincided with Azzarello’s annual performance review, and she expected to receive a healthy raise as the economy was strong, HP was performing well, and Azzarello herself was awarding significant raises to her top employees.

Azzarello’s own raise, however, was zero.

When Azzarello asked her boss why she wasn’t receiving a raise, he replied, “Because nobody knows you.”

Azzarello told this anecdote during her keynote speech at a DAC 2010 career workshop titled “More Than Core Competence... What it Takes for Your Career to Survive, and Thrive!” She learned from the experience, and proceeded to flourish at HP, becoming the youngest HP general manager at the age of 33, running a $1 billion software business at 35, and becoming a CEO at 39, she says. Today, Azzarello runs her own business management company, Azzarello Group, and gives career advice, which brought her to DAC.

Like Azzarello early on in her career at HP, many employees believe that if they do their job and work hard, they will be recognized and justly rewarded. Not so, says Azzarello.

Azzarello’s career advice for employees is to make sure the work that you do is aligned with the company’s goals, bring your accomplishments to the attention of your superiors, and create a network of mentors who will guide you and ensure that you win a spot on the company’s list of employees who are the leaders of tomorrow. Her advice is tersely described as: Do better, look better, and connect better.

Do Better
“The most reliable way to advance your career is to add more value to your business,” says Azzarello. You need to understand what is most important to your company in terms of your job—whether it’s cutting costs, increasing Web traffic, or improving the delivery of software products--and focus on that. Everything else is less important.

However, too many employees, like the younger Azzarello, fall into the trap of being “work horses.” They do everything they’re asked to do, and often more, but the end result is “you’re being valued as a work horse, not as a leader,” Azzarello says.

To get ahead in the workplace, Azzarello says it’s important to figure out how to deliver your work but also how to create free time at work during which you can manage and advance your career. After all, if you spend all of your time working, you won’t have the time or energy to understand the company and its goals (which can change), promote yourself and your accomplishments, and build relationships with mentors and fellow employees.

The most successful employees learn how to be the master of their work and not let it control them. They understand which aspects of their job are most important to their company, and focus on them. “It’s essential to be ruthless with your priorities,” Azzarello says. “Refuse to let your time get burned up with things that are less important.”

A critical lesson Azzarello learned in her career at HP is that the “most successful executives don’t do everything. They do a few things right and hit them out of the park.”

Look Better
The second step of Azzarello’s career plan involves making your work and accomplishments known to your immediate bosses. After all, if you deliver excellent results, but no one above you in the company is aware of them or doesn’t connect the results with your job performance, it’ll be difficult for you to advance in your company.

Azzarello recommends creating an audience list of the people in your company who should know about your achievements at work and a communication plan for how to inform these key players about your work and what you’ve accomplished. The audience list should include the influencers who have a say in your career--your bosses and your bosses’ bosses--and any stakeholders who are dependent on your work. And your communication plan should describe how you will inform these influencers--usually via conversations, reports, and email-- about your job and what you’ve accomplished.

For your achievements to be appreciated, Azzarello says it’s vital that they are relevant to your company’s goals. “Your priorities must be relevant to their priorities,” says Azzerello. “Your work must be recognized as matching the business’s goals.”

Connect Better
The third step of Azzarello’s career plan involves connecting with key players at your company, which involves building relationships with mentors and creating a broad network of support. “Successful people get a lot of help from others,” Azzarello says. “You can’t be successful alone.”

Azzarello stresses the importance of mentors (note the plural) at your company and outside of it, and says employees “shouldn’t attempt career advancement without mentors.” Not only can mentors help you understand a company’s culture and goals, but they, and other key players, can help you get a spot on the company’s list of employees who are viewed as up and coming.

All of this is about visibility. The company president or other top executives must know or know about you, or you must have a relationship with mentors or others who are connected to the company president and key executives.

This step involves networking, and many people (and Azzarello admits she’s one of these people-) are uncomfortable with meeting new people for the purpose of networking. If you’re one of these people, Azzarello’s advice is to network with the people you already know.

If Azzarello’s career advice sounds like a lot of work, you’re right--it is. Which is why she urges employees to create a yearlong plan for implementing these three stages.

For many employees, Azzarello’s advice is a real challenge. The alternative, however, is rather unsatisfying. After all, who wants a zero raise?

Jack Rosenberger is senior editor, news, of Communications of the ACM.


Stephen Moffatt

This is a very difficult article to digest. It reminds me of the Jodie Foster movie Contact. Where her genius and hard work was stolen by the sharp talking, influential science director. I agree, nobody wants to get a zero raise, but I contrast the relationship with her team to that of her bosses team. If he was in tune with her work, he would have known of her accomplishment. Surely he knew what she was doing, after all he was paying her a salary. I see job request for project managers on the internet all the time and I ask myself, are there really that many projects and so few project managers? I don't know, but I think that the results of a project and not the relationships should move you up in the company. I guess this is the way things are now. I come from a military establishment, so I know the people who got shot and those who did not by the metals they have received. In my world, when it counts you want the people who were in a gun fight and not those who say they have been in one. For the managers, I say to know the people who work for you.

Thank you.

Juan Trejo Sanchez

In reply to Stephen Moffatt, I think it is important not to mistake being visible, aligned to the company's goals and relate to relevant people with building a career based on talking and nepotism. People building their careers based on the latter will sooner or later hit a dead-end; disappointment is the greatest career killer.

In any case job well-done is what will keep you in the position you have earned at a company, and will keep you advancing; it is the cornerstone and foundation sustaining your career.

I think what Patty Azzarello points out here is that it takes more than just hard work and technical skills to advance in a profession. We are at the same time the product and our own salesperson! No matter how good and revolutionary a product is, without the proper marketing and branding it will get nowhere far; if no one knows about it, no one will buy it, nor will talk about how great it is and spread the word to create demand.

So Patty's advice is very important here; we have to get out there, make ourselves visible and create our own reputation. Our good work will precede it then.

Rafaela Novais

This was great advice from Patty. I attended her speech at DAC and was very pleased with what she had to say - which is described in the article here. It was real, inspiring and, in some ways, a wake-up call. As someone in technology for over 12 years, it often takes more than good work to advance in one's career and you can't only depend on your boss' good will: you've got to have broader vision and great support from the people that can make a difference.

haa thi

Looks like there are two themes:

a. Being Visible
b. Aligning with company's objective

I agree that to gain visibility it requires the "workhorses" to take time off for network..

But I do not understand how aligning with company's objective and being workhorses are connected.. to achieve company's objective, it is not enough to have leaders, it also requires sincere and effective workhorses.. I sincerely hope that senior managers do recognize the value of silent workhorses.. If all workhorses spend time in making noise, there will be only noise and no work..

Patty Azzarello

Thanks for a great write up, Jack!

I know this can be a hard message to take...that good work doesn't stand on it's own.

I am not trying to talk anybody out of believing that the world *shouldn't* work that way, I'm just trying to help people realize that it *does*.

It would be great if your hard work was always recognized, appreciated, and rewarded. Sadly, it seldom happens that way.

Yes, you must work hard. Yes, you must deliver great results. You get nowhere without that. I *never* advocate visibility absent of results.

But if you want to get more of what you want and deserve in return for your hard work, you need to make it visible and valuable by connecting with the business.

Good luck everyone. thanks for the comments.


Calum Benson

Alternatively, stop worrying about having a 'career', and focus more on enjoying your 'job'. I've been working for nearly 20 years and haven't moved an inch up the career ladder in all that time, but it's still a pleasure to go to work every morning.

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