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The Unspoken Truths for Career Success

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The Unspoken Truths for Career Success

Navigating Pay, Promotions, and Power at Work

HarperCollins Leadership,

15 min read
6 take-aways
Audio & text

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Want more promotions and a more satisfying career? Take the right steps to get ahead at work.

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Many people struggle to understand why they can’t get ahead in their career. They work hard while hoping that their managers will notice and reward their efforts, but, more often than not, they wind up burned out and resentful. According to career expert Tessa White, this happens because they spend their working hours on the wrong things. In this clear guide, White breaks down the workplace falsehoods that may be hindering your career and explains how to refocus your efforts to create value for your organization. With her help, you can gain control over your career trajectory and learn to work smarter, not harder.


  • Lack of control over your career can lead to burnout and disengagement.
  • Work with your company, not against it, to manage your career more effectively.
  • Be proactive about getting feedback, solving problems, and creating value for yourself and the company.
  • Adapt and learn new skills for each level of your career.
  • Ask for raises by leveraging your value.
  • To have a better career and a better life, learn your company’s policies and set work-life boundaries.


Lack of control over your career can lead to burnout and disengagement.

Many people in today’s workforce suffer burnout. They may be less engaged with their jobs or feel as though their company doesn’t care about their well-being. In fact, the American Psychological Association states that around a third of employees in the United States report “cognitive weariness,” “emotional exhaustion” and “physical fatigue.”

“Burnout isn’t a new problem, but it’s a growing problem.”

You might dislike how the corporate world operates, but you can’t throw out corporate culture altogether in most cases. What you can do is change your relationship with your workplace, and learn to navigate it for your benefit by developing a deeper understanding of its ins and outs. With a better grasp of what your employer values when it comes to promotions, salary, performance, work-life balance, and more, you can make better career decisions, have more effective communication with your managers and even get more pay. If you feel stalled at work, have gone three years without a raise or can’t seem to move up the promotional ladder, then it’s time to re-examine how you view your organization and what it takes to succeed there.

Work with your company, not against it, to manage your career more effectively.

Often when people hit a roadblock at work, they either “grin and bear it” or leave. Yet those solutions won’t give you the control you want over your long-term prospects. Both you and your employer are looking for a return on investment. To get more of what you want in exchange for your efforts, frame your needs in terms of how meeting your requests would benefit the company. If you learn to speak your company’s language, you’re more likely to get what you want.

“When you are clear on what the company cares about, you’ll know how to better predict their behavior.”

For example, if you want a raise, demanding one simply because you haven’t had a pay increase in more than three years most likely will result in a “no.” Start by rephrasing the way you ask for your raise: Cite your contributions to earning profits and outline your value in terms of bringing in capital or saving money. If you can explain how your raise will benefit the company, you’ll most likely get a “yes.” The top priority at most companies is profit, so when you ask for anything, address how it will positively affect the bottom line.

Poor communication is another recurring obstacle at work. Blaming communication problems on other people is easy, but actually, many people communicate badly or water down what they really want to say in order to avoid conflict, so no one ever knows what they mean. 

Many fear that speaking up could get them fired or labeled as difficult, but your supervisors can’t address an issue unless they’re aware of it. For example, if an employee didn’t get a promotion because he or she has failed to act like a team player, but the hiring manager just says, “Keep applying!” – instead of telling the employee to build better team-related skills – the employee is deprived of an opportunity to understand what is blocking his or her promotion and to work on that skill. The same goes when you speak with your manager. Communicating clearly and honestly opens up the chance to fix any issues that may be hurting your performance and, therefore, gives you greater control over your career. 

 For instance, an MIT Sloan Management Review article about the experiences of 6,000 Microsoft employees stated that staff members who had a problem at work and were able to work through it with their boss were 92% more likely to stick with the company, even if they received another job offer. Moreover, willingness to speak up strongly correlates with a sense of job satisfaction. So, when a manager tells your team, “I’d love to hear any feedback,” use that opportunity to speak up. Don’t get frustrated because you think that the manager should already know what’s wrong; use your voice and explain.

Be proactive about getting feedback, solving problems, and creating value for yourself and the company.

Not understanding how managers perceive you can hold you back because you won’t know which behaviors to improve or fix. Don’t wait until the end of the year to find out. Start by seeking feedback now, so you can make changes more quickly. To work with your manager to detect your performance blind spots, consider using one of these two strategies:

  1. “Read between the lines when your manager communicates” – For example, if your manager says, “I want to clarify your role,” that could mean that you didn’t perform up to expectations, or you’re doing someone else’s job.
  2. “Pay attention to their behavior with you” – For example, if your manager starts to micromanage your day-to-day work, that could be a sign that the company doesn’t think you are productive enough, and higher-ups want to know how you spend your time.

If you are a top performer at work, bosses will tell you – and often. Most top performers have one thing in common: They create value by solving corporate problems. They don’t just work hard, they work hard on the right tasks. They see the solvable issues that their company faces, and they use their job title’s power, no matter their level, to fix those problems. For example, say you work in the mailroom of a large company. You deliver mail to each person’s desk, but it takes forever, often resulting in a backup. So you propose installing mailboxes on each floor, which will drastically reduce your travel time and eliminate any delays. Now, you’ve improved efficiency, saving the company time and money while creating value.

“You can use your unique knowledge set to grow your influence laterally so that you become one of the most trusted people in the office.”

Picking the right gaps to fill or fix often requires knowledge not just about your job, but also about how your company works. You don’t have to be a CEO or even a top executive to understand what is important to your company; simply be curious and pay attention to what the firm rewards. Start to cultivate influence by taking three steps: 

  1. Ask questions – Use these queries to learn the company’s strategy, how it translates down through the different departments and which solutions to specific problems would create the most value.
  2. Gather data – Use hard numbers to back up your research, proposals and solutions.
  3. Stay informed – Keep up on current events and business trends. Learn what other people in roles like yours have accomplished to boost productivity and provide inspiration.

Knowledge is where the real power lies, not job titles. You have to speak up when you want to learn something, get feedback, fix problems or introduce new ideas. 

Adapt and learn new skills for each level of your career.

The skills that landed you one job will not necessarily help you get promoted to the next one. To move up within a company or a field, you need to adapt your skills and keep increasing your knowledge. For instance, being good at following directions and asking questions is great for entry level roles, but those skills don’t work for when you are in charge in a senior position. Each career stage, from entry level to CEO, has its own skills to master, build on and then evolve to get promoted to the next role.

“The skill sets to work on are the ones that will secure your entry into the next stage of career growth.”

If you are in an entry level role, work to prove your consistency and reliability by following the rules, showing up on time, meeting deadlines and keeping your managers informed about your progress. This is the best time to ask questions that show your dedication to getting tasks right.

Moving up requires the ability to work independently. Having a role as a supervisor or independent contributor requires thinking critically, solving problems on your own and making decisions that align with corporate priorities. At this level, demonstrate that you feel confident addressing almost all the issues that arise and experimenting with different ideas and solutions. Prove you can operate without constant supervision.

To get a mid-level role, such as becoming a unit manager, start thinking collaboratively. You’ll need to prove that you can work with a team, conduct the necessary tough conversations and still get everyone back on the same page to fulfill the company’s goals. Back up your decisions with consistent, reliable data. Good communication and partnership skills will help you excel in handling mid-level responsibilities, such as cross-department conversations, funding negotiations, and utilization of outside experts and the opinions they provide.

Moving up to senior level roles requires showing you can lead a team well. At this level, everyone will look to you for final decisions, so you must develop your expertise and demonstrate it regularly. In these roles, you’ll spend a lot of time securing resources to fund the company’s strategies or changes, so you will need to have strong, expert ideas about the direction you want to pursue. You must be able to articulate clear, concise proposals, while not micromanaging your team or getting tangled in personnel conflicts. Projects and decisions move fast at this level, so choose your battles wisely.

Once you reach the executive suite, your job requires executing a vision for the company’s future growth. Your responsibilities will include convincing all employees to get on board with your decisions, managing stakeholders’ expectations and defining workplace standards. Your leadership skills must include the ability to stay in touch with your team members’ needs, allow space for others to voice their opinions and make sure corporate priorities are on track.

Ask for raises by leveraging your value.

You may be a hardworking employee, but companies won’t reward your efforts if you don’t ask. Most employers want to spend as little money as possible on operations. If you don’t ask for a pay increase, don’t expect your boss to offer one. It’s up to you to negotiate raises, and it’s to your benefit to be proactive about a pay increase early on in the fiscal year. For instance, asking for a 5% annual or bi-annual raise on a $40,000 salary may not seem like a lot at first, but over the course of a 35-year career, your total earnings would be nearly double the amount you would earn passively accepting a 2% annual increase. 

“Nobody will take care of you and advocate for you more than you.”

Many factors go into whether your request for a raise will succeed or not. Simply going the route of saying you want a raise because you need more money is a quick way to get a “no.” Passively waiting until the end of a pay cycle doesn’t pay off either. Studies show that employees who ask for raises outside the normal pay cycle – like in the middle of the second quarter – receive a higher percentage of increases than those who wait until the end of the year. The way you ask for a raise is even more important than your timing, because most negotiations come down to how each side leverages its strengths. For example, companies will leverage the fact that they have a job you want, they know the budget for that job, and you don’t. Als0, other candidates might do the same job for less money. On your side, be ready to leverage a data-backed track record of solving company problems and using your specialized skills. This is where you could possibly refer to a competitor’s offer.

Good negotiations arrive at solutions that benefit both parties, so use your leverage in a way that creates value for both you and the company. Take five steps to figure out what the firm needs and how you can deliver value to your employer for the salary you want:

  1. “Address company needs” – Demonstrate your inside knowledge of the company by highlighting its weak spots.
  2. “Identify your value proposal” – Explain how your unique skills and experience can help fix problem areas.
  3. “Share competitive data” – Use data to support your track record of successfully handling similar issues.
  4. “Make a specific ask” – Outline at least two pay proposals that you deem acceptable. Be clear and don’t back down or negotiate against yourself.
  5. “Secure the commitment” – Don’t wait for a follow-up; set a time frame for when you need an answer.

To have a better career and a better life, learn your company’s policies and set work-life boundaries.

Always keeping busy and trying to sustain an unreasonably fast pace is a quick way to burn out. Your company won’t reward your extra effort unless you are achieving the results it values. Therefore, instead of trying to do every little task, start shifting your focus to doing a great job on the work that actually matters.

“Aligning yourself to company politics requires only your observation and action. ”

Start by looking at the time you spend on tasks that waste energy versus the time you spend on those which build value. For example, how many meetings could have been emails? Are you focusing enough time on department goals? With this information, you can figure out where to refocus your time and set some boundaries. Setting work boundaries can mean little shifts that involve no announcement of a change, or big shifts that need your manager’s approval; each comes with its own risk-level:

  1. No risk  Look for benefits already included in your job, like paid time off, and use them. Plan meditation breaks, turn your phone off in the evenings, take a long lunch with a colleague you’d like to befriend or outsource some mundane tasks.
  2. Medium risk  Collaborate with your manager to reduce the number of meetings you must attend or to set rules for off-hour contact, such as no phone calls after six o’clock.
  3. High risk  Asking for things such as an assistant during crunch times, more resources or time to do a training program can affect your company’s budgets and profits, so save these requests for when you really need a yes.

Dig deep to understand your company’s policies and how executives prefer to “get things done.” Determine if your organization prioritizes independence or collaboration. Some companies, like big health insurance firms, value slow change because they can’t risk big failures; so having data-backed plans that gain company-wide approval will win over your managers. Smaller tech start-ups value quick profits, so creating short-term solutions that yield high-paying results will makes you stand out from the crowd. Politics provide a map for how to move up within a company. Use your assessment of your company’s preferences to your advantage.

About the Author

Tessa White is a former Fortune 50 HR executive known to her one million social media followers as the “Job Doctor.” She has 25 years of experience in developing talent. 

This document is restricted to personal use only.

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