How to be in the room where it happens

How do you highlight your value in your job? Lisa Unwin shares her tips in a post-Covid workplace.

Returning to work after Covid and the pandemic is expected to affect women’s careers in an outsized way. Here careers expert Lisa Unwin shares how to keep your career on-track and flourishing.

Catherine Mann of the Bank of England provoked quite a furore not very long ago. She was speaking at an event and offered an opinion that when most people begin to return to the office, women who work predominantly from home could find their careers at risk.

Much of the commentary castigated Catherine for betraying the cause and urged organisations to embrace the benefits of remote working. “The system needs to change, not the women”, was the common theme.

Mmm. I don’t disagree but I’ve worked in “the system” for over 30 years and I’ve seen how quickly things change.

Some leaders will absolutely get on board and take advantage of new ways of working. Look at Atom Bank who recently announced they were moving to a four day week for everyone, without cutting anyone’s pay.  However, for every Atom Bank there is a Morgan Stanley, where the Chief Legal Officer recently urged its law firm providers to encourage their lawyers to return to the office in order to improve client service.

The bottom line

Given where we are with the pandemic, it seems likely that some form of hybrid working will be available to and adopted by many people. And for women with caring responsibilities in particular, continuing to work from home is obviously attractive. They have proved that they can continue to be productive — in many cases more so — by avoiding a long and unnecessary commute and by using technology to connect with people when needs be.

There will be others, including leaders with P&L responsibilities and those tasked with bringing on and developing junior talent, who will be keen to spend more time in the office where face to face interactions are easier to organise. There is also an argument that it’s easier to foster creativity and collaboration when people are working in the same space.

Which gives rise to a tension: how to benefit from the ability to embrace remote working whilst at the same time making sure your career progresses.

The room where it happens

At some point, over the next year or so, the likelihood is that leaders in your organisation will meet.  Probably together, in a room. The topic will be promotions, bonuses, salaries and the like. You need to be in that room.

Obviously, unless you’re one of the aforementioned leaders, that isn’t going to happen in a literal sense.  Instead, you need to make sure there is a person or people in that room who will make your case. The question is how to do just that.

I’ve been in those rooms. I’ve seen people benefit from having fantastic sponsors, prepared to go out on a limb.  I’ve heard them explain why someone should be promoted, receive a bonus or is being unduly overlooked for a plum assignment. I’ve also suffered first hand, finding out I wasn’t getting a long expected promotion simply because I didn’t have my own representative on earth in any room that mattered.

Here’s what I’ve learnt.

1. Be crystal clear on how you add value

Or, put bluntly, follow the money. What are you actually paid to do? What is it about your role, objectives or remit that makes your organisation successful?

I sat alongside a colleague once. Ostensibly, we had similar roles, we were both senior managers in a consulting team. I thought our job was to help our clients make sure their change projects had lasting impact. He thought his job was to grow the size of our change practice. While I spent time with clients trying to overcome those last little barriers, he’d moved on to the next sales pitch. Which, of course, he won.

Guess who was promoted to partner first?

2. Be ruthless about how to spend your time

Once you know where you add value, it becomes clear how you’re going to be measured. And that tells you where to spend your time. This means two things: focus on the small number of tasks that will achieve the maximum results; and learn to say no.

In his brilliant little work The Brain Book, Phil Dobson makes the distinction between people who are perpetually busy (active but achieve very little), those who are productive (achieve a lot but not the things that really matter) and effective (spend the right amount of energy on the right things). The point is to focus on the few vital tasks that will achieve the most results. The Pareto principle applies: 20% of your effort, if applied correctly, will achieve 80% of your results.

It also means saying no, politely, to many of those requests on your time that do nothing to help progress your own goals but are all about supporting others. This is an anathema to many women as we seem pre-programmed to say yes to everything.

3. Have a location strategy

Think about when and where you can best meet competing objectives. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work is not a fan of open plan offices when it comes to focusing on a creatively or cognitively demanding task. His point (I summarise 263 pages and around 60,000 words here) is that we do our best work when we concentrate and are free from distractions.

Assuming you have a distraction free space, home might be just the place for that sort of work.

In contrast, Lynda Gratton, author of The 100 Year Life asserts that one of the most valuable assets we have is the quality and diversity of our networks.  I agree with this too. When you’re planning to spend time in the office, do make sure that it will afford you the chance to connect with people who matter — not just the decision makers but people who are part of your network and with whom you can generate and swap ideas.

Be strategic about this. And don’t limit yourself to your own office, think about your clients too.

4. Do your own PR

Remember that colleague I mentioned earlier. And yes, it was a “he”. Not only did he focus on generating new business and sales, he made sure the right people knew what he was doing.

One thing I’ve learnt is that no one cares about your career as much as you do. Everyone has their own sh*t to deal with and their own concerns about what the future holds. Don’t expect people to notice how wonderful you are, especially if they never see you.

That doesn’t mean being in the office every day, but it does mean staying connected, being involved, and being visible. With Zoom, LinkedIn, Teams and the like we can all manage our online and virtual presence in a way which will amplify the impact we have.

5. Engage the home team

Finally, if you are going to work from home, set some ground rules. Don’t become the “default parent.” If this pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that pretty much anyone can work from home and therefore pretty much anyone can do their fair share of domestic chores and caring responsibilities.

Catherine is concerned that we revert to the “old world” where presenteeism wins out. That need not be the case. We’ve proved that we can “work” from home. There’s no doubt that as we move to a post Covid, hybrid world, there will be jobs that can be done in a hybrid fashion. If we want a career not just a job, we need to be a little more strategic.

Lisa Unwin


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