I was just out of school and six months into my first job when I heard my company was handing out raises. So I asked for one. Not only did I get it, but my manager offered me a 10% raise even though the average was only 3%. I thought, “Cool! How easy was that?” But when I woke up the next morning, I realized nothing had really changed. Instead of making $35,000 a year, I was making $38,500, but so what? What had I really accomplished?
Since then, I’ve never asked for another raise or promotion. I decided instead to focus on helping the companies I work for achieve their goals. To be sure, there remain plenty of institutional barriers that many talented workers–women disproportionately–face in their career advancement. But choosing not to ask isn’t simply a matter of passively “having faith that the system will give you the right raise” or promotion, as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella suggested, to rightful scorn, last year. Rather, it’s about advocating for yourself in a different way–through a few strategic decisions that can pay off better in the long run.
Building relationships is perhaps the most valuable business activity you can engage in, and not just with people, but with your company itself. It doesn’t matter if someone is above you, below you, or at the same level–treat them all the same. Try to connect with them by finding out what they need and how you can best meet those needs.
At every company I’ve worked for, it’s been the relationships, not my place in the hierarchy, that’s created the real opportunities. For example, when Marc Benioff asked me to be the first chief marketing officer of Salesforce.com, I wasn’t a VP or even director of marketing. In fact, I had no marketing experience at all. Marc could have gone outside the organization to look for a highly experienced marketer, but that wasn’t what he was looking for. He wanted someone he could trust, someone who knew him, the organization, and the issues that were important. Because he knew that I was a quick study and could get inside his head, understand what had to be done, and make it happen, he immediately thought of me for the position.
Too many people focus almost exclusively on moving up the corporate ladder in a straight line, as if, geometrically speaking, it’s the shortest distance to the top. But this type of thinking can blind you to other ways to advance. I’ve tried to take a broader view by looking for opportunities anywhere in the organization. I’ve got into the habit of making a lateral move roughly every two years, without ever worrying about the next vertical rung.
At Oracle, for example, I started as a consultant and stayed in that role for two years, moved to a technical sales position for two years, then became a sales rep for two years. These lateral moves taught me more about the organization as well as my own capabilities, and the new skills I learned prepared me to take advantage of other opportunities.
It may be tempting to focus narrowly on a straight path towards the top as the most efficient way to succeed. But in today’s world, that approach rarely works out as planned, and too rigid a roadmap could actually hamper your progress towards the destination you’re trying to reach.
Don’t set limits in advance to the ways you can contribute to an organization. Leadership opportunities are everywhere, especially in a growing company. Think about what you can do to help the company accomplish its top priorities or overcome its biggest challenges. What can you do as an individual to advance a strategic initiative or support an important customer? Imagine those possibilities as broadly as you can, even if they seem impractical or outlandish at first. Keep the big picture in clear focus, and embrace opportunities as they appear.
After all, it isn’t just your company that needs to grow. You have to adapt and evolve with it, finding ways to take on more responsibilities along the way. That takes diligence and always involves a learning curve. Being a great salesperson doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be an effective manager. When you’re a contributor, you’re focused on completing tasks. They might be important tasks, but they require a different skill set. Once you become a manager of a small team, you’re still mainly completing tasks, but now you’ve got to do some thinking and planning for others. And you have to realize that your success and the success of the group depend on how you motivate and coordinate your team.
Things change accordingly as you move up. As a leader of a larger team or organization, you now have to focus on setting strategy, building systems to execute it, and developing metrics to measure its success. Finally, as a high-level executive–a leader of other leaders–you need to focus on the broader vision while teaching others how to lead, all while keeping an eye on what’s working and what isn’t throughout the entire organization.
In order to succeed at any of those levels, you need to stay open to tackling challenges you might not immediately think of as being in your line of work. But that’s where the experience comes from that will help you advance. And ultimately, it’s harder to do than waltzing into your supervisor’s office and asking for a promotion.
Tien Tzuo is founder and CEO of Zuora and a widely recognized leader in the software-as-a-service (SaaS) industry. Before Zuora, Tzuo was one of the “original forces” at Salesforce.com, which he joined as the company’s 11th employee.