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Most people are focused on the wrong measure of success

In your career, you earn currency with those in power. Unfortunately, most people focus on building up their performance while forgetting to build their relationship currency.

Most people are focused on the wrong measure of success
[Photos: Westend61/Getty Images]

Attracting a sponsor takes more than doing good work. It takes more than delivering above expectations and getting it right every time. It takes more than offering to do work outside your scope and beyond your responsibilities.

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Because while doing all of those things generates a performance currency that will get you noticed and promoted, it might not be enough currency to win the next level of trust, says Carla Harris, vice chairman at Morgan Stanley, in her book, Strategize to Win: The New Way to Start Out, Step Up, or Start Over in Your Career.

Below are two concepts of currency Harris discusses in her book and why most people chase after one, while the other is the one that really counts.

Performance currency

When you deliver above expectations, your stock goes up. If you consistently perform this way, you accrue performance currency that will raise your profile, and position you for better assignments and opportunities that can lead to promotions fast. It may even attract a sponsor because people prefer using their own currency on rising stars.

Although performance currency is valuable, it experiences diminishing marginal returns, writes Harris, because the better your performance, the more you’re expected to deliver the standard of excellence you have created for yourself. There is no end in sight. You have to continue outdoing yourself.

In other words, performance currency can only get you so far. Still, many people make the mistake of thinking that if they do good work, people will notice. The reality is, good work will get you on a shortlist of names, says Harris, but the work alone–that performance currency–isn’t enough for someone to speak up on your behalf when your name is called from that list behind closed doors. For that to happen, you need relationship currency, or the one people find they don’t have time for because they’re too busy generating performance currency.

Relationship currency

Career advancement requires that someone step forward to help others view or grade your deliverables in a way that ascends any other name on that shortlist. The sponsor uses their own hard-earned capital to influence someone else’s judgment on your behalf, explains Harris, and the only reason they’d do that is if you’ve convinced them that your character is worth it through what Harris calls “frequency of touch,” or regular positive interactions and shared experiences.

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The sponsor now feels that they know you beyond your professional title and work enough to endorse you. Your relationship currency allows you to buy access to relationships you might otherwise never have, or opportunities you wouldn’t know about otherwise.

This requires taking the time and effort to build horizontally and vertically broad relationships and networks. It requires more than the perfunctory chitchat.

Interestingly enough, many high achievers, especially women, says Harris, believe that their work will speak for itself, but absolute meritocracy doesn’t exist when humans are involved. So the next time you find that you’ve gone for days just executing, make sure to make it your business to generate the relationship currency you need to get ahead.

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About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.

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