One of my favorite Ted Talks is “The Career advice you probably didn’t get” by Susan Colantuono. She argues that you’re not going to be promoted because you’re committed and do a great job but because you are strategically relevant for the company.
From my experience, Susan depicts the reality pretty accurately. I have seen managers that were assholes but great in sales and therefore promoted even though no one in the team supported them. I have seen managers who’s incompetence in leading people resulted in several appreciated team members leaving the company but they had this one indispensable skill to make sure even the most difficult and risky project did not ruin the company but turn out as success story after all.
I am not telling you to become assholes or incompetent leaders but to think about the fact that you will only be able to shape the direction of the company you are working for if you possess an indispensable skill. For most startups, these skills are: investor relations, sales, tech knowhow or product management (feel free to replace with whatever is relevant in your company). It can also be your network of potential investors, clients, journalists, speakers, politicians, etc.).
To put it in a nutshell: don’t wait until somebody recognizes your potential (it’s not going to happen) but invest in your own indispensability. Think about it the next time you have to choose between going to a networking event or finishing a milestone on time and say ‘no’ to projects that do not offer the possibility to grow (even though somebody has to do them). Know who you want to be and then work on getting there.
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And now, go become indispensable!