Get ahead in your career by helping to solve problems in a discreet and pleasant manner. By Jim Bright.
There is a reason networking is such a successful way of getting ahead in your career. It goes like this: Employment involves helping other people solve their problems. As John Paul Getty said, "If you haven't got a problem you haven't got a job"; people are employed to solve their employer's problems. So if Lindsay Fox can't drive two trucks simultaneously, he had better employ a driver to drive the other truck.
Good networkers know that networking is all about giving - being helpful to other people by sharing information, lending a hand, promoting the other person's interests or reputation, providing emotional support or counsel. So effective networkers are already "employed" by people in their network before they become conventionally employed, because they are already being helpful.
Given that some estimates indicate that more than 80 per cent of people find work through methods other than a job advertisement, such as being tipped off by their network or encouraged by a person in their network, it stands to reason that there are legions of employees who owe at least some debt of gratitude to a colleague most likely within their organisation. This makes work political even before you start adding in ambition, thwarted ambition, competition, ego, personality clashes and the rest. So not only is your network valuable in helping you secure a position, it may prove invaluable in helping you remain in the position or advance within the organisation.
A lot has been written about the value of mentoring. There is also a lot written about how formal mentoring schemes often start with great fanfare and enthusiasm but peter out over time. This doesn't mean mentoring doesn't work, but it does speak to the somewhat personal, informal and occasionally clandestine nature of a lot of mentoring.
How many people have heard expressions from senior colleagues such as, "I really shouldn't be telling you this, but a heads up that X ..." or, "watch your back, Jones is after you, so whatever you do, don't mention the war in their presence ...". These little tip-offs are invaluable career intelligence for the savvy individual.
Blessed are those who have such guardian angels within an organisation, for they are very likely to inherit the plum jobs, or be protected from the worst excesses of political action. This tendency for small, mutually supporting groups to develop within organisations is quite natural; a feature of human social interaction enshrined in human rights laws about the freedom to assemble.
Often these mechanisms within organisations operate to increase the plurality of power as an antidote to the bullying of others. They can also be used to develop factions or support groups to promote a particular view or values. They are tremendously powerful, and those that ignore this may well find themselves on the outer with all parties.
The injunctions not to "buy into politics" are all very well, but this ignores the fact that every workplace has some degree of politics in it, even if it does not feel like politics. The group that goes to the pub, those that go for the lunchtime run, the gym, the service - all of these serve to form mutually supportive groups at some level.
So if you want to get ahead, you need to be useful to others - to be employable in the broadest sense of the word. Being able to do your job is a good starting point, but even there we have all seen plenty of examples of people who are wholly incompetent, yet powerfully connected, in plum roles.
What they tend not to teach in school or college is that success in work involves continually finding ways of helping others solve their problems - being useful, pleasantly and discreetly. Your colleagues can be your greatest career supports or worst enemy: you don't need to be Kevin Rudd to know that work is political, no matter where you sit in the hierarchy.
Jim Bright is professor of career education and development at ACU and a partner at Bright and Associates. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @TheFactoryPod.