Perhaps you think that if you work hard and make nice, you'll get the plum assignments that will advance your career. Alas, the opposite is the case. People who work hard and make nice almost always end up with the difficult, dead-end jobs that nobody else wants to do.
Or perhaps you think that if you complain about your current job and demand better assignments, your boss will grease your "squeaky wheel" and give you a cool assignment just to get you to shut up. That's true to an extent, but "squeaking" only works on the person to whom you report. The other "powers that be" will likely see you as a pain in the *ss.
Not to worry. There's a third pathway... identify a pet project that will both advance your career and be a heck of a lot of fun... and then get it approved and funded. Sound complicated? It's not. It's just a matter of knowing how it's done.
Before going any further, perhaps you're wondering why the goal is a "project" rather than a "position"? After all, isn't the whole point to get a promotion to a better position. Uhhh... no, not really. Positions don't mean squat, career-wise. What matters is what you accomplished.
Projects--even pet ones--have concrete results ("I did this"). Positions have abstract responsibilities ("I oversaw this process"). Believe me, any time that you're trying to advance your career, they'll be looking at what you got done, not what was on your business card.
Look, job titles aren't what they used to be. For one thing, they're wildly inflated. I once worked for a 50 person organization where everyone--EVERYONE--had the word "manager" on their business card. Similarly, some companies have dozens of vice presidents. Even inside the most hide-bond company, people want to know what you can DO... not what you were CALLED.
Now, your list of accomplishments is likely to be pretty slim if you don't take the bull by the horns and get some great projects under your belt. And you're definitely more likely to succeed at them if you pick projects that you'll truly enjoy. Plus... why NOT do something that you enjoy?!
For example, let's suppose that you're currently work in the training and events group. You're writing workbooks, giving classes, maybe helping to organize a conference... mostly grunt work, frankly. You decide that you'd rather be putting on big corporate parties (and get into event planning) but that's not something your company has done the past.
(Note: I recently wrote a "how to" post on giving WOW events, so it's on the top of my mind. However, this is just an example. Your pet project might just as well be launching a new product category, doing market research in Europe, whatever. If it's something you'd love that would advance your career, that's what you want to get approved and funded.)
At last year's user group meeting, the kick-off session was a paid speaker. It was pretty humdrum, frankly, but it only cost $10,000. Since you've done your research on high end corporate events, you know that a WOW event will cost at least $150,000. Your challenge is to get your company to budget an extra $140,000 and leave you in charge of what used the be kick-off speaker and what you hope will be this huge party.
Here's exactly how you go about getting this approved:
1. Build a rock-solid business case before talking to ANYONE.
Alas, "we should throw a big party because it would be a lot of fun and give me lots of great career points" will not get your project approved, even though it's kinda the truth, right? Regardless, you've got to find or create viable business reasons why your company should spend this money. And then be able to express them clearly.
A rock-solid business case will show some combination (preferably all) of the below:
- How spending this money this will make us more money.
- How spending this money this will save us money in the long run.
- How not spending the money this will lose us money.
- How spending this money will make us more competitive.
- How not spending this money will make us less competitive.
For example, in the case of the WOW event, you'd probably use these arguments:
- Customers will buy more from us next year if they have a great time at the conference.
- Customers who attend will be more loyal and thus take less effort to remain on board.
- Customers were disappointed last year and the conference dull; some of them jumped ship.
- Customers now expect vendors to throw these WOW events like the one [competitor] threw.
- Customers might assume we're running out of money if we don't spend more on this event.
You then take each of those points and marshal some sort of evidence or anecdote to illustrate it and buttress the argument.
I must emphasize--and this is important--you build this case BEFORE you try to get any approval or even mention the idea to anybody. If people get wind of what you're doing, they'll probably raise all sorts of objections. Until you've got your case together, you won't know how to address their concerns.
2. Meet privately with the primary stakeholders.
When trying to get something like this approved, most people would start with a big meeting and a presentation/discussion, expecting that the rock-solid business case will carry the day. This common strategy is hopelessly naïve.
The general rule is: the more people who are involved in a decision, the less likely it is that a decision will be made. Your organization (like all other organizations) contain people who feel more important when they crap on other people's ideas. There are also people, like lawyers and accountants, whose job is essentially to say no to everything.
To get your project through, you need to identify the most important stakeholders (and only those stakeholders--the fewer the better) and work privately with them, one-on-one, so that they're on board BEFORE you expose the idea to the general shooting gallery.
3. Avoid getting sent on rock fetches.
While you're doing this, don't get caught in the "rock fetch" trap. This is when, rather than give their buy-in, a stakeholders gives you a task that must be done prior getting that stakeholder's approval. The danger to fetching rocks is that once you fetch one, you'll probably end up fetching more... and on and on.
The way to prevent this is to immediately probe why the stakeholder needs whatever they say they need and then try to satisfy that concern without fetching the rock. Example:
- Stakeholder: "This looks interesting but I'd like to see a detailed financial analysis." Translation: I'm sending you on a rock fetch.
- You: "Just out of curiosity, why do you feel a detailed plan is necessary in this case?" Translation: What's the real problem?
- Stakeholder: "Well, we need to be careful that we spend our marketing money wisely." Translation: I don't want to get involved in a budget battle.
- You: "So if our CMO is on-board with spending the extra money, you're on board, too?" Translation: Ha, ha, I'm calling your bluff.
- Stakeholder: "Maybe." Translation: Wow, I didn't expect you to say that.
- You: "Great. So you're OK with this idea, as long as we do a financial plan if the CMO thinks it's necessary?" Translation: I respect your concerns but don't want to do a rock fetch.
- Stakeholder: "Sure. Why not?" Translation: Sure, why not?
4. Piggyback approval onto another meeting.
Once again, after getting the "ducks in a row," many people would call a specific meeting to get final consensus under the assumption that the endorsements your idea has gotten one-on-one will create the momentum to get your project approved.
This might work but there's a huge danger that a meeting specifically on this subject will create an opportunity for nay-sayers to establish their importance, which is MUCH more likely to take place if they're warned ahead of time that such a meeting will take place.
Therefore, it's much more strategic to get your project on the agenda (ideally without being specifically identified) of another meeting, ideally as a quick item to handle before the meeting proceeds to its main purpose.
When your project comes up, you briefly present each point in your business case but (and this is important), tie each point to one of the stakeholders with whom you've already discussed the idea. Your goal is not so much to sell your idea but to get the stakeholders to PUBLICLY endorse the idea they've already privately approved.
For example, suppose one of the points in your business case is that the WOW event will increase brand equity by 10%. Rather than just present that number you say to the group: "I worked with Bill over in branding and we believe that an event of this type will increase the perceived value of our brand by somewhere around 10%. Right, Bill?"
Repeat as you go through all the points in your business case.
That's really all there is to it. The hard work is all on the front end: doing the research, building the business case and working with multiple stakeholders to incorporate their thoughts and get them onto your team. If you do that thoroughly, your project will get approved.