How To Fast-Track Your Career In A Startup
In one year of being in a tech startup, I was promoted from an executive to an assistant manager (skipping a grade). It is an achievement I am very proud of but one I definitely would not have been able to accomplish without the support of mentors – and a lot of hard work!
Here are some tips and tricks on how you can fast-track your career in a fast-paced environment. Before we begin, here are some notes on the context of the environment I was in:
- It is a startup that was rapidly scaling – which meant that there were a lot of new projects to propose or support in,
- Management was generally open to new ideas, and
- The HR policies allowed for quick progressions.
Some of these tips are specific to the environment I have just described. However, even if these don’t fast-track your progression, they will definitely still add value to you, your portfolio and your company.
1. Solve big problems.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson shares an interesting perspective about problems: problems never stop or get resolved but are either exchanged or upgraded. Here is a quote from the book (apologies in advance for the crudeness): “ ‘self-improvement’ is really about: prioritizing better values, choosing better things to give a f*ck about. Because when you give better f*cks, you get better problems. And when you get better problems, you get a better life.”
From this, there is a realization that we often have the power to choose our problems. In a scaling startup, there might be many fires to put out and many gaps to fill. Instead of going for the small problems and trying to hold a bursting dam down with tape, identify the biggest problem (or something that will have ripple effects).
When I started, I identified a huge communication gap throughout the company. I developed a detailed proposal and obtained approval to adopt a standardized communication platform. With the software that I introduced, I not only fixed an organisation-wide communication gap but also enhanced cybersecurity and solved certain storage issues. Here are some reflective questions to help you identify what types of problems you can focus on:
- How many people would this impact? Are you solving one person’s problem, a department’s problem or an organization-wide problem?
- Whose problem will it solve? Your bosses, your peers, your subordinates or everyone?
- Is it a problem that can be solved by one person or does it require an entire team? Aim for problems that would typically require a team, but fix them yourself or with a smaller team.
- How much time do you need to solve this problem? Can you align the solution to roll out in tandem with your company’s review cycles?
Pro-tip: it’s important to solve a few smaller-scale problems (low-hanging fruits) along the way as well. This shows how you can add immediate value to the company while also thinking long-term.
2. Make yourself visible.
Now that you’ve solved a huge problem, make it known. Don’t attribute your ideas or successes to your department or manager, but own it and be proud of what you’ve accomplished. This can be in simple and indirect ways such as signing off on documents with your name rather than a general department. Unlike in large multinational corporates or traditional hierarchical companies, it is much easier to “put yourself out there” in a startup environment. So don’t feel embarrassed, just send a report to your CEO via email!
Here are some other subtle ways to increase your visibility:
- Network internally – Ask someone out for a meal or buy them coffee.
- Volunteer for people-facing work – for example, giving a presentation during onboarding.
- Post about the company on your social media – If you are comfortable with this, this shows you are continuously expanding the branding of your company.
Pro-tip: Being in a startup for a month is equivalent to being in a normal company for a year. So you need to work fast.
3. Obtain sponsors.
If you are the only person talking about your accomplishments, you risk being an empty tin can. However, if others are praising you – both in front of you and away from your – then you’re heading in the right direction. In a startup environment, an indication of one’s performance is often more dependent on word of mouth than structured reviews. As such, it’s important to build a good relationship with people who might influence your career progression.
- Be a trustworthy staff to the Management – This can be through working on a project-basis with them to show your skills or simply through being an active listener.
- Identify and befriend “micro influencers” – These are people who might not be in positions of authority but have influence (either because they are charismatic or have been in the company for a long time).
- Obtain their honest feedback – If you are genuine about learning and growing, people will acknowledge and reciprocate.
4. Show your long-term plans.
You might not be able to solve all the big problems in a short time, but you can show that you’ve been seriously thinking about it. Develop short- and long-term plans in terms of processes you can introduce to make things more efficient, programmes you can implement that would add value or potential business avenues to explore. Startups are still growing, still defining their identity and as a result, more open to trying new things (even if they might not be directly related to the business). Presenting your plans shows your level of ownership and potential to ideate and execute.
- Simple presentations can be powerful – You might not need a 20-paged proposal, but a simple one-slider with the main 3 ideas you intend to execute in the coming year.
- The plan can come later – Startups might not have the time for you to plan but it’s about tinkering, trial and error.
Wherever you may be or at whatever level, if your goal is to solve important problems, then you will be able to get ahead and fast-track your career. Of course, these tips and tricks will only work if your ideas and perspective fundamentally make business sense. So, do the necessary research on your company, its ecosystem and the competition. Focus on adding value, and you’ll succeed!