In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream as the “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” The growth of America’s middle class, especially after World War II, seemed to validate the premise that wealth and security were within the grasp of anyone who worked hard. Between 1945 and 1979, gross domestic product growth averaged 10.69% a year, and the number of families in the middle class exploded. According to figures from the Economic Policy Institute, productivity and worker compensation grew together until 1979 when the link between productivity and wages and salaries was severed. For decades, the formula worked.
Since that time, productivity has increased 64.9% while compensation has grown just 8.0%. To add insult to injury, the compensation gains went primarily to the top 1% of wage earners, growing 153.6 % – greater than the rate of productivity increase, and four times faster than average wage growth. As a consequence, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the top 1% of American families have captured the bulk of the gains of productivity, increasing their income and wealth, while 80% of American families have not kept pace with inflation.
Is the American Dream out of reach of most people today? Many things are becoming out of reach for the middle class, including new automobiles, college educations, and a secure retirement. CBS Money Watch described the situation as “America’s incredible shrinking middle class,” noting that the proportion of residents described as middle class in every state has declined over the past decade.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the vast majority (82.5% as of June 2015) of American workers are employees. As a consequence, their income and position depend upon their ability to successfully climb the corporate ladder. In other words, most workers must compete with their fellow employees for job promotions and salary increases. It is a Darwinian environment where a select few gather the top rewards – position, community status, high income, and security – while the majority share the leftovers.
If you aspire to the upper levels of management – with its rewards of high income, perquisites, and benefits – you should recognize that luck is not the only factor that separates winners from losers. There are specific techniques that can be mastered to separate yourself from competitors and achieve the American Dream.
1. Own Your Destiny
Many people are passive about their careers, either due to a belief that management will recognize their superior talents, or due to a lack of understanding about how promotions and benefits are rewarded. They believe that doing their job consistently is enough to justify additional compensation and higher position.
As a consequence, they receive minimal pay increases and few promotions. Within a few years, they become disillusioned and disgruntled, trapped in unsatisfying jobs, but unable to leave the security of a regular paycheck. Rather than controlling their future, they are dependent on the whims and generosity of superiors.
The era when an employee could exchange time and effort for long-term security and a decent retirement has long passed, if such conditions ever existed. The march of technology, the growth of borderless markets and competition, and the erosion of corporate social responsibility has changed the workplace forever. Forbes recognized that “the old ways just don’t apply anymore in today’s fiercely competitive marketplace… The economy is too uncertain; the business cycle has accelerated too much – and people have changed. That old contract is gone, never to return.”
You must recognize that your destiny is in your hands. Businesses are interested in one thing: surviving, which requires constant profits. Your position with an employer is safe only as long as your contribution to the bottom line exceeds the cost of your salary and benefits. At the same time, those employees who can demonstrate that they can leverage their skills to increase profits are more valuable than ever. Just doing your job may result in employment, but it is not enough to garner above-average salary increases and promotions.
Owning your destiny means anticipating the future, constantly developing those skills that are and will be critical to the success of the enterprise, and accepting greater responsibilities in the workplace. Learning how to consistently meet employer expectations and leveraging your results through the efforts of those around you is the key to raises and promotions.
Simply relying upon company-sponsored training programs is not enough. Investing your personal time by keeping abreast of industry and company trends, seeking knowledge beyond company offerings, and constantly meeting and exceeding company-imposed performance standards are necessary if you want superior rewards and recognition.
The quickest path to positive recognition and greater job opportunities is to be recognized as someone who always delivers the goods, whether meeting a sales quota or leading a company project. Every senior manager looks for the person to whom he or she can delegate responsibility and know the task will be done. Unfortunately, the greater number of employees prefer to remain anonymous, performing at a level that meets minimum standards to avoid management’s rebuke, but no more.
The person who stands up and says, “I’ll take care of it,” and delivers the promised result stands out like a beacon in a fog. They are the ones who will receive promotions and raises, while the rest will continue to toil unrecognized and unrewarded.
2. Forget 40-Hour Weeks
The Wall Street Journal has claimed that “the 40-hour work week is a thing of the past.” According to a study by global accounting firm Ernst & Young, 46% of business managers work more than 40 hours per week, and the number of hours continues to increase.
A 2014 Gallup survey suggests that U.S. employees employed full-time work an average of 47 hours weekly. 25% of those surveyed worked between 50 and 59 hours per week and an another quarter worked more than 60 hours weekly. A 2013 Harvard Business Review survey indicates that 60% of executives, managers, and professionals (those who carried smartphones) were available 24/7, working an average of 13.5 hours on weekdays and 5 hours on weekends, or 72 hours per week.
Working long hours is rarely dictated by the employers, but results from the culture of competitiveness that exists in many business environments. As a consequence, Wharton Business School management professor Matthew Bidwell says that long hours are “a good thing to demonstrate your commitment to this always-responsive culture. You get into this rat race, [because] everyone else is doing it so you feel you need to do it to keep up.” In other words, if those with whom you are competing for raises and promotions are coming into the office early, staying late, and working on the weekends, you had better be prepared to equal or exceed their effort if you expect to get ahead.
While some companies are recognizing the deleterious effects of extended hours upon their employees (often including failed marriages and unhappy family relations), most consider the excessive hours an effective winnowing method to separate the extraordinary employee from the ordinary. Accordingly, if your goal is to climb the corporate ladder, you should continue to equal or exceed the work hours of your fellow workers with whom you are competing.
3. Expand Your Technical and Technological Knowledge
In 2011, economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT’s Sloan School of Management published Race Against the Machine. According to the Brynjolfsson, “Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because (information) technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.”
Examples of lost or changed jobs from technology include bank tellers, personal secretaries, customer service personnel, and computer programmers. W. Brian Arthur, a visiting researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center’s intelligence systems lab, claims that “digital versions of human intelligence” will change every profession in ways we have barely seen yet. If you expect promotions and raises in the future, you must anticipate that technology is likely to affect your job and keep ahead of – or at least abreast of – the changes.
An employee today must be computer literate – familiar with multiple operations and basic software programs – to work in most business environments. In particular, the abilities to model business processes and how they are interconnected, work with a database, and manage projects are crucial skills that will become more critical in the future.
Every industry is affected by technological advances. Fortunately, adoption throughout the workplace usually occurs over time – in some cases, years. Reading trade journals and specific industry publications can allow you to anticipate changes that will affect you and enable you to get a head start on your competition through early preparation. Winners in tomorrow’s business environment will embrace change, not run away from it.
While technological competence is important, there are other technical skills whose mastery will accelerate your career. A 2012 article in Forbes listed the 10 most in-demand skills, including critical thinking, complex problem solving, and judgment and decision making. As you progress up the corporate ladder, understanding financial statements will become increasingly important, as well as having the ability to manage and motivate those around you.
Fortunately, these skills can be learned and practiced. Many companies offer courses for employees to expand their capabilities. Colleges and universities often provide courses for non-students, both on campus and online.
In recent years, prestigious schools across the country have created massive open online courses (MOOCs) providing educational courses of all types. While MOOCs may not fit the needs of everyone, they are an excellent introduction to many subjects, and can be the foundation for further learning. Education is a lifetime process and requires diligence and effort if you expect to be at the top of the earnings pyramid.
4. Improve Your Communication Skills
In his book The Innovators, Walter Isaacson argues that the ability to collaborate with others effectively is today’s most important skill. Communication is essential in modern economies where products and services are delivered through combinations of people, machines, and complex processes.
If you want to rise in the corporate structure, you must master the following:
- The Written Word. Businesses often rely on written communications since there is a permanent record. In addition to the ability to review past communications, written data is legal evidence in the event of a dispute. Finally, documents – letters, memos, reports – are more reliable than conversations when clarity and agreement is important. Your writing creates an impression in the mind of a reader, so vocabulary, thought organization, grammar, and accurate spelling are important. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab offers a plethora of free instruction and advice. Free business writing tutorials are available over the Internet. Also, many community colleges offer free or low-cost instruction on business writing.
- Oral Communications. Most communication occurs through speaking, whether in private conversations or mass audiences. Unfortunately, glossophobia – the fear of public speaking or speaking in general – affects three of every four people to some degree, and according to Psychology Today, the fear of public speaking can be greater than the fear of death for some people. The sound of your voice and the content of your message reveals as much about you as your appearance. Done well, the ability to stand before a group and effectively communicate a message sets you apart from those less skilled. In fact, effective communications (singularly and in groups) with subordinates and superiors, customers, vendors, and the public is essential as you climb the corporate ladder. Whether you suffer stage fright or just want to improve your speaking skills, consider taking a public speaking course or join a local Toastmasters club.
- Foreign Languages. Being able to speak and understand a foreign language is a real asset as businesses expand over the globe. According to some sources, learning a second language boosts brain power, sharpening skills on reading, negotiating, and problem-solving. U.S. News & World Report claimed that those who speak more than one language have a greater chance of succeeding in business. Knowing one of the dialects of Chinese will be of benefit as China broadens their economic ties across the globe. Spanish is a popular choice in the United States where an estimated 20% of the population is Hispanic.
5. Network Constantly
According to Harvard Business Review, there are three forms of individual networks:
- Operational. Contacts are mostly employer-focused with others in the same company. The value of these networks is to accomplish work more efficiently.
- Personal. External (non-work) contacts centered around current and future interests. These networks enhance personal and professional development and provide referrals to useful information and contacts.
- Strategic. These networks include individuals within and outside the employer and are oriented to the future.
The ability to leverage contacts for information, advice, and referrals is common among successful people, whether in business, politics, or society. For example, many political observers attribute the election of President George W. Bush to his use of his father’s (President George H.W. Bush) contacts developed over the elder Bush’s lifetime of business and public service. Charity fundraisers rely on extensive networks of donors acquired over years. In business, the influence of third parties is so prevalent that many believe that success is the result of who you know, not what you know.
Some claim the most important factor is who knows you. “The better people are connected, the more they flourish,” says London City University’s Visiting Professor of Networking Julia Hobsbawn. Leaders are especially adept at building, nurturing and benefiting from their list of contacts.
Being acquainted with other people is not enough – effective networking requires a working relationship of mutual respect and benefits to each party. People whose only purpose in networking is to exploit their contacts are rarely successful long term. The best networkers interact with others in their networks regularly and frequently, generally giving more than they receive.
Why spend the time and energy necessary to build and support a personal network? According to entrepreneur Rich Stromback, “Opportunities do not float like clouds in the sky. They are attached to people.”
Strombach’s business is all about relationships: He has been invited by a Middle East Prince to facilitate a meeting with several Fortune 500 executives and by the Vatican for help negotiating a peace treaty. According to Professor Herminia Ibarra and Mark Hunter, organizational behavior professors at France’s INSEAD, aspiring leaders must learn to build and use strategic networks that cross organizational and functional boundaries, then link them up in novel and innovative ways.
Successful networkers claim a strong professional and personal network is a matter of will, not skill. All of us meet people every day at work and play. The strongest networks are built upon shared values, mutual interests, and respect. The emphasis is more on “Who can I help?” as opposed to “Who can help me?”
The keys to creating a great network include the following:
- Build relationships with people you like – within and outside of your work environment.
- Nourish your contacts with a constant flow of useful information. Foster relationships with members of your network through introductions.
- Recognize members of your network whenever they help you by personal calls, memos, and small gifts. Acknowledge their contributions to your success, whether it be a promotion, raise, or providing advice.
Don’t Burn Bridges
Working with others – especially those with whom you have no choice – can be frustrating and difficult at times. Relationships can become strained, even caustic, resulting in job terminations and hard feelings.
If you intend to build a significant network with former business associates and employers, you must move on without rancor or recriminations. There is nothing to be gained from being unpleasant except brief moments of vengeance and you potentially appearing as petty or immature. You never know when you might need the cooperation or help from an old rival – let time heal any bad feelings.
Avoid Commenting via Social Media
The popularity of such websites as Facebook and Twitter is evidence of our need to connect with another. Unfortunately, social media sites give a false sense of security and privacy, so that many users are unaware that their comments are in public view.
The son of one of my business associates was employed as an assistant manager at a retail pharmacy chain. He was on the fast track to becoming the manager of a store with more money, fewer hours, and greater career opportunities. At work, he was considered a star performer with great reviews.
He was also an active contributor to his Facebook page. While circumspect in his actions at work, he posted message after message on his personal site deriding his employer, its customers, and other employees in the belief that his comments were confidential. When his comments were brought to the attention of the company’s management, he was summarily fired. He is unable to erase the postings that continue to be available to any potential employer.
If you cannot control your emotions on a social media site, avoid it. Remember to never post anything you would not want your mother or your boss reading.
Despite the many technological and cultural changes in the workplace and the vagaries of a worldwide economy, opportunities for promotion and higher pay will always be available. There are no limits for those employees who work hard, continue to expand their capabilities, and build professional and personal networks. A fry cook can open his own restaurant, and an electrician can run his own company. A recent scan of the employment website CareerBuilder identified more than 200,000 open jobs for managers from entry level to the senior level for a variety of companies and industries. Such listings do not include internal job postings that are filled internally.
If your career has stagnated and you are ready to seek more opportunity with higher pay and promotions, you must take the first step. Part of taking control over your career is examining your skills and shortcomings from an employer’s perspective.
Are you willing and capable of accepting more responsibility? Do you have the abilities today to perform your job at an exceptional level? Will you be ready for tomorrow’s business environment? Wanting to be successful is not enough – getting raises and promotions requires effort.