To have a career: "A lot of work does not help much in the ascent"

As an organizational psychologist and book author, Professor Dr. Florian Becker from the Technical University of Rosenheim with who is making a professional career. Advance, earn more: that’s what most employees want! But what criteria do managers use to select new executives?

Is the daily hamster wheel worthwhile, does it favor a career?

Contacts are more important than performance, says Professor Florian Becker.

Most of my freshmen say “yes”. For students who have already worked, it is only a third. The older people are, the further the value drops. Some professionals believe that there is hardly any connection between performance and career. That is based on their life experience. The belief that performance advances careers is false to the extent that people hope for it. Studies show that the relationship between performance and career is only around ten percent. Ninety percent of the career comes from somewhere else, because of other influences.

Why do young people think that way?

You are so socialized. We learn this at school and during our studies: if I do my tasks properly, I’ll get ahead. Class after class, semester after semester. Many only realize in the course of their professional life that there are different rules at work.

What are the rules?

Your own performance is only one factor among many. In order to identify the other criteria, we look at the characteristics and behavior of employees in science, such as gender, personality or level of education, and then evaluate who is making a career and who is not. This data gives a clear picture of what will and will not help with the ascent.

What doesn’t serve the career?

Professional experience, length of service and even the level of educational qualification have only an insignificant influence on a career overall.

And what helps?

Above all to build up social capital! That’s the number of people I know who know me and who I have good relationships with. This network has a significant impact on my promotion. Experience abroad also promotes a career. Careers are easier where there is success. And success is more and more often abroad. In China, for example, BMW employees have an easier career than in Munich, because automobile manufacturing there is growing at double-digit rates. Presence in the workplace is just as positive for a career. Presence is interpreted as a signal that someone’s work is important, and there are also networking opportunities. Working from home makes a career more difficult.

How important is personality for advancement?

Very important. We know that extroverts are more likely to have careers than introverts. You can socialize and network better and faster. Even people who are emotionally stable, who stay calm in difficult situations, have better career opportunities. These are higher than those of people who are insecure or who scream and cry on small occasions.

That sounds like Neandertal, where only the strong survive.

There is more biology and Neanderthal in modern organizations than most people realize. Hormones play a big role in the office. Men with high testosterone and low cortisol levels have more employees than other men. This also applies to tall people and people with deep voices. These are all criteria that run on an irrational level of executive selection. That’s because in many organizations, performance is rarely measured objectively. And even if this is done, it doesn’t really affect the career.

Let’s talk more about the rational level, about social capital: Knowing the right people seems essential to a career?

That’s the way it is. We call it the sponsorship principle. The way it works is that there are powerful decision makers who choose executives. You have to get on well with these people. Working alone is not enough.

So who loses for the company and who spins the strings for themselves wins and rises?

This statement is largely true. There are studies that show: Executives who achieve good results, who advance their work, do so at the expense of time for networking. You will be overtaken by other executives who are primarily concerned with networking and advancing themselves. Ultimately, this means that it is not those who make a career who would benefit the company the most, but rather those who skillfully stage themselves. Performance is not irrelevant, but only a hygiene factor. It’s not enough to make a career.

You said that where there is growth, it is easier to make a career. High-growth IT companies would have to be predestined to move up?

Yes. Where there is growth, a career has a tailwind. In such environments, skilled workers can move up quickly. Nevertheless, everyone in such companies has a tailwind from growth. For an additional boost in your career, it is good to know the rules of the game and to build up social capital in a targeted manner.

How can you find someone like that, a sponsor for your own career?

There are three approaches: First, you should be aware that a career in professional life has its own rules of the game and that performance is just one of many building blocks. Sometimes performance is even a hindrance if it takes too much time. Second, proactivity helps. Anyone who hides in the office will be forgotten. It is important to show yourself and your own ambitions, to address decision-makers. Third: For the network, you should choose the people who really have something to say. Many people surround themselves with weaker people because it is good for their ego. They are the one-eyed among the blind. This is then not a suitable strategy. Surround yourself with people who are stronger than you, that will advance you.


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