I've been working at the same company for 6 years and change now. This is unique for me, both in the fact that I've been here so long, and also in the fact that I'd like to stay some more. I really like it here, and want to do my bit to help the company grow long-term. I sort of expect that I'll retire from here one day*.
I've been here longer than all but 6 people, a list that includes the top 4 executives in the company. We now have something like 30 employees--I think it was 12 when I started. Trouble is, I'm the only person out of those 6 who hasn't been promoted--even once--in all that time. People who started after me who were hired in at the same level as I was have even moved on--one's a VP now, which is two
promotions to my zipperoo.
I don't think I'm out of favor here--they pay me a hell of a lot of money, in on all the bonuses, lots of real power and influence, only answerable to my division head and the President, etc.--but something's plainly amiss. I know for a fact that this VP person doesn't turn out better quality work, or a larger quantity of it. We work together a lot, and the amount of time I have to spend correcting assumptions and the number of times I see my own comments repeated (and she's welcome to them--it's not like I'm claiming copyrights) leads me to believe that she's definitely not offering the company more than I am. Maybe less, even, but I like her, so I'm not going to go there.
So what's the issue? Why am I not being thought of when promotions roll around? I figure there are a couple of things. First, because I'm in IT and Web stuff, nobody knows what I do, and I can't even explain most of it to them. IT also means that it's not uncommon for me to have to crawl around under people's desks, and to jump up and help them fix their computers when they break down. This doesn't exactly inspire fear in one's inferiors if nothing you do is more important than curling up under their workstation and jiggling plugs at the drop of a hat.
More than just the inscrutable nature of my work, or even the fact that I'm the go-to guy any time something new needs to be explored (DVD authoring, videoconferencing, etc.), which leaves me with an impossibly wide purview, I believe there's an image issue. Back when I started, I definitely traded, at least in part, on "cool factor." This was basically a company full of women, except for the President and the only VP at the time. I came in--I had been in a band, I had copper-colored hair (at one point early on it was magenta), and I interviewed in my motorcycle leathers because that's what I wore traveling to and from my other job and I didn't want to arouse suspicion. To the truly ordinary folks here, I was COOL. I wasn't any cooler than anyone else I hung around with--much less so in most cases--but from the suburban side, I was an alien being.
Cool factor can get you pretty far in a basically square town like DC. The motorcycles and the hair are pretty much what I'm remembered for everywhere I've ever worked. I went to a reunion of sorts at my last workplace recently, and all the partners remembered me and my bikes and stuff, but none remembered just what I did in the art department, and one thought I'd only left the company only a year before (try 5, dickster).
Since about a year into the job here, though, I've given up on the hair dye--it's just boring now, and I'm grooving on the impending salt and pepper--and I've worn a collared shirt of some kind probably 11 days out of 12. Yeah, I wear black jeans every day, and casual shoes, but I dress pretty nicely, or at least anonymously. I walk to work, don't play in a band, don't race bikes, don't do anything notorious. I've become as boring and non-controversial as anyone here. But I have a sneaking suspicion that what management really loved about me once is now a problem. People still think of the hair and the bikes and the music thing whenever they see me. If you get the company Prez drinking, it comes right up. These associations are OK for managers, but not for Directors or VPs, I think. There's not much I can do about that, though.
So what am
I gonna do? How am I going to move myself up the ranks? I can't really work any harder or better than I do, and since I've been told, in so many words, that I'm never allowed to quit or die, I think I can assume that people are more than satisfied with my performance.
I decided last night I'll go for cosmetics. I hate the idea, but I don't have any better ones. Wanna be an executive? Gotta act like one. Gotta look like one.
So today I started on my assault. I've put off every immediate demand on my time today. Executives can't just drop their important work with no warning.
I'm not going to crawl around under anyone's desk anymore. We have a service contractor for PC work. From now on, if something needs to be fixed, and it's not the server, and I can't fix it with two emails to the user (90% of requests anyway), I'm calling the Geeks. People can wait the 2-4 hours. Executives only make things happen. They don't actually DO the things.
From now on, every piece of information that I previously would disseminate via email will be attached as a Word document or Excel file. Emails are impermanent and seem dashed-off. Word documents have more cachet--they look better--and they're like getting a photo in a Christmas card. You can pitch the card on December 26 no problem, but you're always leery of throwing away a photo of someone's kids. Executives send short emails with long attachments that you're afraid to throw away.
I'm going to clean off my desk today, and keep it as spotless as possible. Executives don't have piles of unfiled papers--they create papers for other people to file.
32 oz. Baja Fresh cup with built-in straw and lid? Gone. Gotta have a glass, or maybe straight from the bottle (which I'll refill from the office cooler--I'm not a fucking idiot). Executives do not drink from oversized sippy cups. They do not re-use things unless they need to be washed in a dishwasher.
I will decorate my office, but not my computer monitor. I will ask for a better chair. Executives like their offices as much as their homes, but they distrust and do not appreciate their computers. They stay in their chairs and make other people come to them, so they need good ones.
And finally, though I hate the idea because I think it stupid and even more superficial than the rest of it, I'm not wearing jeans anymore. I don't need to change the shirts I wear--the sloppiest I get is a polo shirt--but it's slacks for me, and no sneakers. Jeans and sneakers on Fridays, just to throw the rest of the week into sharper relief. Executives don't look like they need a promotion. Executives look like they enjoy ironing in the morning.
The results of just half a day of my hard drive to the middle, my surge of superficiality, my "not selling out--buying in?" I changed a daily report that was three lines on an email (plus short two-sentence analysis) to something that's basically the same thing in an Excel file (so they'll get the same file, over and over again, with one more day's stats on it) and no commentary. So far three top executives have applauded the change, even though it's more work for them to open it and it actually has less value because of the lack of interpretation. I also wore chinos (old-ass chinos, with some stains, it turns out) and less-casual shoes today (same old shirt style), and the two tippy-top guys teased me in the hall about "who's the new guy" and "do you have a job interview?"
Now that I know what it takes to get noticed "in that way" around here, it almost makes me think I wouldn't want to work here if I'd known in advance.**
All you drones out there: Do you think the key to being an executive is looking like the boss, spending a lot of time on piddly shit that makes more work for everyone else and means less, and never having time to spend--only time to waste? Do you think that even the best and most even-handed of them are slaves to the business school mentality and conformist attitudes? Do you think that to get ahead you're going to have to sacrifice your hard-won alternative appearance or hipster style?
I think you may be on to something.
*I'm really only working so I can retire anyway, so the sooner the better. Realistically, I know I'll be working for many more years, but you gotta have goals.
**I'll stay, of course. This really is the best place I've ever worked, even with the apparently stupid ideas about what makes an executive. Swinging health plan, good pay and raises, tons of vacation, bonuses, company-sponsored happy hours and parties, relaxed atmosphere (I'll never have to wear a tie), decent, intelligent staff, respect (if not promotion)--this place has it all. Or at least more of it than anywhere else I've been. I've been around--I've seen the grass on the other side, and there's a pile of dogshit right over by flowers.