The beginning of your career at a tech company is focused on not drowning. You need to figure out how to do your job competently. Work to understand what is important and what can be ignored. Discover your way to impact your team and beyond.

Assuming you are successful getting past the filtering stages of your early career, you will also begin to understand what processes are behind career advancement. I’m not referring to career development, or ‘how do you improve yourself’. I’m referring to how you get promoted.

I’ve enjoyed coaching others on this, and beating myself up for the mistakes I’ve made on my path. Similar to interviewing, there are two main areas measured to determine if someone should be promoted.

  • Functional skills — Do you have the skills necessary to lead at a higher level?
  • Leadership — Do you lead as we’d expect from someone at a higher level.

People are often so focused on proving their functional competency that they shoot themselves in the foot when their leadership is assessed.

I had two engineers at the same level working on a project. Lets call them Sally and Fred. The more senior one (Sally) was getting close to promotion, and she and I were regularly discussing functional and leadership gaps for her future promotion. One day, Sally and Fred were presenting a design review for the leadership team. During our Q&A, it became obvious that Fred hadn’t considered the scaling impact on a couple of key decisions. In the meeting, Sally essentially said “Fred, I considered the scaling impact on my part of the design, I’m surprised you didn’t. I’ll help you later on it.

Later in our regular 1:1, Sally said she was disappointed in Fred’s performance. She said she was concerned that his designs weren’t high enough quality, missed requirements, and in general showed a lack of attention to detail.

My response is below, as best I remember it —

“Do you want to be the best <level> engineer in our group, or do you want to lead our group? I don’t need you to find failure from your teammates, I need you to make them successful. You pointed out Fred’s failures in public. This helped us avoid a single design mistake. You say you already knew Fred was not performing well. This isn’t about winning, this is about being a leader. Your best proof that you were a strong leader and needed to be promoted would have been for Fred to have presented his design successfully.”

If you’re focused on having better functional skills than your peers, you’re trying to prove that you’re the best of your existing peers. If you can instead make your organization, team and peers better, you’re being a leader. You’re showing that your attention isn’t on winning, your attention is on being successful. We don’t build our leadership teams with the most competent, we build them with those who will make those teams successful. A critical distinction so many people either forget, or don’t understand.

My general message is that next time you’re letting a peer fail, or feeling proud that your work looks better than your co-workers, consider instead how you might act if you were to help them look better. It might seem that your “higher” competence will be less obvious to your leadership in the short run, but it will reward you in the long run. Partially because it’s what everyone is looking for in a leader, and partially because it makes work much more enjoyable.