Acumen. It’s Not a Deodorant, People.

Tips for moving up the business ladder

by Emily Bennington

In the intro to Who Says It’s a Man’s World, I wrote about my first real performance review. My boss pulled me in his office and said lots of fabulous things about my work.

“Wow, this is going really well,” I thought.

And then it happened.

“You have a lot of potential Emily,” he said, “but here’s the problem. You don’t have a lot of respect from the team.”

It was a swift and firm kick in the gut – but it was also a huge turning point in my career.

For starters, it was the first time I realized success is as much about the perception of others as it is about individual behaviors.

Second, it was the first time I realized that – if I want to control the perception – I had to control the behaviors.

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Call it savvy, call it acumen, call it being awake, but if you’ve been putting in the work (for years) and you’re still not reaping the rewards of increasing pay, position, and authority, let’s just say it’s time for your own gut check. Here are three questions to get you started:

1. Who would go to war with you? In the deepest dip of the latest recession, my husband was mandated to cut a percentage of his staff. The Mother Ship determined the number, but he was left to determine the people. As you can imagine, this is a painful situation for any leader and my poor husband noodled on it for quite some time. When it came down to making a decision, however, his boss asked him one question: Who would you go to war with? In other words, which employees are the most valuable, most equipped, and the most needed to move the company forward? If you’re not on that list, get used to 3 percent pay raises and the well-worn tush-prints of your current desk chair. Tip: Know the benchmarks of success for your boss. How is he/she being measured by her boss? Whatever that is – inject yourself into those projects and be amazing.

2. How do people feel when they leave a conversation with you? I know what you’re thinking, but don’t get confused. This isn’t about unicorns and warm fuzzies. This  is about three things: Did you communicate clearly and directly? Did you (re)solve the issue? Did you make them feel smart? Okay, so maybe that last part was actually about warm fuzzies, but it’s still important because – according to Gallup – the #1 reason people get angry at work is “feelings of being criticized.”

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3. How many cheese squares have you seen in the last six months? Yes, I am literally talking about those tiny, occasionally-marbled, usually tooth-picked cubes of goodness that are omnipresent at networking events. If you’re not being invited to the business after hours, the client dinners, and the receptions, here’s a good chance you’re not being groomed for advancement. In my former life as marketing director for a large accounting firm, I used to sit behind closed doors with our managing partner and weed through company invitations. The superstars (i.e. those with enough executive presence to represent the firm outside the office) were picked over and over for the really important things. And while the A-players are shuck and jiving with the big brass, they’re also positioning themselves for bigger opportunities. Tip: Know who filters the network event invites at your company – and get on their good side.

Sometimes when you’re not moving up fast enough, it really is about “them.” Maybe there are no open positions at the moment and so you have to be patient. Maybe your business has some inane policy about the length of time you have to be in one spot to move to another. Heck, maybe you’re just mismatched with your org altogether and it’s finally time to look elsewhere. But maybe – just maybe – it isn’t them after all. As I learned at the beginning of my career, sometimes it really is about you.

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Emily Bennington specializes in two distinct forms of career transition: college students entering the workforce and women leaders entering executive management. She is the author of Who Says It’s a Man’s World: The Girls’ Guide to Corporate Domination and the coauthor of Effective Immediately: How to Fit In, Stand Out, and Move Up at Your First Real Job. Emily can be reached online at

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