Unwritten Rules to Climb the Corporate Ladder

by Christie Irizarry, Lisha Perez


True or False? Work hard and you’ll get ahead. False, according to Harvey Coleman, facilitator of the Empowering Yourself:  The Organizational Game Revealed Workshop and author of a  book by the same title. In a February 1st workshop at Wharton, Coleman revealed that while performance is important, it is not enough if you want to advance your career. He shared his knowledge about the “unwritten rules” of climbing the corporate ladder and that knowledge about these rules is important if a person is to take control of her own career and reach her personal life objectives.


Early in his career, Coleman spent fifteen years with Xerox and IBM in a number of sales and human resource management roles. After hitting a glass ceiling in the 1970′s, he set out to uncover the factors that contribute to an individual’s success. Coleman identified three key factors: performance, image, and exposure – a framework easily remembered as PIE. Many professionals believe that superior performance is the way to differentiate yourself from your peers. However, Coleman argues that performance is not an easy way to differentiate yourself since that is what your contractual obligation requires you to do. Instead, it is the price of admission to the arena – all of your peers are doing the same thing.
How does Coleman define image and exposure? Your image is the way you present yourself to the team, therefore present yourself as the star player you aspire to be. Coleman defines exposure as the favorable contact you have with senior managers and decision makers.


Consider two analysts with equal backgrounds and performance. The night of a project dinner, Analyst A keeps his head down, punching away at his desk. However, Analyst B manages his image and exposure by attending the event, dressed in his best suit and prepared to have meaningful conversations with project executives. Six months later, both analysts are competing for a promotion. If Analyst B has positioned herself well, then she is more likely to get the promotion.


This illustrative example may seem simplistic, but consider the challenges and distractions that often deter MBAs from actively managing their careers. Could it be that you are standing in the way of your own success? Second-year MBA Brent Habitz shared his thoughts after the workshop, “Although uncomfortable to hear at times, Harvey gave a candid picture of how the real world works, and tips for how to play the political game… I was particularly struck by Harvey’s comments about the fear of success that often holds people back. He encouraged us to think about ways in which we’re potentially sabotaging our own success out of fear that we might actually succeed.”


So what can we do differently? One tactic Coleman suggests is reviewing the photos and bios of executives when starting at a new company. The reality is that most junior colleagues do not even know what senior executives look like. Because of this, they may miss opportunities to connect with them. Coleman himself executed this strategy while at IBM when he spotted CEO Thomas J. Watson, Jr. stuck at a mountain ski lodge during a whiteout. A greeting turned into a 45 minute conversation. A few weeks later Coleman was unexpectedly promoted after only six months in his role. Bottom line: when key players become invested in your career, good things happen. If you think you cannot possibly add one more activity to your twelve-hour day, then remember that everyone else is also working twelve hours, but positive exposure to the right person can put your career on the fast track.
This event was presented by GAPSA and WGA in partnership with CARIBIZ, WHAMBAA, and BGAPSA.