Learning to regularly zoom in and out on your life is a valuable skill. This post covers how to apply this zoom technique to advance your career.

Before we get into the details, I need to zoom out a bit and briefly recap my basic view of life:

  1. Life is effectively a game – a really complex one with a hidden rulebook whose rules change over time
  2. Life is complex, meaning it is a game of probabilities, so there is no defined path to “winning” (whatever your unique definition of that is)
  3. Therefore, the best strategy is to a) increase the number of winning options and/or b) increase the probability of specific options occurring

The trick, of course, is how exactly to do #3.

Now lets zoom back in and assume you work in a typical corporation and want to improve the probability of a promotion or otherwise advance your career. Let’s start with the most fundamental rule of the game (Note: this is simply my best guess at the rule. You are playing your own version of the game, so adjust as you see fit):

  1. Your boss is the most powerful influencer of your career (they typically control assignments, performance assessments, and compensation), so whatever she deems is “success” is therefore what needs to be achieved to advance your career. 

This is not rocket science. I imagine most people figure that out after their first day of work. You can actually stick with only this rule for the first part of your career. If you make your boss consistently ecstatic, you’ll move up the ladder. If you get a new boss, figure out his definition of success and repeat. 

But then it starts to get more complex. I see this a lot in mid-career individuals. It’s the classic view of “what got you here, won’t get you there”. But why, exactly, does that happen? It’s because as you grow in your career, the “playing field” you are on expands and there are more players who matter and many of them are actively trying to influence the probabilities in their own favor.

Let’s keep zooming out, and in this case, let’s think of it as “zooming up”.

We’ve spent some time thinking about you and your boss. Now let’s go up a level and think about your boss and her boss (the boss’ boss). Rule #1 still applies. Your boss’s success is defined based on the boss’ boss’ definition of success. This chain continues all the way up to the CEO, whose success, in turn, is determined by the Board of Directors. 

Technically each level has its own influence on the rules that apply to you as an individual (and despite corporate slogans to the contrary, every scenario is unique which means the rules that apply to you as an individual are also unique). When you start out, your specific rules are likely 90% determined by your boss, and 10% by other factors. Mid-career, your boss is probably at 50%, with the rest filled by boss’s bosses and peers. By the time you get to the C-level, your boss’ influence is probably down to 20%. 

Your job is to figure out a) each individual’s unique definition of success, b) estimate the size of that individual’s influence in your personal career story, and c) merge them all together to figure out the optimal paths forward (for those who like math, you can think of it as a path optimization problem).

So let’s start with the easiest one. To figure out what your boss considers success, just ask. It can be as simple as “Hi Boss. I realized I’ve never had the opportunity to ask you, what would it take for you to consider an employee (or a project) exceptional?” If you have never done this – which many people haven’t – give it a try. I find that a lot of people feel uncomfortable asking this question. When I encourage them to do so, I explain it’s like getting the answer key to a test, freely given. 

You do need to be confident enough to press for details. If the answer is “work hard”, “produce value”, or something equally vague, try a different tactic. “Can you give me an example of a project you thought was a total success?” Followed by “What was it that made it so?” You are fishing for specific details such as “no customer complaints”, “under budget”, or “CEO loved it” to help you uncover her unwritten rule book. As a senior IT executive, I love it when people ask those types of questions because it means they are thinking strategically, they want to do an exceptional job, and they have enough self confidence to go after it.

If you have a free and open culture, you might be able to just ask your boss’ boss the same question, but at a certain point up the chain, you have to start inferring the answers. Listen to what they say in meetings or presentations. Look at who gets praised and who got criticized – for what and why?

Remember, this is not about office gossip. It’s questioning with a purpose – specifically the purpose of uncovering the hidden rulebook that will ultimately apply to you as an individual. I assure you that it exists, it’s just sometimes hard to find.

The good news is that a little extra knowledge can go a long way. Start with just 2 perspectives. In addition to your boss, try to put yourself in your boss’ boss’ shoes. What does success look like in that world? What are the key concerns? What keeps him up at night? Draw a mental picture of that world. Use it as a filter. When you are trying to figure out what to do next, pick the activity that best aligns to success as defined by your boss and your boss’ boss (which are hopefully aligned, but occasionally not). As it can get complicated, I find it helpful to draw it out on paper, as a variant of a network map. Think of it this way – the more you want it, the more time and effort you’ll put into getting a clear picture of the rules and your strategy, and the more successful you will be.