By Jack and Suzy Welch I have been working at the same company for the past five years, and recently I've noticed that new MBAs are passing me by and moving into management, which I assume is because they're cheaper for the company. Do you see this as a trend in the corporate world? — Anonymous, Kenosha, Wis.
No! Most companies don't promote greenhorns just to save a few thousand bucks here and there; they promote people who exude the kind of positive energy, ambition, and intelligence that can propel an organization forward. So understand—the upward MBA escalator in your company is probably not about corporate economics. What you're seeing is most likely a downward trend in your career. Without doubt, you've hit some kind of wall, and if you don't find out why soon and repair the damage, it won't be long before you're passing those "bargain-basement" MBAs on your way out the door.
Unfortunately, it could be difficult to get the answers you need. Clearly, your managers haven't been candid with you about your performance to this point. Perhaps they expected you to read the writing on the wall and draw your own dire conclusions. Appraisal avoidance shouldn't happen, but it often does when the news is going to be bad.
Your job then is to gently initiate some kind of conversation with the boss you're closest to, even if it is just to obtain a vague sense of what's going on. But just as important, you need to start pouring energy into getting back on the radar screen.
The most effective way to do that, not surprisingly, is to overdeliver. Whatever you're doing, do it better and faster. Expand your job's horizons to include bold new activities. Come up with a new concept or process that doesn't just improve your results, but your unit's results and the company's overall performance. Surprise everyone.
A second powerful comeback technique is to raise your hand when the call goes out for people to sign up for major projects and initiatives, especially ones that don't have a whole lot of popularity at the outset. Volunteer to work in a branch office in a tough competitive market or jump at the opportunity to be part of a big, new quality drive. A global assignment right now may take you too much out of the picture for your immediate purposes, but it is directionally correct. You need to prove you're willing and able to go the extra mile.
Finally, if you are draining away political capital within the organization in any form, stem the flow immediately. That means you may need to stop disparaging fellow employees, even in jest, or acting in any form like a wet blanket. Right now, your attitude needs to shout one word: "Yes."
Can we guarantee that these three "fixes" will revive your career? Of course not. The facts are, sometimes a person has been underperforming for so long that they get an embedded reputation. No matter how hard you try, you will always be seen as the same old you.
If, after a period of trying, you get the feeling that's true in your case, we suggest you jump before you're pushed. Find a company with a better fit, doing work you like. Then don't wait for the silent treatment to alert you: From Day One, start building the results and reputation that will make you the new kid rising through the ranks.
Doesn't differentiation—the system of paying top performers much more than everyone else and moving out the weak performers every year—destroy employee loyalty? — Andre Rapoport, São Paulo, Brazil
Look, loyalty is no magic bullet. In today's globally competitive world, you can't survive, let alone thrive, without satisfied customers. Do "loyal employees" make that happen? Sure—sometimes. But for satisfied customers all the time, you need employees loaded with talent, energy, and passion. You need people who aren't with your company because you take care of everyone all alike and the dental benefits are good, but because your mission turns them on, the work is fun and meaningful, and the opportunities for growth are thrilling. You need people who are happy to stay but ready to leave if the environment isn't buzzing. Those are your winners.
We're not against employee loyalty, of course. It's sure better than hostility or apathy! But the concept of employee loyalty as a corporate and societal virtue went out the door with lifetime employment, which had to go when foreign competition arrived. Differentiation was the antidote.
It has its flaws but works better than any other system we know. One reason: It makes clear that employees can only stay as long as they're performing. If that causes some people to be disloyal, let them go. You need employees sticking around for more than security—namely, opportunity and growth.
Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to answering your questions about business, company, or career challenges. Please e-mail them at thewelchway@BusinessWeek.com For their podcast discussion of this column, go to www.businessweek.com/search/podcasting.htm