News & Politics

Getting Ahead: Golden Rules

Twelve Ways to Work Smarter, Get Yourself Noticed, and Move Up the Ladder

By: Lisa Daniel

There are many ways to get ahead. Some people spend years earning advanced degrees. Others do the cocktail-party circuit, collecting business cards. Some try the old-fashioned way of working hard and hoping somebody notices.

Workplace experts say that a lot of success depends on personality. Forget the image of cutthroat power-grabbers. Successful Washingtonians work hard and smart, have vision and perseverance, get along with people, and are flexible enough to change with the times. Having some charisma and being an expert in your field doesn't hurt.

Washington offers lots of opportunity. This region, which enjoys the nation's lowest unemployment rate, gained almost 80,000 jobs last year–a job market as hot as the technology boom of the late 1990s. With federal spending at an all-time high, that is not likely to change soon.

Northern Virginia has surpassed Silicon Valley as the nation's biggest center for technology jobs. The Washington region is a national leader in biotechnology. Washington has lots of opportunities in higher education.

With opportunity comes competition. Washington is brimming with overachievers. The region has the highest percentage of Americans with postgraduate degrees.

How do you compete? And what does "getting ahead" mean? For some, it's a traditional climb up a corporate, nonprofit, or government ladder. For others, it means having work/life balance, being paid to do something they love, or being their own boss.

Whether you move in Washington's high-powered political circles, the more laid-back technology corridor, or somewhere in between, there are tried and true methods for getting ahead.

Network, Network, Network

The surest way to get ahead in Washington, say the dozens of workplace experts I interviewed: make and use connections.

That doesn't mean you have to master small talk and be a regular on the cocktail-party circuit. Successful people, especially at midlevels, rarely have time for such functions. In fact, midlevel professionals who spend too much time going to parties and volunteering on boards may be seen as more fluff than substance.

Networking can be as simple as a phone call.

For Andrew D'Uva, 36, a friendly call led to his current position as vice president and associate general counsel at the DC office of New Skies Satellites, a global satellite service provider. D'Uva was working as a lawyer in the communications industry when he called a colleague to congratulate him on becoming general counsel of the then start-up satellite company, which is based in The Hague.

"I called and said 'Congratulations,' and he said he needed help and would I move to The Hague?" recalls D'Uva, who has been with the company since it began in 1998 and returned to Washington this year.

"You have to be willing to invest time in getting to know people," D'Uva says. "Every interaction can't be a request for something."

Dave Rensin, 32, founder and CEO of Reality Mobile, a wireless and mobile technology consulting firm in Herndon, learned years ago the power of being nice.

Rensin was fired from his first job as a computer programmer. A security guard with whom Rensin had always been friendly escorted him from the building. The sympathetic guard handed Rensin the business card of a headhunter he knew, and that headhunter found Rensin his next job.

For more tips on networking, see page 94.

Get Yourself Noticed

It isn't enough just to get your name circulated. People have to feel confident in you. That means not only doing good work but having people both in and outside your company notice.

Anne Kinney was a research scientist in physics and astronomy for 20 years before NASA recruited her in 1999. Kinney, 54, spent long hours in the observatory. She says that if she made any mistake in her career it was that she didn't reach out enough for new opportunities.

When she was at the Baltimore Space Telescope Science Institute, she was asked to write articles and serve as a commentator at NASA press conferences. The experience made her well-known at NASA, and when a director's position opened up at NASA, she was called.

"You have to get out and give talks and get published," Kinney says. "But the truth is, if you do something really well, it can open up other opportunities."

Business executives prefer to hire people who come recommended by those they trust. How do you do the kind of work people will notice?

"If you're looking to be an executive of a large company," says the vice president of a government contractor, "you have to position yourself to manage the multimillion-dollar programs and get the big sales accounts."

Take Risks

Positioning yourself often means taking risks.

In his second job, as a junior programmer at Noblestar Systems, Dave Rensin went out on a limb in convincing his boss that then-new hand-held computers were a technology the company should develop. Rensin started a hand-held division for Noblestar, which went on to do much of the industry's hand-held computer development.

Rensin's payoff? He patented a piece of software called Scout that allows noncommunicative technology to work together. With permission from Noblestar, Rensin started a new company, Riverbed Technologies, to develop, market, and sell Scout software. Riverbed sold in 2000 for $1.1 billion.

"You've got to not be afraid to try things people say you can't do," says Rensin, who went on to join the start-up OmniSky, which went bankrupt in the dot-com bust. "I've had many more failures than successes, but my successes have been big."

Work Hard But Smart

"You have to outwork everyone," says Stephen Fuller, an economist and public-policy professor at George Mason University. "It means getting to work early and staying late."

Certainly long hours are valued in Washington, but they come with the risk of burning out or upsetting the balance between your work and personal life. Many successful people say the key is to not consistently work long hours but to understand when overtime is necessary.

"The only thing that happens when you put your nose to the grindstone is that it gets ground off," says Bob Carr, chief human-resources officer at the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria.

Carr advises people to work smarter, which includes building relationships at work. One barrier to getting ahead that has outlasted overt discrimination in many workplaces is "affiliation barriers," Carr says.

Affiliation is about having things in common with the powers that be. Cynics may call it schmoozing the boss. But when there are two equally good employees and one chats up the boss about a favorite pasttime now and then, that's the one who's more likely to get promoted.

"People tend to affiliate with people like themselves," Carr says. "If you don't have that affiliation, you have to be that much smarter and more dynamic in the workplace."

The burden is on the employee to reach out, Carr says.

"Senior executives are busy," he says. "So, who's going to reach out to whom? You can start a conversation as easy as, 'What movies did you see over the weekend?' "

Sell Yourself

"Selling yourself" is a common phrase in career building, but what does it mean?

"It's telling the story about how your former experience prepares you for a new experience–and that is an art," says Susan Bateson McKay, senior vice president of human resources for Human Genome Sciences, a Rockville biopharmaceutical company. "Can you make the story make sense to me and do I believe that your experience is relevant?"

Job applicants walk a fine line between self-confidence and a bit of arrogance. McKay offers these suggestions:

Avoid the accomplishment trap. Saying only "I did this and that" misses the point. Interviewers are trying to assess your ability to learn and to apply that learning. Stick with naming specific skills and experiences and how you used those to improve the workplace.

Don't overemphasize "I." Refer to the role you played in a team that accomplished goals.

Don't discount off-the-job experiences. Where some people see a work gap from staying home with kids, McKay sees "the great applicability of patience that parents bring to the job." Some dismiss volunteerism, but McKay says it demonstrates "great interpersonal skill, organization, and follow-through."

Call a Headhunter

Another way to get ahead: Have the attention of corporate headhunters.

Generally, headhunters are contracted by corporations to find candidates for mid- and upper-level positions. Although headhunters work for their corporate clients, they maintain Rolodexes of job candidates. So it doesn't hurt to get your résumé in the hands of a headhunter.

"I will talk to most anyone–we all will," says Barbara Steinem, president of Dahl-Morrow International, a Leesburg headhunting firm that specializes in technology jobs. "If they're not in the right industry for us, we'll refer them to others in their industry."

Other good headhunting firms include Chicago-based Heidrick & Struggles, which has an office in Tysons Corner and is the world's biggest executive recruiter for corporations, trade groups, and charities. DC's DHR International recruits in, among other fields, high tech, financial services, education, telecommunications, and healthcare. Grant/Morgan Associates in Bethesda specializes in financial services. For a list of other executive-search firms with Washington offices, see

The Directory of Executive Recruiters is also a good reference for finding headhunters for your field.

Maintain a Security Clearance

Because the local job market is driven by government contracting, the people most likely to get ahead are ones with security clearances, Steinem says.

If you don't already have a first-level clearance, there is a catch–you can't get it without an employer's backing. Employers aren't eager to sponsor someone, because getting a security clearance typically costs more than $20,000 and takes two years.

"Our clients want us to find people who already have them," Steinem says.

The easiest way to get a security clearance is to work for the federal government, where clearances are necessary in certain jobs. Clearances range from "secret" to various levels of "top secret."

The key to clearances is, once you get the first level, keep moving up and don't let them lapse.

"There was a lot of interest in clearances 25 years ago," Steinem says. "Then came telecom, and people stopped renewing them because they made lots of money without them. Now that bubble has burst, and people are saying, 'If only I had my clearance.' "

Work for the Government

There are other reasons to work for the federal government.

"If you don't want to come to government for a career, come to government for a career-builder," says John Palguta, a retired executive with the US Merit Systems Protection Board who is now a vice president at the Partnership for Public Service, a think tank that works to improve government. "You get developmental opportunities that are not available outside of government, and so much of what you can do is transferable."

Learning how the government works, whether you're involved in Food and Drug Administration approval processes, Defense Department acquisition procedures, or Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, is invaluable. "It's good to know how these things work from the inside," Palguta says.

Anne Wilson found that out last December when she was hired as a director of government relations for Pfizer. Wilson spent five years on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant and director specializing in healthcare issues before she got the lobbyist job.

Wilson, 28, has many characteristics valued by Pfizer–an understanding of healthcare, strong people skills, the stamina for long hours. But what was critical, she says, was understanding congressional procedures.

Be Flexible

Recruiters and human-resource specialists want employees who are flexible to adapt to changing workplaces.

"We want people who can roll with the day-to-day punches," says Human Genome's Susan Bateson McKay. "If we are not able to turn on a dime, we're going to have a hard time. That's true of most industries today. The person who gets upset with that kind of change quickly burns out or becomes unpopular."

Recruiters can get hints about your flexibility in how you sell yourself. Do you define yourself narrowly in a job or industry, or sell your skills and experience broadly? If a company you worked for was restructured, how did you adapt?

In some industries, the workers who get promoted are the ones who are also flexible when it comes to working late or traveling on little notice. That means having backup care for children, parents, or pets.

Chris Doherty, of Quanta Capital Holdings, a specialty insurance company in Reston, says she owes her success to her children's nanny.

Doherty has seven children and, until three years ago, was a single parent and sole provider for her six older children. As a comptroller for the publicly traded company, she works as much as 70 hours a week during quarterly closes. Most others at her level, she says, are men with stay-at-home wives.

Without the luxury of having a spouse at home, Doherty hired the best nanny she could find. She's been with her for 18 years.

"Nothing would work if Mary walked out tomorrow," she says.

Make Sure It's a Good Fit

You'll have a hard time getting ahead in a workplace culture that doesn't match your personality and stage of life. That means looking beyond salary and benefits when you're looking to change jobs.

With impromptu meetings going late into the night and little regard for schedules, it's no wonder Capitol Hill is full of single twentysomething staffers.

"I got such a charge out of meetings that were called at 2 AM," Wilson says. "It's so common on the Hill that people love their job so much that it's all they want to do."

If you have plenty of things you'd rather do than be at the office, talk to current or recent employees about the hours the office keeps.

Also ask them about management. Is there a hierarchy that prevents employees from dropping in on the boss, or is that encouraged? How much time do you spend in meetings? Is the culture formal or informal? Are you heavily supervised, or do you have lots of freedom?

Fitting in at the office usually means you'll climb the ladder faster and get more cooperation out of management and co-workers.

Adopt a Positive Attitude

Maybe more than anything else, a positive attitude is critical.

"Especially in sales, business development, and project management, a lot of stuff is going to go wrong, and you have to have someone with a can-do attitude," says one government contractor. "It doesn't do us any good if the person gets the job done but everyone on the team quits."

Besides, he says, there's a lot to be positive about if you're good at your work in Washington.

"If you really are a sharp individual with a lot of experiences, you have lots of employment options."

Get a Mentor

Some successful people in Washington have a mentor–a trusted person, in a position they aspire to, whom they can call anytime for advice.

Jennifer Smith, principal of DC's Capitol Hill Cluster School, says she owes much of her success to the late Veola Jackson, the former Stuart-Hobson Museum Middle School principal who founded the Cluster School.

Smith's got her first principalship in 1996 when she was 29. With Jackson's encouragement, Smith had completed a master's degree in education administration while teaching at Stuart-Hobson. Then she applied for an open principal's position at Peabody Early Childhood Center and Watkins Elementary on Capitol Hill.

"You have to be fairly aggressive in knowing where you want to be and having a mentor to encourage and guide you," Smith says.

While some workplaces have formal mentoring programs, many people, including Smith, found that mentoring often happens naturally. The key is to find someone you admire in your field, then meet with him or her regularly, even if just 15 minutes here and there.

"I could drop in and ask questions, and she never made me feel like I was imposing," says Smith.

Mentors aren't only for up-and-coming professionals, Smith says. At 37, she has several mentors–and says she expects she will throughout her career.

"Mentors keep you learning," she says.