Flying Up the Career Ladder

I recently read what be one of the most relevant and beneficial articles from Professor Adrian Furnham’s regular column in The Sunday Times. It was entitled: “Seven Steps to the Stars: How to Fly Up the Career Ladder.

I came to the conclusion a long time ago that technical skills, i.e. the ability to actually do the job satisfactorily or effectively, are, at best equal, or even secondary to inter-personal or political skills; more pertinently, they relate to “playing the game” or conforming to unwritten rules.

I though that it would be insightful and beneficial to list and relate these to Asperger Syndrome (AS).

  1. Know the Corporate Culture

I found in my career that I could largeky either fit into a prevailing culture or I couldn’t – there was very little middle ground.

The same applied, as I have written often elsewhere, to working and inter-acting with certain managers. If the latter was of a certain disposition, i.e. an oppressive bully, it was impossible.

As Professor Furnham says “it is about understanding and following the unwritten rules and etiquette of the workplace.

How does one do this? It is subjective to a high degree of course and for someone with AS an incredibly hard thing to do, but through learning and experience I have found that it can be done.

This is where the first piece of advice in the article becomes useful: get someone with experience to tell you the history of the organization. In my job in an entertainment company, the culture was highly paternal: all senior managers had done many years service and “the way it is done around here” was clearly entrenched. I likened it in a way to the old Soviet Politburo.

To work and survive meant appreciating and working within this. In the main this was not a problem for me. The culture was collegiate and supportive (with one exception) and synonymous with my own character and style.

The next piece of advice is also beneficial: get the above people to tell you and listen to the stories, sagas, myths about past and present managers. I fund that you couldlearn so much about this.

As Professor Furnham outlines, the culture dictates everything: timekeeping, dress sense, politically correct terminology and, importantly, who holds the power. As readers of my blog on my website Aspergermanagment.com and my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome will know, failing to recognise the latter in my case caused terminal damage to my career.

So, whenever I go into a company or organization now, I look out for, and try to identify, the “Important Others’”; those that wield power. I try to formulate a relationship with them or, if that is ultimately not possible, remove myself from the situation.

As the paragraph concludes: watch and copy, act interested about what is going on, accept invitations for drinks after work etc and try to become part of tribe.

All of these things do not come innately for someone with Asperger ofcourse; nor do they naturally seem relevant or important. But I have found to my cost that I must do this – or experience the consequences.

Read about the issues, learn from them and apply what they demand as much as you feel able.

  1. Explore Expectations

“Observe and listen to understand what is said about the vision and the values”.

In the career job I loved and lost, one of the most problematic things was that what I believed in, and knew had to be done, was contrary to the values and corporate culture that prevailed at the time.

They changed later of course – as all things do in the commercial world – but the existing culture at the time meant that I was simply unable to do what I knew needed to be done.

In hindsight what could I have done? Implemented lower priorities to achieve some form of wins would have benefited. Explaining and laying out the vision to explain what was (and eventually did) going to happen would also have benefited me personally, even though, as one of my colleagues later said, ultimately it wouldn’t have done me any good, i.e. achieved the commercial objective.

Overcoming my reticence and propensity to keep my thoughts and unique insights that accrued from my Asperger internal would have been essential. I can see looking back in my career how I have kept my thoughts largely to myself and not, in a way, educatd people or shared my sometimes unique insight. If people don’t know they can’t understand can they?

I believe that I would have had a better chance if I had tried to take people with me. To have done this would have meant building more effective relationships higher up and proactively trying to get more “on-board”. My experience has taught me that you simply have to gain the support of key opinion formers to exert infuence.

Being seen as Professor Furnham says receptive to feedback and what is expected of you [me] would also have helped. I believe that I am but, looking back on my experience, the propensity to internalise my thoughts and feelings as a result of my AS has meant that others’ have perceived otherwise.

Proactively overcoming this and promulgating my views constructively has been an essential requirement for doing so. As the article says, “I am not afraid to make the odd point, which shows I am listening and have my own mind”. I am “upbeat and positive – to show that I am committed”.

Work to overcome your Asperger introvertedess and become more extrovert.

  1. Do Serious Networking

My Asperger condition means that I am not naturally pre-disposed to do this of course. It has also meant that I have not sufficiently appreciated the need to do it. If I do the job well I will progress won’t I? Wrong!

The starting point I have found from my experience is – again- as Professor Furnham asserts: “you need a map of who’s who; who holds the power and influence; and who will be most useful to you”.

The most difficult thing relating to this in relation to my AS is to pander to those who I feel are being either unfair to me, unfair to others or undeserving of praise/respect. If someone acts in a way which I believe is wrong or unacceptable, then I won’t compromise towards them. This is dangerous approach and it has cost me my job on two occasions.

In addition to developing a social network as the article asserts, I have found that building a network around protagonists to provide a support mechanism is also beneficial.

In the situation mentioned above whereby I unintentionally crossed an “important other” (due to him initially being unreasonable to me), I developed a rapport with a senior personnel executive whom my protagonist had also tried to suppress. By joining with her it enabled me to partly emphasise his unreasonableness, deflect criticism away from me and also counter my internal propensity to automatically blame myself or assume that the blame was a result of the “differentness” emanating from my Asperger.

Now, I try to network, network, network; build relationships, find supporters; ones’ that can support and assist me going forward. I force myself do what the article says – proactively introduce myself, identify something that I have in common with them and how I might be able to help them. Praising them in some way if possible also helps. I should also as Professor Furnham says “accept all invitations”.

  1. Start with an Early Strategic Plan

The initial advice here directly relates to, and benefits, having Asperger Syndrome: “think carefully about what you can offer”.

The reason why I feel this is so important – and potentially advantageous – is that the unique mode of thinking and insight that Asperger proffers can be of real use and benefit to an organization.

The article’s section states that one needs to “get under the surface of in terms of how the organizations runs – what is really important and what is not”.

Because of my MBA training – and, importantly, because of my original, high ability to analyse – I could see what was happening to the above aforementioned company. I knew also, as a result, what to do about it.

I did not share that inner insight. There were extenuating reasons of course such as the corporate culture which was the antithesis of what I believed in, or because of the hostility of the “Important Other”, but communicating that insight would have enhanced my position and could –possibly – have protected it.

In others words, I should have thought more about “how I could best fit in”; “been aware of hostile elements”. I think I would also as a person with Asperger have benefited from the next assertion: “accept that you may not be uniformly accepted”.

The next point is also strongly Asperger-related: “be aware also of requests that may be sincere but could have damaging consequences for one personally”. In other words, don’t allow your innate propensity of the need to be liked or to please to overcome the “differentness” feeling inherent in Asperger to take on unacceptable projects or responsibility. Be alert also to backstabbing – do not allow being different to mean you become a martyr or victim.

Remember: having Asperger syndrome does mean that you are different, but there is nothing wrong with this; nor does it mean yu should be treated any lesser because of it.

  1. Make Priorities and Stick to Them

I am writing this article and nearing the end. I am tempted to stop completely as I am beginning to feel mentally tired as I often do as a result of my AS.

However, I am determined not to do so! I am going to take a short break to re-charge, but I am going to start-complete and overcome my AS tendency not to finish fully at one attempt.

In a work context this relates as the article says to “understand what is really important and what is not”. The article cites the maxim of “don’t sweat the small stuff”. For me with a manager with Asperger this means not allowing my cognitive tiredness or short concentration span, to allow me to get distracted and address short, low priorities or more appealing things such as checking e-mails. I ensure that I “understand the core of my job and the important current projects. Secure early wins”.

I have also come to fully appreciate the next point: that I gain “publicity for them”. I appreciate that doing the task alone is enough – again wrong! It isn’t. I know I need also to overcome my internalising to ensure that everyone knows what I have done and why.

Overcoming this AS propensity helps to secure the “visibility one needs and to be regarded as someone who brings value to the organization; that I am a person with focus and ability”.

  1. Work on Your Team

Oh! If I had appreciated the importance and benefit of this more fully.

The Asperger trait of wanting my own space and, to a degree, “living in my own world” has meant that – looking back – I have not afforded suffi cient attention or support to my staff. More importantly, I haven’t given them enough emotional support.

One of the most beneficial lessons from the reading that I have done around Asperger syndrome over the years has been what Simon Baron-Cohen identifies as the difference between cognitive and emotional empathy.

If I can see that a person is clearly upset or distressed then I can demonstrate profound degrees of concern or empathise with their situation completely. I demonstrate cognitive empathy because the situation/issue is apparent.

The problems that I have encountered with staff have largely revolved around my lack of emotional empathy: my inability to infer what a person is thinking or what may be happening with them.

I now try hard to watch, observe and infer. Simply asking helps, as does going out of my way to be – and be seen to be – proactively encouraging and supportive.

As the article says “get to know your workers as individuals; manage team morale and spirit”. The next point is incredibly important to overcome my inner, self-centricity: “ listen to them and tell then your story”. Be available.

Don’t also, as Professor Furnham says “be afraid of conflict”. Try to be “tough but fair” rather than just warm and supportive.

The latter is something that I have worked hard to try and achieve; to overcome my propensity to be passive-aggressive when discord occurs. As a manager I have the power. Being fair but assertive by not allowing my inner feeling of “differentness” as a result of my AS to feel in some way inferior can, I have found, be extraordinarily effective.

  1. Be Upbeat, Energetic and Positive at All Times

So important. As Adrian Furnham says “this can be quite tough as all that new learning is exhausting”.

For a neuro-typical of course, but for someone with Asperger Syndrome I know it can be even more so. However, I have also come to really appreciate I must practice and exude this. Achieving this means that the next point is highly beneficial: “ you will need time to protect yourself via privacy, so you can appear calm under stress”.

My past experience in the workplace highlights this so much. A “meltdown”, as sometimes experienced by a person with AS, is hugely damaging: you lose control and are seen to lose gravitas with others.

As the article says, organizations and management need three things:

  • Good communication: be assertive but not confrontational. Be sociable and form healthy relationships. Manage up and down;
  • Demonstrate energy and drive: get things done, be proactive, improve performance. This means being and being seen to be up for anything; exuding a “can do” attitude;
  • Be a strategic thinker: show you understand the business; have mastered the brief, be onside and someone who, in due course, can sit at the “top table”.

The first point can be achieved my overcoming the internal Asperger inwardness and personal isolation. Make the effort to socialise and force yourself to do so.

To get things done I plan ahead. Identify what I need to do and when, make a start and slowly work towards objectives to complete. To achieve this I slow down and work steadily to start-complete incorporating short breaks to re-charge my batteries. I set targets and start and complete.

The third point really isn’t a problem. The unique insight and analytical mindset of somebody with Asperger Syndrome means I can “see the bigger picture”. This is incredibly valuable to companies. The key is not to [AS] hide it.

My own experience in the world of work has led me to believe that these seven points are key to success in terms of career development. If one can achieve these objectives, one can really excel – even with the challenges Asperger Syndrome affords.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome