An Organization Is Not a Meritocracy

Renee Dye, PhD, Associate Professor, Emory University’s Goizueta Business School

This blog post is the first in a three-part series that summarizes the key messages I deliver to my students, in the hopes that it can catalyze and support the career success of a broader group of ambitious employees who aspire to make it to the C-Suite.  Most of my lessons are derived from my own unlikely personal journey from literary scholar to top-tier management consultant to C-suite executive for a publicly traded company, but they are also heavily informed by leading researchers like Sylvia Anne Hewlett.  In the final blog, I discuss the impact of remote work on career success.

A survey of MBA graduates from my school a few years ago produced a startling insight: of all the skills that we provided to our students during their MBA tenures, our students felt most unprepared to navigate “organizational politics” in their careers.  The reason that I found this fact so astonishing is that today’s students, who are Digital Natives and in part Social Media Natives, are the most connected and self-promoting generation the world has ever seen.  Yet today I find that my students continue to exhibit little practical understanding of how career success is forged…so much so that I now devote an entire class session in my core Strategy class to demonstrating the importance of relationship management and advocacy cultivation. 

One of the paradoxes of the Gen-Zs and Generation Alphas is their intuitive understanding of the phenomenon of social media…at the same time they maintain an almost ideological conviction that the workplace – apart from systemic biases – is otherwise a meritocracy, where talent is perfectly and objectively evaluated – and the best and most deserving rise to the top.  Surely a cursory exploration of Instagram and TikTok would convince even the most skeptical of the fundamentally idiosyncratic nature of success in a networked world?  The Real World is likewise characterized by outcomes in which success is imperfectly correlated with capability level.  Someone whose capability level is less than yours may lap you in the race to the top of the organization.  That may seem unfair, but that’s because you’re making the mistake of assuming that career success is predicated purely on capability.

Capability is not unimportant; far from it.  As I tell my students, though, capability is table stakes these days as the level of education and skill sets continues to advance among individuals.  If you’re not smart and capable you’re not getting in the door.  But once you’re in, your career path and ultimate career success will be more determined by (1) your level of aspiration and unflagging commitment to achieving your goals; (2) your performance outcomes in your individual roles; (3) your work ethic and conscientiousness; and (4) the relationships you have with other people within your organization.  And the relationships that matter the most are the individuals with influence and power over your future career opportunities.

Let me put it starkly: without career advocates (notice the plural), it will be much, much harder to make it to the senior management ranks.  Full stop.  Some facts to bear this assertion out:

  • People with advocates are 23% more likely to move up in the careers
  • Women with advocates are 22% more likely to ask for a stretch assignment to build their reputations as leaders

Ultimately, having an advocate confers a career benefit of 22-30%, depending on who’s doing the asking and what they’re asking for.  That’s increasing your odds of making it to the C-Suite by nearly a third!  If anecdotal evidence is more your thing, here are a couple of quotations for you:

  • A lot of decisions are made when you are not in the room, so you need someone to advocate for you, bring up the important reasons you should advance” (Catalyst Survey, as quoted in Elizabeth McDaid, “Mentor vs. Sponsor,” September 3, 2019)
  • When you get to the level in your career when decisions are not just being made by an individual manager, feedback from other leaders becomes crucial.  Rosalind Hudnell, Chief Diversity Officer, Intel.  As quoted in Hewlett, Sylvia Ann, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin. “The Relationship You Need to Get Right,” HBR 2011)
  • “I was great at building businesses and had tons of cheerleaders, but I had that typical Asian keep-your-head-down-and-you’ll-get-taken-care-of mindset.”  My boss had to take me aside and tell me that if I didn’t actively cultivate her as my sponsor, I would never progress beyond senior associate” (quoted in Hewlett, Sylvia Ann, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin. “The Relationship You Need to Get Right,” HBR 2011)

To reiterate: an organization is not purely a meritocracy where talent and hard work speak for themselves; and it’s much, much harder to advance within an organization without effective advocates. 

So what does an effective advocate believe and do?  You can apply three simple tests to determine whether an individual has the requisite attributes to serve as an advocate for you:

  • An advocate has a deeply favorable, almost messianic impression of your talent and prospects for future success
  • An advocate has the status, power, and/or influence within the organization to improve your likelihood and/or timeline for advancement within the organization
  • An advocate will put their own reputation on the line to lobby for you to secure advancement opportunities (i.e., stretch roles or compensation increases) instead of or ahead of other individuals in your cohort

Notice that the career-catalyzers described by the three tests outlined here bear almost no resemblance to the individuals we typically value for their mentorship.  Mentors provide a safe, non-judgmental space for individuals to confess to their frustrations and fears of inadequacy – and ideally to receive some behind-the-scenes coaching…or perhaps just some heartfelt commiseration.  And mentors can be just about anybody you trust.  A mentor looks a lot like a therapist, while an advocate looks like the star coach of that D1 sports team you want to get recruited for out of high school.  Tellingly, women report having more than enough mentors, but they are only half as likely as men to have advocates.

I want you to pause here and reflect upon the individuals within your orbit at your organization.  How many qualify as the-real-deal advocates?  How many are better classified as mentors?   How many are just random people you’re proactively “networked” with through a platform like LinkedIn but have no meaningful relationship with?

If this exercise has left you feeling under-resourced, no worries: I’ll discuss in the next blog post how you can be more successful in recruiting advocates.

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