Advice on How to Excel in Corporate America

Align your efforts to the organization’s priorities, hone your craft, ask for help and own your voice

The corporate landscape today is arguably the most dynamic and unpredictable it has ever been. Global pandemics, a war in Europe, supply chain challenges, inflation, rapid adoption of remote work, and accelerated technological change, have all put incredible pressure on corporations and their leaders. The leaders of today and tomorrow must be lifelong learners who are empathetic and highly adaptable. Understanding this is key to maximizing your career potential in corporate America.

To excel as an up-and-coming executive, you must first focus on developing a deep understanding of how your organization creates value for its stakeholders. What are the aspirations of your organization? What are the enduring competitive advantages? What are the key levers for the business – cost, innovation, scale, technology? With this understanding, you can better align your efforts with the things that truly drive the organization’s success.

Once you have this perspective, it is then critical to conduct an honest inventory of your strengths and weaknesses and develop a plan to optimize and mitigate them in alignment with the strategic and economic priorities of your organization. It is not enough to do your work well; you must also improve the way the work is done. It is paramount that you align your priorities with the things that are most critical to business performance.

Look for low-risk opportunities to practice leadership. Early in your career, it might be hard to get the opportunities, so seek practice by volunteering to lead a company-sponsored community project or an Employee Resource Group. The key is to find ways to develop your ability to influence others without direct authority.

Next, take calculated risks that allow you to grow. Early in my career, I had the opportunity to transition from a senior M&A strategy role to a General Manager role. It was seen by others as a risk because the GM role was lower in the org chart. I saw it as a way to get closer to where the power really resided in the company – P&L ownership. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

There is an African proverb that says, “if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together”. The path to success in corporate America requires support. Mentors and sponsors are necessary for your progress. A mentor is someone that provides coaching and advice to help you perform better. A sponsor is someone who will advocate on your behalf to accelerate your career. They will put your name forward for a promotion or high visibility project. Invest the time to authentically cultivate these relationships and invest in the work necessary to keep them fresh and relevant.

In addition to mentors and sponsors, work on building your own personal board of advisors. These are individuals you can trust to give you honest and direct feedback. Individuals who you can lean on when things are hard and who lift you up when you need it most. This support is essential to help you successfully navigate the twists and turns of a corporate career.

Finally, I encourage you to listen to your inner voice. Identify, understand, and value your gifts – the things that make you, you. Whether that is the ability to inspire, analyze, bring people together, whatever it may be, embrace it. This will be a source of energy for you and a signal to your colleagues that you are aligned to your gifts and can apply them for the organization’s benefit. It will also lighten the load of being underrepresented in corporate America. I decided to lean into my gifts about ten years ago and focus on being the best version of me versus a poor copy of someone else. It was liberating and increased the slope and velocity of my career. It will do the same for you.


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