Let’s start this post with a little factoid:
If you were to ask people whether they would like to make A LOT more money this year, everyone would say yes.
And yet, if you were to ask the same group of people whether they have a strategy for making a lot more money this year, 99% of them would say no.
This disconnect between aspirations and reality cuts across every area of people’s lives. However, it is most apparent in the workplace.
The vast majority of people waddle through their careers without a coherent strategy on how to get promoted – and paid – in a way that reflects their true abilities and contribution.
Instead, they think that if they work hard enough, eventually they will be noticed and rewarded.
And boy, are they wrong.
As a matter of fact, following the above thought process is one of the worst mistakes you can make in life.
Over a thirty-year career, you can expect to spend about 60,000 hours in the workplace.
Let that sink in for a moment. If you are not thinking about maximizing the ROI on that massive investment of time, you shouldn’t be reading this blog. Do yourself a favour and close the browser window.
60,000 hours at £20/hour works out to £1.2m in lifetime earnings. A strategy that helps you increase your pay by just 10% increases your lifetime earnings by £120k.
That’s three years of your life – BEFORE compounding.
And guess what? You might not have a strategy for getting promoted and paid – but someone else sure does. And because promotion opportunities are limited – and bonus pools are fixed in nature, you will miss out.
Don’t want to miss out anymore? Ready to finally buck the trend? Then read on.
The Importance Of Being Honest With Yourself
The first and most important step is to come up with a brutally honest assessment of your current situation at work.
As with everything in life, momentum is crucial when it comes to your career trajectory. And while momentum is tough to achieve, it is also very hard to lose.
Ask yourself – where do you fit in at work? Are you someone who is seen as an up-and-coming star? Do you always get the most challenging projects or assignments? Have you got the proverbial wind in your sails?
If so, you are starting off from a good place.
Alternatively, do you feel like a perennial also-ran? Are you stuck in your cubicle for days on end, feeling like you are missing out on all the action?
There’s nothing wrong with being in the latter category – most people are. However, you need to be cognizant that repositioning yourself in the eyes of management can be very hard.
It’s doable, but it will take a lot of hard work – and sometimes you would be better off with a completely fresh slate.
Eject Reset Button
Life doesn’t come with an eject button… but your job does!
The most drastic way to reposition yourself is to find a new job with a new company. If you are smart about it, you may well manage to negotiate a raise, promotion or a guaranteed bonus along the way.
Another way to go about it is to ask to move to a new role or department. Anything that helps you leave some of the unwanted baggage behind and get a fresh start. Incidentally, your boss may be incentivized to help you.
After all, nothing makes a manager look better than saying “I recognized Joe would thrive in a different role – and I was right! Now pay me for my outstanding people management skills”.
As a rule of thumb, you want to be in a front office (i.e. revenue generating) role. These are the people who usually bring in the money – and get paid accordingly.
Like it or not, back-office functions are usually a cost centre. Given everyone is focused on cost management these days, making the big bucks in a back-office role is much harder.
That being said, there are people who make serious bank in back-office roles – more on that below.
Understand The Performance Appraisal Process
Once you’ve figured out the best place to position yourself within the firm, it’s time to understand what kind of behaviour gets measured – and rewarded.
There’s the official performance appraisal process. The one set out by HR and referenced in your employee handbook. The one that involves sitting down with your manager at various times throughout the year, documenting your goals and objectives, and measuring your achievements at the end of the year.
Sometimes, especially in companies where HR has a lot of power, that’s all there is.
Very often, however, there’s also an unofficial process, where the real decisions take place. The one where the senior executives with enough political clout take care of “their” people. The one that decides who will get promoted – and who won’t.
No one will ever lift the veil on the unofficial process, primarily because it is so fluid and implicit. You will have to unpick it yourself.
Start by identifying the successful people in your organization. Chances are, they have it (somewhat) figured out.
Take them out for a coffee. Tell them you are impressed with how much they accomplished in the organization and how quickly they’ve ascended the ranks. Ask them for any advice they can give you. And listen carefully.
Does the company reward specific skills and attitudes? Are there specific people you need to get in front of? Are there teams and departments that look after their people better than others?
Once you’ve had this conversation with a few people, you can start forming a real picture of where to concentrate your efforts.
Then, have a conversation with your manager and get your aspirations across. Remember – your manager will never put herself on the line to advance your interests. She might not have the time, the desire or the political capital to do so.
And even if she does, the most intelligent thing you can do is make her job easier by cultivating a broad, solid base of support.
Which brings me to my next point:
Map Out Your Stakeholder Landscape
Once you’ve understood which key decision-makers determine your year-end performance ranking, you need to have a strategy to get them to a place where they will give you a glowing review.
And no, it doesn’t include sucking up to them, though being nice and friendly sure helps.
Instead, try to understand their key pain points – and work your butt off to solve them.
Create a note in your phone with their names (there shouldn’t be more than 10). Every morning on your way to work, look at that note and ask yourself:
“What can I do to help these people today?”
You are solving for low-effort, high-impact actions. Sharing a draft report that makes them look smart in the next meeting with the CEO. Coming up with a brilliant idea for an upcoming client pitch. Creating a briefing note that will save them two hours of research.
It’s important that don’t take on recurring responsibilities, like signing up for five hours of extra work every month. It will soon become normalized – and you won’t be able to backpedal without looking bad.
Instead, focus on one-off events that highlight your intelligence, energy and creativity.
Don’t Piss People Off
Invariably, you won’t be able to be friends, or friendly, with everyone. Along the way, you will meet people that you simply don’t have chemistry with – and that’s okay.
There’s no need to be a chameleon, but it is imperative that you don’t make enemies. I’ve seen smart, hard-working people denied promotions and take massive haircuts on their bonuses simply because they crossed the wrong person.
Just don’t do it
Remember – your job is not a crusade. If you want to campaign for social justice, your workplace isn’t the place to do it.
No matter how much someone pisses you off, don’t let it show. With time, you may well realize the perceived slight isn’t as big a deal as you imagined it to be. In the meantime, making enemies in the workplace will cost you dearly.
Take On A High-Visibility Internal Project
Running point on “extracurricular” activities in the workplace is kind of like being a teacher’s pet in school. Most people will secretly despise you, but a few won’t. Well, guess what – those few are the only ones that make a difference.
Put yourself in the shoes of any mid- to senior manager out there. In addition to keeping your house (i.e. department) in good working order, you are also expected to propel it forward.
Whether it’s developing a new sales channel, automating processes or future-proofing the business model against technological disruption, any manager who aspires for a promotion needs to leave her own imprint on the business.
On the other hand, middle management is squeezed for time and resources like never before. They are constantly asked to do more with less. And short of working 24-7, their only hope is that someone will step up to help carry the torch.
Why not be that person? There are few things as powerful as helping your boss get her next promotion. Not only you will benefit financially, but you may well be the one filling her shoes once your boss moves on to bigger and greater things.
Who knows, you may even learn a thing or two along the way.
Make Yourself Irreplaceable
You may only be a tiny cog in a massive machine, but if the machine doesn’t function without you, you suddenly wield great power. Over the course of my career, I’ve come across people who were absolutely masterful at this stuff.
In the world of investment banking, this usually manifests itself in the ability to be the point man on critical client relationships. If you are the person constantly getting calls from CEOs to advise them on acquisitions, you are guaranteed to do well.
But there are other ways to maneuver yourself into positions of influence.
For example, you could be that tax guy who knows all the transfer pricing agreements inside and out.
Chances are, your bosses will want to keep you happy – because if you pack your bags and stop looking after the shop, they may well be on the receiving end of a large tax fine down the road. Anyone who has ever tried to decipher a transfer pricing agreement will know what I’m talking about.
It could be taking the time to understand that new, complicated technology that others just can’t wrap their heads around. Having a great relationship with the regulator. Or simply being with the company long enough to know where all the bodies are buried.
It’s not always easy, but with enough energy, creativity and time you can carve out a position of considerable power. You’ll be surprised how many doors will open once you get there.
Conserve Your Energy
Most people make a mistake in trying to be perfect at every single aspect of their jobs. They toil away in their cubicle until 10pm every day, trying to create a flawless report.
Guess what – that report probably goes nowhere. But because you’re exhausted the following day, you aren’t as sharp as you need to be to shine in that critical meeting.
You don’t come up with the insights appreciated by clients. And you don’t project that kind of energy that makes your bosses say “Hey, this guy has really got it – he looks like someone who can really lead this firm down the road”.
Perfection is overrated. Do a really good job at things that matter. Ignore everything else – and use the time you freed up to cover more ground.
Ask And You Shall Receive
While the last step to getting a knockout bonus or pay increase is the easiest, it is often the most overlooked.
The world is a busy place. People come and go. Everyone is preoccupied with their own agenda.
This is why you need to bring everything together a few weeks before the performance appraisals take place. Take another look at your stakeholder map. Identify the people you’ve helped out throughout the year.
Then, simply take them out for a coffee and politely remind them of all the good work you’ve done over the past twelve months.
The easiest way to do this is to have a “feedback” conversation. It also happens to be a great reason to recount all your accomplishments and softly point out that you are looking forward to making an even greater contribution the following year.
Anyone with half a brain will get the message. Some won’t – but they would have been useless in helping you get paid anyway. Don’t alienate them but do demote them down the list for the following year.
The intelligent ones will get the message and it will be loud and clear. “This person made my life so much easier this year. They will continue doing so next year. I need to make sure they are happy and get promoted/paid so they don’t leave, otherwise I’ll be in for a real slog”.
So there you have it.
Does all this sound like a lot of effort? Perhaps. But as I’ve said above, the trick is to reallocate as opposed to redouble your efforts.
There are some people who do well purely through graft and burning the midnight oil. Nothing wrong with that. The smart ones, however, get there by ruthlessly focusing on the important things and ignoring all the noise.
Be strategic. Think ahead. Focus on high-value initiatives that really move the needle.
Do this for a year and by the time you are having your next promotion, pay, or bonus conversation, you won’t regret it.
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Banker On FIRE is an M&A (mergers and acquisitions) investment banker. I am passionate about capital markets, behavioural economics, financial independence, and living the best life possible.
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12 thoughts on “The Definitive Guide To Making A Lot More Money At Work”
Thank you for writing this, very interesting post that challenges me in areas I have difficulty in work.
Do you actually enjoy your work or how do you view it? More of a game to improve at? I’m in a different field and have been struggling a bit as there’s ‘the craft’ and then there’s ‘the business.’ What the business want from me is very far removed from the craft, in the past there have been things that hit both but in my current role not so much.
Do you optimise for your current role? Even if what you’re doing isn’t so useful outside those walls?
Did having kids impact your work at all? We’re still at the baby phase of 10months and still enjoying dire sleep. I’m not sure if it’s the lack of sleep or something else but it seems to have caused a weird crisis of meaning for me
In the past I felt like a top performer at my role, now I feel like I’m average ranks for both the craft and the business due to adaption failure/issues/baby life.
I’m glad you enjoyed the post. To answer your question – most of the time I really enjoy my work, which I guess is one of the reasons I’ve lasted for almost a decade. That being said, you’ve put it well – there are days when there’s much more focus on “the business” as opposed to “the craft”. Sometimes the politics and the stress pile up and I feel like moving on. Thankfully, those periods never last long enough for me to call it quits, but I sure know how it feels.
Same for kids. We have two now and one is just a few months old. Like you, we are in survival mode at the moment. We do know from experience that the tough stretch will come to an end, even though it doesn’t feel like that now.
It may feel like you are average right now, but average is a good place to be given everything you’ve got going on. Just hang in there – things will look very different in a couple of months!
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Yeah, this is a good plan as long as the company you’re working for is along the same path. Progression, recognizing achievement, flexible working conditions when required (needing to work from home pre-crisis for a variety of reasons, or shifted hours while still doing the 8-a-day thing). Problem is that can go sideways when the people above you are themselves fired and/or move on.
In the last 2 years of my job i had 6 bosses. The original one I was under, then with a department split and role shift there was a parade of VP’s, Directors and Senior Managers that I basically existed under for months at a time before the next one came in. Our group of project managers basically kept doing the same thing as the direct report just changed as the new person came in, and then transitioned to someone else (as that person moved on for a variety of reasons). Eventually on boss 5 things settled down enough, but by far he was the worst one, as he was a results only guy and worked the team significantly harder for very little gain. He and i did not get along, and my performance suffered pretty significantly. And as the double whammy, my old support structure of who I was following up the ladder (original boss and another VP) were forced out.
And with that my spark of caring at the company was gone, and I was literally doing an only an adequate or passable job since anything above and beyond wasn’t been seen by people. Boss 6 had been hired (in a promotion position i had originally wanted but as left empty for years for “budget constraints”) in as a layer between me and Boss 5 so I thought things were going to turn around since there as that separation, but Boss 5 was still in a position of authority overhead and decided during the covid crisis to do some back dealing and force me out (took on another project manager from another group whose work been severely curtailed due to the crisis as a “doing something nice for another department and for the company”, and then when the time was right dropped the hammer saying I was no longer needed and he would be taking on my projects).
For everything though, I’m happy. Got a decent chunk of severance, big pile of savings over the years built up, and started looking for new work. Hopefully with a new place that’ll give that spark again.
What you are describing is a situation where it is really hard, if not impossible, to exercise any control. It’s happened to me a few times where I’ve lost “air cover” when peoople above me changed jobs and it can be quite hard to get back on solid ground.
Sometimes it’s better to wipe the slate clean and just move on. As you say, the upside of a new role is not just a more supportive environment, but also regaining the spark and passion for your job again.
Best of luck!
Thanks for the kind words. Kinda needed to write it out, but it feels better now doing it.
Onward to better adventures.
Thanks very much for this (and your other articles, which I am steadily burning through)! I’m a 25 year old finance lawyer at a corporate law firm which has a progression based on seniority (years of experience = salary/role promotion) but I am very much at the start of my career. Would your tips in this article be the same for that kind of envrionment?
I’m sure you have worked with many lawyers during your time but what do you think a “young gun” should focus on to get ahead?
Yes, very much so. In professional services, your long-term success as a partner / managing director is determined by clients.
However, when you are just starting out, it’s entirely up to your senior colleagues to put you on the right projects and give you the right visibility. Focus on managing your internal stakeholders first, clients second.
I’d also encourage you to read this post: https://bankeronfire.com/walking-the-tightrope-of-an-up-or-out-career
From my perspective, excellent lawyers have two core attributes. In M&A, they are the ones who are crafty enough to give my client the best level of protection while taking on as few obligations as possible.
In financing transactions, the best lawyers are the ones commercial enough to protect the bank without making the financing documentation unduly onerous.
In theory shouldn’t be so hard, except you’ve always got solid lawyers on the other side of the table with a diametrically opposite objective 🙂
This is a fantastic post! I’ve got a lot to learn in terms of workplace politics, and seeing articles like this always help me out… I’d be interested in knowing how you find it managing a job and the politics side of things. I can imagine that sometimes it feels tiring and stressful? While it can be hugely important, I can imagine it’s also grating at times and I’d be interested in how you find it balancing that.
Some people thrive on that aspect of things. I used to hate it, but have learned to accept it. Reality is that as you rise up the ranks, you need to be well plugged-in to make sure you can protect and promote your employees.
At the end of the day it’s a game of loyalties and quid pro quos. Not top of my list but not selling your soul to the devil either…
Just came across your website and really enjoying it so far.
I wanted to ask about back-office roles that pay well. In the article it says, “That being said, there are people who make serious bank in back-office roles – more on that below.”, although I cannot find this section.
I will be grateful if you can point me in the right direction/if you have another article that you recommend that talks more about this?
Thanks in advance
The perils of self-editing your own posts!
A few things come to mind:
– Folks who head up functions that are strategic for the company (for example, a bank’s risk department)
– Senior HR managers who control / exercise influence over the performance (and pay!) process
– Folks who know where all the bodies are buried (this can be in any function)
It’s not a straightforward as in a front-office role, but there are ways to extract your pound of flesh in these roles.