Need to have courage in the world of meritocracy

Sometimes I have my lunch alone when I don’t have any plans. I will wander around all 4 levels of Suria KLCC until I find a place that is less crowded and serves what I feel like eating. I have to say that I enjoy the alone time because I will use it either to catch up with sister/mom over a call or watch videos/listen to podcasts.

Anyway, yesterday was one of the days and I chose to listen to the daily TedTalk podcast episode on “How to find the person who can help you get ahead of work” by Carla Harris, a Wall Street veteran with over 30 years of experience, all in Morgan Stanley. You can watch the video here too. The video was released in Nov last year and already has 1.3m viewers.

The main essence of her talk is that meritocracy is a myth and everyone needs to find their own sponsors. Not mentors, not advisers, but sponsors. I could resonate with the talk almost instantaneously because I work in an organization that promotes meritocracy. More importantly, I recognize the need for one to have a sponsor to advance, coming from my own experience because you can’t just sit still and let the system decides for you. And more and more importantly, the system is not merely a system handled by machines, but is handled and judged by people. So there’s an element of perception and human bias, something that you can never get away with. As Carla highlighted, “there’s not one evaluative process that I can think of that does not have a human element, and hence it has the measure of subjectivity”. 

Before I get into further detail, maybe I should define what meritocracy is. It’s a political philosophy, coined by Michael Young, a British sociologist, social activist and politician, that holds the fact that you get the job/promotion/reward because of your talent, effort and achievement. There’s a lot of research about how meritocracy increases inequality which sparks my interest too but that’s another story for another day.

So what is a sponsor? As defined by Carla Harris, person who is carrying your interest and going to pound the table (at the roundtable session) on your behalf. And 3 primary characteristics of a sponsor are as follows:

  • Has a seat at the decision-making table
  • Has exposure to your work
  • Has power

I couldn’t agree more because I’ve had the flavour of a sponsor with those key characteristics. But I would like to add a few more, that person should believe in your potential and whatever career advancement decision that person makes for you, should be of your benefit and the organization, not that person.

Now the question is, how do you get one? There is no shortcut, you just need to have the courage to speak to the person whom you think can be your sponsor. Be frank and be transparent about it.

I know it’s easier said than done especially for the juniors. I’ve spoken to a few people and I realized that being transparent even with their immediate supervisors is difficult or rather not something that they think they can/should do. They don’t fight enough for their rights and end up just being “berserah” in Malay.  When they don’t get what they want or specifically the task they desire, they assume that it is because they are not good enough. And then they worry about it, sometimes they feel the world (the bosses) is unfair to them.

When the juniors pour their heart out to me on this, all I can say is, why must you assume? Why are you sad if you don’t get it? Why don’t you ask your boss directly? Ask your immediate supervisor, tell him/her “I’m interested in this sector”, “I want to have more on my plate because I have the capacity and willingness to do it”, “I’m ready to take additional responsibility”, “when do you think I can be promoted”. If you don’t tell them, how are they going to know? People always think because the boss doesn’t like him/her, the boss thinks he/she’s not ready to handle that big project. What if because they don’t know? They have so many people to take care of. You need to be accountable for your own choices.

Be frank and be transparent. Have the courage to do it. If you don’t think you have the courage, take your time to find the courage but don’t take too long.

After writing this post, it occurred to me that there’s so many aspects around this issue – especially for the juniors. They just don’t know how to do it and whether the environment allows them to do it. Will talk more about this some other day and break it into small pieces.

If you are a junior and interested to know more, do let me know! 

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