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Why You're Not the Golden Child at Work

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Co-authored with Tony Deblauwe

Some people just "have it." They say the right things, hang around the right people, and get all the breaks. You're sure you're the best person for that promotion, but it goes to the "golden child" instead. Why not you? Is it random chance, bad luck or manipulation? Possibly. On the other hand, it's equally likely that that "golden child's" success comes from doing things you could do, too. Maybe getting passed over is your own fault.

"No way," you cry. "I'm not going to become a manipulative, sycophantic suck-up." It may seem like the keys to becoming a golden child -- working the system, saying only what people want to hear, and doing only the work that higher-ups care about -- fly in the face of ethics. If so, you proclaim, "No, thank you." You'd rather have integrity, tell the truth, and do the most useful work -- even when it's not trendy or popular.

Well, so would we. But between the two authors of this article, we've worked with (and within) a lot of companies, and we've learned that the making of a golden child doesn't always require a sacrifice of ethics or integrity. Behaviors that seem that way at a distance often have useful, ethical, productive frameworks. To us, the real question is this: if you could do the right things to grow your career, and still keep your integrity intact, might you give it a try?

We think: "Schmoozing" is really influencing through networking
You think: "The golden child is always schmoozing someone, trying to get something."

People should never be treated as a means to an end, but you can certainly help each other out! Ask any successful entrepreneur or executive for her keys to success, and somewhere near the top of the list will be a cluster of strong relationships. Building your own cadre of genuine, mutually beneficial relationships with people in a position to help you -- and, to be helped by you -- is a must. This is not about sucking up, and it's not just about your boss. People who are connected within your organization, recognized within your industry, and positioned to benefit from your work belong in your network. The more of them you know, connect with, and interact with, the stronger your base when it comes time to get a question answered, or to find a new career opportunity.

Try this: Make a list of five people you respect, but don't know. They could be leaders in your company, experts in your industry, or just coworkers you admire. Consider asking one of them for a 30-minute, get-to-know-you meeting. You could tell them why you admire them, and say something like: "It would mean a lot if I could talk with you about your experience and learn from it." Don't ask for anything in the meeting. Instead, offer to help that person if you can find a way. If the meeting goes well, see if the person would be open to connecting again in the future -- informally, over coffee perhaps -- to continue to explore possible collaboration between you.

We think: "Say only what people want to hear" is really influencing intelligently.
You think: "The golden child only says what people want to hear."

The golden child speaks, and the executives smile. You may label the person a suck-up, but in reality what you might be seeing is respect flowing in two directions. Most executives and leaders grow to respect others not for saying "the right things," but for saying the things that are right. Useful contribution is far more important than agreement.

Of course influencing intelligently means timing feedback intelligently. It's neither respectful nor productive to air disagreements in highly public forums. When the Golden Child publicly agrees with superiors and matrixed contacts, it may be a show of support. Behind closed doors, the person you've called a suck-up may well be playing devil's advocate, working00 actively to change the minds of others based upon facts and data.

Try this: When you're preparing to disagree or share difficult news, don't think in terms of whether or not it's what your management wants to hear. Instead, consider how you can make your message clear and palatable. Think in terms of useful honesty. For example, imagine that you are concerned about your company's lack of a piece of equipment that, in your view, is necessary to stay competitive. Instead of complaining publicly about how difficult this makes the work, privately share data with leadership that justifies your position in terms of the potential impact to the organization. Sure, this ingratiates your approach to key decision makers. But it's not sucking up when you're speaking the truth and helping the organization -- it's simply good information, presented the right way.

We think: "Only working on visible projects" is really making important projects visible.
You think: "The golden child jockeys for position by sneaking into "cool" projects."

There's a difference between sneaking in and being invited, and it's true that the golden child is often invited to participate in the most important projects. Does one opportunity lead to another? Certainly. Is that unfair? Maybe, maybe not, but that's life. Regardless, the invitations flow as a result of the behaviors we've already discussed. The golden child has a strong network, creates mutually beneficial relationships and brings good information to the table in a way that makes it easily used. Is it any wonder that he or she gets invited back for the next important piece of work, or that the work he or she does gets labeled as being valuable?

Try this: After you've built a good network and a reputation for credibility and useful honesty, pick one thing that you'd like to do in the future. Maybe it's a part of the company you'd like to learn about, a specific project you'd like to work on, or something else you would enjoy that would also advance your career. Remember, it's not about what's new or trendy, it's about where you think you could add value. Ask around in your network. Don't be afraid to mention the value of what you're doing now, then make your interest known along with why you think you would be a good fit. Ask members of your network how they would approach getting what you want if it were their goal. Even if you don't get movement right away, you may find that over time, an invitation similar to the one you seek finds its way to your door.

Forget about labeling who is a golden child and who is not. The truth is, moving your career forward has everything to do with how you build relationships. Influence is the ability to present your knowledge, skills, and beliefs in a meaningful way such that others partner with you. It may be about who you know, but it's also about how you approach them and whether or not you earn their respect.

Sure, favoritism may or may not be happening. Either way, complaining about it is not likely to help. Besides, in many cases, what you see as a privilege reserved for the rarefied echelon of the golden child might actually be the hard-earned result of skillful influence. So, rather than looking for what you can complain about, why not look for what you can do differently?

Aim for value, and golden may follow, ethically and naturally.

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Tony Deblauwe is founder of HR4Change and author of "Tangling with Tyrants: Managing the Balance of Power at Work." Ed Muzio is CEO of Group Harmonics and author of "Make Work Great." You can follow Tony on Facebook or on Twitter, and follow Ed on Facebook or on Twitter.

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