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Getting Ahead Without Losing Yourself: A Q&A with Michelle P. King

A gender equality and organizational culture expert offers keen insights on navigating the changing dynamics of the workplace.

Michelle P. King

Reading the company handbook, studying the organizational chart, knowing your job description and understanding your colleagues’ roles are all important to career success. But there are many other factors that are just as critical, says Michelle P. King, who holds five degrees, including a Ph.D. in organizations and gender from the Cranfield School of Management in England.

In her latest book, How Work Works: The Subtle Science of Getting Ahead Without Losing Yourself (Harper Business, 2023), King explains that excelling in your professional life isn’t so much about what you do, but how you manage the process of accomplishing your goals. The book offers keys to navigating the unspoken elements of workplace cultures while also finding meaning in your career. Among King’s recommendations are creating informal networks, developing self-awareness and awareness of others, and learning the skills you need to stay relevant.

King is also the founder of the Culture Practice, a diversity consultancy, and a senior advisor to the U.N. Foundation’s Girl Up campaign, a girl-centered leadership development initiative. Previously, she was the director of inclusion at Netflix and head of the U.N. Women Global Innovation Coalition for Change. She also authored The Fix: Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work (Atria Books, 2020).


How did your new book come about?

I wanted to understand why it is that despite having formal policies or processes, certain individuals would get ahead, get promoted, get a pay increase or get the support they needed to advance, and why other people wouldn’t. Organizational politics functioned in quite a negative, exclusionary and toxic way. What was fascinating was understanding what got us to this point and how the world of work is changing. Everything is context-specific.

We now live in a digital world, and that has fundamentally altered how we work together. The rules of white men were largely in place in most workplaces. That will continue to change, and that’s good. I wanted to give people an insight into how the world is changing and what you need to navigate it.

Simple example: You made a mistake. Vulnerability is going to your leader and saying, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake.” Leading with vulnerability is, “I’m sorry, but here is what I learned, and here are the steps that I’m going to take to make sure that this mistake does not happen again in the future.”


Does the change mean the end of the unwritten rules that helped some people get ahead?

Back in the 1950s and [in] the industrial era, a lot of people could just go to work, do their job on repeat and leave. Today, that’s not the case. Eighty-three percent of us need to work with others to do our job. Knowing how to bridge our differences with others and knowing how to manage our interactions with other people is really important. I think a lot of those unwritten rules were about how to get ahead, and that often came at a cost to other people. That’s changing precisely because we have to work with other people to do our jobs.


How do you build the informal network necessary to get ahead?

Don’t wait until you need something from somebody to connect with them. Think about people you want to connect with and how you can offer them information, advice or support. You can provide that before you need anything from people. The goal is to invest upfront. You’re not only going to feel more connected to the people you work with and have a greater sense of belonging, but you’re also going to get all the benefits that come from having a broader, diverse network. So, really think about the importance of investing upfront, and for a lot of people, that’s quite counterintuitive.


How can you tell who should be in your network?

Studies quoted in the book show that having a diverse network is highly predictive of your ability to get promoted, access job opportunities and have long-term career success. The world of work will increasingly become more diverse, so you cannot afford to just network with people who look like you.

You have limited time and energy, and you cannot connect with everybody. Networks should be about 18 people. Be very conscious of where you’re spending your time and who you’re investing in. Make sure it’s a mutually beneficial relationship, because if it isn’t, or you’re unsure, that’s not a connection that’s going to be worth it. I think [that] very quickly, you’ll start to see through behaviors and whether or not they are beneficial.


Why are companies struggling with inclusion when our collective workforces are continuing to become more diverse?

Most people don’t know how to practice inclusion every day as part of their job. Employees’ experiences of inclusion are directly attributable to their line leader.

A lot of managers are still managing in that 1950s, transactional, command-and-control way. That’s not effective today. You need leaders who can build cultures of trust.

Leaders today can’t be transactional. They need to be much more transformational, which means being democratic, caring, empathetic, being a leader who can have hard conversations, give and receive feedback, coach people, delegate, all of those skills.

A lot of companies, when it comes to performance measures or how they hire or develop people, focus on “the what” at the expense of “the how”: What qualifications do you have and what experience do you have, rather than how have you demonstrated behaviors that are aligned to our standards?


Can you teach people to develop social and emotional skills such as becoming empathetic?

A self-aware person understands their behavior, thoughts and feelings, and how other people perceive them, so that they can manage the impact their behavior is having. The challenge is: How do you build self-awareness, given that it’s something every single one of us struggles with?

There are two ways. The first is through self-reflection. Take 10 minutes a day for 10 days and ask questions like, “What could I do differently? What worked? What didn’t?” The second way is informal feedback. Often, we make feedback weird by formalizing it, and people end up crying and uncomfortable. When you do a presentation or have a team meeting and you’re leaving the room, informally ask someone [about your performance]: “What worked? What could I have done differently?”


How do you derive meaning at work?

You can’t rely on your workplace to do this for you, because most of us are going to hold down many jobs with many different types of companies. I think the goal is to think about how you build meaning in the performance itself. The meaning you derive from work is directly through the connections you have to the people you work with. That’s the meaning you’re going to take away with you every single day.


Interview by Theresa Agovino, workplace editor for SHRM.



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