What’s the main thing you’re looking for in your first job? A good salary? A big, established company to beef up your résumé? A relaxed work environment? Or are you willing to put in the hard work to get ahead as quickly as possible? If the latter fits you, then you should be looking for a company that is a meritocracy.
The term “meritocracy” gets thrown around a lot, often in the wrong context. A meritocracy is a work culture in which the people who work hard to get ahead actually have the opportunity to be recognized and rewarded for their dedication. Not all work environments are meritocracies. In fact, most that fall prey to office politics, networking halos, and credentials are not.
If your first job out of college is at a company where people get automatic promotions every three years or their salary increases at a predetermined rate every year, you are not working in a meritocracy. Your first work experience can help shape how you view all future employers. Ask yourself what qualities you want to see in your environment and in your professional goals.
The Benefits of a Meritocracy
Dedication and hard work deserve to be rewarded. Here are four reasons why you should want to work at a meritocracy:
1. You will be rewarded faster.
If you’re looking for a place where you can prove yourself and be rewarded for your productivity, then finding a meritocracy should be your first priority in choosing a job. You will have greater potential to advance and contribute to a truly driven team within a meritocratic environment.
2. You will be promoted sooner.
You won’t have to determine who the influential employees are and suck up to them. You won’t have to play the organization’s brand of politics, game the promotional system, or float above the personal bickering. If you demonstrate a solid work ethic and get results, your bosses will reward you. Even more importantly, they won’t want to lose you — meritocratic workplaces tend to recognize the value of their best employees more than other companies do.
3. You will be working with the best.
Like you, your co-workers will deserve their positions and be among the best at what they do. This will benefit the quality of your work environment, but it will also have untold benefits for your professional development. You’ll constantly learn from your peers, and they will learn from you. Unfortunately, many companies rely heavily on only a few quality employees. In a meritocracy, the entire company will produce higher-quality work, and your skills will improve rapidly.
4. You will receive valuable feedback.
Some people can’t deal with direct, blunt feedback. They need any criticism to be surrounded by a cushion of praise. If this describes you, then a meritocracy might not be the best work environment for you because meritocracies tend to be direct.
This isn’t to say that there’s no praise at meritocracies, but they value honesty and directness. It’s important for employees to know where they stand and calibrate themselves properly to the environment in which they work. In a meritocracy, that means not wasting time and effort going in the wrong direction. Think of how quickly you matured and how much you learned in your first year at college. That’s the kind of development you should be looking for from your first year in your new position.
Questions for Your Future Employer
If you’ve decided a meritocracy is a priority for you, there are questions you can ask during an interview with a potential employer to determine whether that company is a meritocracy:
1. How are promotions determined?
Does everyone get promoted after a fixed interval, or are poor performers held back? What determines the quality of work and reasoning for a promotion?
2. Can you give me two examples of meritocratic instances at your company in the last six months?
If your contact has to think hard on this, then the company probably isn’t a meritocracy. Most companies that reward deserving employees can quickly respond with examples of praise for deserving employees.
3. Who is the most successful employee at your firm, and what was his path?
Pay careful attention to how this person was recognized. Was he given a few carrots but generally left on his own, or were doors opened up for him to rapidly advance?
Working at a company that prides itself on being a meritocracy is not for everyone. In fact, it could be a bad career move for those not dedicated enough. At AlphaSights, we don’t focus on applicants’ GPAs, past job titles, or even past achievements for previous employers. We look for those who can drive change and success for the future of our company. Promotions, ongoing education, and more responsibilities are given based on the person’s merit — not his tenure.
If you want to get ahead as quickly as possible, then working at a meritocracy should be your top priority. Rather than “serving time” to get recognition, you can strive to produce your best work and find an environment that supports your endeavors.
Stirling Cox is the managing director of AlphaSights USA, a company that connects today’s business leaders with the insight and expertise they need to prosper. The company assists a global client base, including private equity firms, asset managers, strategy consultancies, and corporate executives, in making more informed decisions.
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