13 Strategies for Advancing Your Career

from Sun Tzu’s Art of War
By Gary Gagliardi

Why do most people never find a satisfying rewarding career? Because they never learn how competition in the job market works. Success in a career demands a long-tern strategy, but unfortunately, most Americans know little of either developing a career strategy or executing it. 2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu wrote a book called The Art of War that outlined those rules to creating a winning strategy. Though written in the context of war, those same rules can be easily applied to any competitive endeavor. In our book, Sun Tzu The Art of War Plus The Art of Career Building, we adapted the complete text of Sun Tzu’s philosophy directly to advancing your career. Here are a few highlights:

1. Develop outside contacts for your career path. In his first chapter on strategic analysis, Sun Tzu said, “Plan an advantage by listening…Get assistance from the outside.” Most people get locked into their companies, developing a limited view of their potential. The first key to success finding an outsider who can open your eyes to the wider world of opportunity.

2. If your job is boring you, it is time to move on. In his second chapter on the economics of competition, Sun Tzu says, “Manage a dull army. You will suffer sharp defeats.” He points out that that time is costly. You can’t get stalled in your career. If you are bored in your work, you have to get out.

3. Find new positions before those positions exist. In his next chapter on planning an attack, Sun Tzu says, “The best policy is to attack while the enemy is still planning.” For someone looking to advance, this means that you find the best jobs before they are created. You have have the courage to talk to people who are in a position to create new jobs about what their needs are and what they are planning.

4. Search for the need that only you can address. In the next chapter, Sun Tzu says, “You see the opportunity for victory; you don’t create it.” Your career depends on the needs of others. You don’t create those needs, but you can see them before anyone else realized that they exist.

5. Let time resolve any setbacks. In his chapter on momentum, Sun Tzu says, “If you are defeated, you can recover. You must use the four seasons correctly.” Every career has setbacks, but if you use your time well, they should never be definitive.

6. Use each position as a stepping stone to the next. In the next chapter, Sun Tzu says, “Leave any place without haste. Hurry to where you are unexpected.” For the job seeker, this means that you don’t abandon an existing job until you have a new one and that you go after new positions that are different from you last, broadening you experience.

7. When you have something to say, dramatize it. Sun Tzu says, “You can speak, but you will not be heard. You must use gongs and drums.” People that are the most successful aren’t necessarily the ones with the best ideas, but the ones whose ideas get noticed and remembered.

8. Don’t get stuck trying to simply repeat a past success. Teaching adaptability, Sun Tzu says, “You must adapt to your opportunities and weaknesses. You can use a variety of approaches and still have a consistent result.” For many people, a taste of success can ruin their career because they try to repeat their past success rather than finding new areas to conquer.

9. Don’t be afraid to use your authority when you are given it. Sun Tzu says, “With new, undedicated soldiers, you can depend on them if you discipline them.” When you finally get into a position of authority don’t make the mistake of letting things slide because you want to have people like you. Initially, it is more important that they respect you. However, after you establish your authority, don’t abuse it. Sun Tzu also says, “You can depend on seasoned, dedicated soldiers. But you must avoid disciplining them without reason.”

10. You must undertake challenges to demonstrate you ability. Sun Tzu says, “You must provoke battle when you will certainly win.” You won’t every get recognized and promoted simply by playing it safe. You must know what battles you can win and commit to fighting them.

11. When you start a new position, don’t be surprised if it seems surprisingly easy at first. Sun Tzu defines different kind of common competitive situations and says, “When you enter hostile territory, your penetration is shallow. This is easy terrain.” By this he means that you must prepare yourself for the job getting increasingly difficult over time. He says further, “You can penetrate deeply into hostile territory. Then many hostile cities are behind you. This is dangerous terrain.” Opposition and problems develop over time.

12. Be slow and careful about picking your fights. A big part of Sun Tzu’s strategy revolves around avoiding conflict when it isn’t necessary. He says, “If there is little to be gained, don’t act…If there is no danger, don’t fight.” You don’t get ahead by avoiding necessary challenges, but you also don’t get ahead by finding battles where there is nothing to gain.

13. Know the future by cultivating an information network of people. In his last chapter, Sun Tzu addresses developing sources of information. To know your future, you must constantly talk to decision-makers about what they are thinking. As Sun Tzu says, “You can obtain foreknowledge. You can’t get it from demons or spirits. You can’t see it from professional experience. You can’t check it with analysis. You can only get it from other people.”

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