Advance Your Career When You Hate Office Politics

A how-to for actuaries from executive coach Jamie Lee Interview by Emily Hsu

If you are looking for career advancement but don’t know how to approach this topic with your manager, you are not alone. I sat down with executive coach Jamie Lee, who specializes in helping smart women who hate office politics get promoted and better paid, and asked her to spill the beans. (Listen to the extended interview of this article as part of Jamie’s podcast series.)

Jamie Lee

What’s your background, and how did you become an executive coach?

I was born in Seoul, South Korea, and I immigrated to the United States when I was 7 years old. I grew up as a latchkey kid in New Jersey, and my mom, who to this day speaks broken English, raised three daughters by herself while working as a nail technician.

Growing up, my mom used to tell me, “Jamie, you’ve got to speak up, be brave and ask for what you want.” I’d roll my eyes at her because I didn’t want to be disliked for making waves as the weird Asian kid in a predominantly white neighborhood.

After college, I negotiated as a buyer, worked as an analyst at a hedge fund and managed operations for tech startups.

Despite my mom’s advice early in my life, as a professional, I didn’t know how to build confidence in myself. I was often prioritizing being liked over being respected, second-guessing myself as a manager and hesitating to use my voice in the workplace.

When I read the book Women Don’t Ask and realized that many women face the same problem in the workplace due to socialization, I wanted to be part of the solution. Plus, when I saw the more assertive folks at work speak up and get ahead, I realized that my mom was 100% right. You don’t get what you deserve—you get what you ask for.

When I encountered coaching, I found the exact tools I needed to generate the courage to speak up, advocate for myself, get promoted and be better paid. Now, in my coaching practice, I blend the best of life coaching tools with the best of mutual-win negotiation strategies to help female professionals achieve satisfying career growth through effective self-advocacy.

You help smart women who hate office politics get promoted and better paid, without throwing anyone under the bus. Why did you choose to serve this niche?

I chose this niche because I hated office politics myself. As I started to coach smart women who were competent but nervous to speak up and take the lead, I noticed I was far from alone in hating office politics.

My clients told me they felt anxious about pursuing the growth they wanted because they associated getting ahead with throwing people under the bus, as they saw some managers do. I heard this repeatedly from folks who, like me, didn’t see themselves reflected in the dominant in-group of organizations, whether that was due to their gender, race, sexual orientation or neurodivergence.

Here’s why: When you experience marginalization, it’s easy to associate power with the misuse of power. When you internalize this association, you end up unconsciously rejecting the evidence of your own power or your capacity to make positive change. You end up mistaking self-advocacy for self-aggrandizement, not seeing it as a level-headed conversation focused on value alignment that leads to clarity, collaboration and, therefore, service.

The women who seek me out have big brains, big hearts and big intentions to be of service—all the crucial ingredients for the exact kind of leadership the professional world deeply needs. As a coach, I consider it my calling to help women and minorities build this new paradigm of leadership from the inside out.

One of your philosophies is that self-advocacy is an act of service. Would you please elaborate?

Absolutely. When you advocate for yourself, you do four key things:

  1. Acknowledge your contributions.
  2. Decide on the direction you want to grow.
  3. Think through how the growth you want—whether that means being assigned to a different team or becoming the team lead—will help the organization grow even faster or better.
  4. Communicate the above early and often with your manager and other decision-makers.

When you do these four things well, your manager or decision-makers will thank you for helping them do their jobs better. There are three reasons why:

First, you’re managing up in a smart way and sharing the facts of your contributions. Note that this is not arrogance because you’re not putting anyone down to make yourself look better. Managers and executives are busy people, preoccupied with their own worries and agendas. Reminding them why what you’re getting done matters to the bigger picture helps them make better decisions.

Second, your manager is not a mind reader. They don’t know what you want until you tell them. What they don’t know, they can’t act on. Help them help you by initiating the conversation about the direction you want your career to take.

Finally, because you’ve already thought through how your growth supports the organization’s growth, you make it easier for the manager to make a case for your promotion with their manager or the promotion committee behind closed doors.

What is the secret to getting promoted and better paid when you hate office politics?

Let’s first address the context in which women have been set up to fail and hate themselves, which makes achieving growth harder than it needs to be.

From a young age, girls are socialized to be accommodating and self-sacrificing. Then years of schooling conditions women to keep their heads down, do good work and humbly wait for the “A” from an authority figure. This mindset sets us up for failure in a competitive work environment where, as people say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

When our A-level efforts at work aren’t met with the recognition we’ve been conditioned to expect, we often end up blaming and beating ourselves up. This is a form of self-rejection that leads to impostor syndrome and burnout. That’s why I think the secret to getting promoted and better paid is turning this habit of self-rejection around by cultivating a loving connection with yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about being soft and passive, or letting yourself binge-watch Netflix when things get hard. What I’m talking about requires grit and a commitment to not turning your back on yourself when you encounter setbacks and disappointments, whether due to office politics or not. Self-acceptance is the root of true self-confidence. It helps you separate self-worth, which is nonnegotiable and sacrosanct, from your work value or from anyone else’s opinion of you at work. This leads to taking steps that help cement your career growth.

Consider how when you love someone, you:

  • Celebrate their wins
  • Have faith in their future potential
  • Enthusiastically talk about the beloved’s future promise with others

Likewise, for you to get promoted and better paid, you want to:

  • Keep a win log of your accomplishments, big or small, and accolades received, so you can address the growth you’ve achieved and growth you will achieve with specificity in career conversations.
  • Cultivate trust in yourself, in your capacity to generate ideas and to do new things in the future that will create more work value and further the goals of your organization.
  • Be willing to talk to as many stakeholders and decision-makers as possible about your intention to grow and how your growth will benefit the organization months ahead of the formal performance evaluation, so that by the time decisions are made, you’ve already strategically laid the groundwork for your promotion and raise.

What suggestions do you have for women and nonbinary actuaries who want to get promoted into senior and executive roles?

  • If it feels awkward, you’re doing it right. If advocating for yourself feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable, it’s a sign you haven’t had much practice speaking up on your own behalf—not that anything is wrong with you.
    • Real confidence is not achieved by doing things that always feel comfortable. It’s created by letting a new, unfamiliar practice feel less awkward as you do more of it.
  • Think about your promotion as an offer of value rather than an ask for recognition. Of course, you will ask for support from stakeholders and for a definitive yes from decision-makers in the process of securing your promotion. But asking for things, including a promotion, often has people feeling indebted to others which we tend to avoid.
    • So, when you make a case for your promotion, shift your attention to the bigger value you’ll add in a new role. You’re offering them the advantage of the higher-level thinking and decision-making that you’ll do, which will bring greater benefits to the organization.
  • Don’t rely on feedback as a promotion strategy; self-evaluate. Due to socialization, we sometimes bring a student mindset to our promotion strategy, thinking that our managers should be able to precisely articulate the gaps in our performance and that addressing those gaps should secure the promotion.
    • In reality, managers are often not great at providing constructive feedback, and even when they do, addressing their feedback is hardly sufficient for promotion. Instead, cultivate the habit of evaluating for yourself what the organization’s biggest challenges and opportunities are and how your strengths can help pursue those opportunities.

You changed industries and roles several times in your career. What advice do you have for actuaries who want to do the same but perhaps struggle because they are “pigeonholed” into technical roles due to the perceived lack of communication or social skills, or relevant experience?

Here’s why “pigeonholing” happens: When people encounter an unknown entity, their minds unconsciously sort the unknown person or profession into known buckets or stereotypes.

Let’s say you meet someone who works in marketing, and you introduce yourself by saying, “Hi, I’m an actuary.” If the marketing person is unfamiliar with actuarial work, their brain will immediately put you into one of their known mental buckets. They might think to themselves, “I don’t really know what an actuary does, but I think it’s very technical and math-oriented. Because every math person I’ve encountered in the past lacked communication and social skills, this person probably lacks them too.”

Tell stories using plain language.  

Interrupt this unconscious pattern by using familiar language to tell a story that the other person can grasp. You can think of this as a branding exercise.

For example, you can introduce yourself to nonactuarial folks by saying something like, “I ensure that our company makes enough money through the hard times and good times.” Instead of industry jargon, plain language packs a bigger punch in terms of helping people see that you have relevant skills and are effective at communicating them.

Also remember, your career doesn’t always have to go up and up.

When I pivoted from working at a hedge fund to working with tech entrepreneurs, I first took an internship with a group of angel investors. Even though my income growth lagged for a few months, the internship helped me become a known entity to decision-makers, one of whom became my employer in my chosen field.

If making a career pivot is what you want, remember it’s okay to take a temporary step back or sideways or even take an intentional pause.

How does one build genuine confidence to advocate for the growth they want?

We’ve all been taught the illusion that achieving certain milestones, like getting promoted, or having the approval of others, will be the answer to feeling confident. But milestones are fleeting, and people’s opinions change like the wind. Tying your confidence to external circumstances and external validation is a losing game.

For me, two key practices have helped me build the confidence I needed to change my habit of underselling myself and to start advocating for myself:

  1. Choose to validate yourself for the small, daily actions that move your career forward before the milestones are achieved. Did you show up to work today, even though a part of you wanted to stay in bed? Did you speak up at the meeting even though it felt awkward? You deserve your own validation. Showing up and engaging in one conversation at a time is what makes your growth inevitable.
  2. Choose your opinion of yourself and prioritize that ahead of others’ opinion of you. If you find yourself worrying that having too high an opinion of yourself will get you disliked by others, notice how exhausting it is to keep yourself small to be in the good graces of people who won’t go to bat for you. Free up your energy by choosing to see yourself as a person of great potential, bigger than anyone’s underestimation of you.

Practice feeling the relaxed self-assurance of the leader you are in the process of becoming. Soon you’ll be cultivating allies and sponsors, inspiring them into action with your self-advocacy.

What tips do you have for those considering coaching?

Before I encountered coaching, I was convinced I’d continue to struggle with chronic self-doubt in my career and life. It appeared that confidently using my voice and honoring my desires would always remain out of reach.

In coaching, I learned tools to help me and others leverage the neuroplasticity of the human brain to create new neural pathways and new patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving, which create new results.

When considering hiring a coach, here are some dos and don’ts:

  • Don’t hire a coach to get advice. Mentors, YouTube and industry magazines like The Actuary are better sources of advice than coaches.
    • Do get a coach if you want to start listening to your own wisdom and start acting towards the career and life that would make your heart sing with joy.
  • Don’t get a coach to keep you “in line” or to hold you accountable. You can get an accountability partner for that.
    • Do get a coach if you want to cultivate the skill of holding yourself accountable because you’re not just pretending to be a leader, but you are an effective leader whose first advisee is yourself.
  • Don’t get a coach if you want to color inside the lines and follow a steady, predictable path.
    • Do get a coach if you want to astonish yourself with how you exceed your own expectations when you’re no longer stymied by your blind spots, irrational fears and self-defeating habits.
Jamie Lee is an executive coach for smart women who hate office politics. She regularly shares career development tips on her website and LinkedIn.
Emily Hsu, FSA, FCIA, CERA, is director, corporate actuarial at Sun Life. She is also a contributing editor for The Actuary Canada.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

Copyright © 2023 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.