Career Helium is a modern-day fable aimed at helping the reader to understand the implicit, often unspoken rules that determine what it takes to get ahead and succeed in the world of business. Dr Rob Yeung, Director of leadership consulting firm Talentspace, has been reading it.
In terms of tone, it takes its lead very firmly from other books within the literary business canon such as The Tao of Coaching by Max Landsberg and the bestseller The One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson. As such, the fable follows the journey of central protagonist Matt, a manager who begins the book getting overlooked for promotion, despite having achieved all of his targets.
The author, David Thompson, posits that doing a good job is not good enough to get you promoted – that the behaviours you do on a day-to-day basis in order to get paid are rarely sufficient to get you ahead. Thompson is himself currently Head of People & Organization Development at investment bank ABN Amro. His other career credits include positions within organisations such as Sainsbury's, Canon, Morgan Stanley, and Merrill Lynch.
His youthful face grins out at the reader from a photograph on one of the pages and, one suspects, with such a track record of success with household name businesses, he has himself mastered the art of understanding what it takes to get ahead.
The book argues that, in order to succeed, we all need to pay attention to five key aspects of our work: Expectations, Profile, Politics, Networking, and Boss. Thompson lays out some basic principles that we should all abide by in order to get ahead.
With regards to your boss, for example, he suggests that working in a similar way to your boss will help you to impress your boss. However, if you can't work in the same way as your boss, Thompson advises that you should at the very least appear to do so. He also suggests that you ask about your boss's objectives and pledge explicitly to support your boss in what he or she needs to achieve.
On the topic of networking, Thompson advises that successful networkers manage to connect with other people by turning contacts into business relationships or even friendships. Central to this is by asking "What can I do for them?" rather than "What can they do for me?"
All of the key pieces of advice are pulled out of the text so it is possible to skim-read the book and still pick up the most important points from it. In addition, all of the advice within the book is sound for people who wish to clamber up the career ladder. However, don't expect to find anything in this book that is particularly counterintuitive. The advice is sound and – written on paper – could appear trite.
Where Thompson succeeds is in the fable portions of the book, by putting the advice into context and making it come to life. For example, written down, the advice to "clarify your boss's expectations" sounds obvious. However, the chapters preceding it explain how that advice can be put into practice.
The other advantage of this book over some of its competitors written by North Americans is that its tone is very suitable for a British audience. I find many North American books somewhat 'cheesy' in their approach in trying to be uplifting and encouraging as well as practical. Thompson manages to distil some practical advice and uses the fable-style sections of the book to illustrate key points without wandering into any daytime talk show psychobabble.
My criticisms are minor. For a start, I found the book a little on the long side. Most fable-style books succeed on being short, pithy books. I feel that it could have been shortened somewhat to make the advice stand out more.
Secondly, having a list of chapters with descriptions of their content or perhaps a glossary (or even both) would have helped the reader to navigate the book more easily. However, as career advice books go, if you're not making the progress that you'd like to be making, Career Helium could be a good starter for ten.