One of the chapters from my upcoming book called Essential Habits is about the canvas strategy, which I learned from Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy. Although I didn’t know about it before I read the book, unknowingly, I’ve been following the strategy for my career. Let me explain the strategy and then share some of the things that I have learned looking back at how I (unknowingly) followed the strategy.

The canvas strategy is an idea borne from the days when artists had rich patrons, businessmen or politicians financing their endeavours. For the artists, they acted as an anteambulo, that is, one who cleared the path. The antiambulo walked in front of the patrons wherever they went, helping to communicate key messages and making the patron’s life easier.

When we first enter the workplace, we are hungry, ambitious, ready to rise up quickly in the organization. At this critical time in our career, our ego is high – we then receive a dose of reality – no you have to put in the time. No you do not have enough experience yet. No you just do not have enough projects under your belt. Instead, the best way to get ahead, according to the canvas strategy, is to attach yourself to other successful people in your organization and to essentially ‘copy’ what they have done to achieve their success. Make yourself invaluable to that person.

In fact, I did this, even though I didn’t know that I was using this strategy. A long time ago, as part of trying to network my way into meeting other like minded professionals, I joined Toastmasters. There just happened to be another club that was starting up at Deloitte and I got to know one of the Senior Managers that worked there. We got to talking, and he convinced me to join Deloitte even though I really did not know what the organization was and what he did there (or what the organization did). After joining, I had a really rough year – the expectations were very different from what I expected and coming from the Public Sector, the transition was not very smooth for me at all. And then one year, I asked my Senior Manager what I was doing wrong and why I wasn’t being promoted after two years in my role. And while I didn’t know exactly what it was, something changed and my work became significantly better. But for the better part of the two years, I was trying to copy what I saw other successful people were doing:

I was interested in design and saw that one of the up and coming consultants was sharing ‘nice slides’

Basically slides where clients have commented on how well designed the slides were – I started collecting slides that I thought looked good and made the commitment to improve on previous designs that I’ve used (rather than re-using the same design over and over).

I noticed that the Senior Manager and other managers were always thinking about what the client wanted

They were thinking about what the client wanted, and trying to put themselves in the client shoes. So I started doing that as well (and it took me a while to understand that perspective) and found that not only did the client really appreciate it but that the consultants around me also started respecting my views and opinions. It was the canvas strategy but for clients in a sense.

I looked at what others were doing around me to get promoted and tried to find my own angle

I saw people around me getting promoted and I asked the senior manager why that was the case. Oh that person sold a project and delivered it themselves. Oh that person has really been taking the initiative in leading the development of deliverables. I silently noted to myself these different scenarios and then started actively looking for those opportunities. I believed, maybe it was an ego thing, that those individuals were no different than me and I slowly proved myself over and over.

I noticed that whenever I sent in my deliverables for review, managers and above were looking for specific things

At one point, I saw that they were looking for similar things across many projects so I developed a mini quality checklist to make sure that I was hitting all the things that reviewers normally look for and then added to the list as and when I worked with people that I haven’t worked with before.

I saw that the best consultants developed good relationships with the client

These consultants were providing gifts, buying lunches and going out for drinks with the clients, and in general, doing a lot of things outside of work to develop that relationship with the client. I can’t say that I ever copied this but I did get to know the client and strived to learn about what they do outside of work, their family, upcoming vacation and trips and as much as a consultant can do, be friendly to clients.

Looking back, I think that there are a few things that I would try to do differently knowing what I know now (and perhaps joining a new team, organization or industry):

  • Find the most successful individuals that are doing what you want to do and clear the path for them
  • Notice what your peers are doing – you can either copy their success or understand what they are doing so that you can differentiate yourself
  • Manage upwards – think about what your managers or clients care about and then do that for them. I know that most employees have something in their work that they do not like to do or that takes them a lot of time and does not give them a good return on investment – volunteer to take that on and do the best job you can.
  • Constantly learn, both at work and outside of work to improve your skills