Positioning Yourself for Career Advancement

It's no secret that promotion rates in most industries have slowed during the extended recession. The good news, at least in the United States, is that with the current glimmers of economic growth the "ice floes" surrounding upward movement are beginning to break up. The bad news: competition for the C-suite positions that will open up over the next few years will be intense due the backlog in promotional activity. As a result, upwardly-aspiring executives need to take steps now to position themselves to be "first off the bench" as opportunities for promotion become available.

Given the fact that traditional career paths are extinct in most industries, managers have few guideposts for advancing to the executive level. Only a distinct minority of companies are truly adept at succession planning and career development — and even these firms tend to focus on only a few senior-level people. As a result, aspiring executives are left in the dark about what they need to do to get ahead. Worse, most managers operate under four misconceptions regarding career advancement.

  • The belief that producing results in your current job is sufficient. In fact a track record of strong results is what one of my clients calls "table stakes": the minimum required for you to be considered for promotion to the executive level.
  • Confidence that you'll get the feedback you need from your boss in your annual performance review. This assumption is, unfortunately, flawed for several reasons. First, most annual reviews focus on performance in your current job, not what you need to do to advance. In addition your boss may not know how you are perceived by the company's senior-level decision makers — and will thus likely steer clear of any feedback that relates to getting ahead.
  • The sense that promotions are all about who you know — when in reality in most organizations it's about who knows you and whether you've been able to breed confidence on the part of senior-level decision makers that you can succeed at the executive level.
  • A naïve belief that all it takes is adding a little polish, a new suit, a new style. Although senior executives often struggle to define it, executive presence is critical, but it's more profound than a new look. Rather, in most companies it relates to your ability to project the self-confidence that you can handle the unpredictable situations that come with the territory at the executive level.
  • Positioning yourself to be a top candidate for promotion doesn't happen overnight. It's the result of combining a track record of performance with demonstrated evidence of the core leadership skills required for success at the senior level. Assuming that you're a consistently strong performer, consider the following three strategies to make yourself first off the bench.

    First, and this is often the hardest part, take steps to tease out two vital pieces of information: 1) the factors that senior-level decision makers in your company use to make C-suite promotion and placement decisions and 2) how you are viewed by senior management in terms of those skills. Although many companies publish extensive lists of leadership competencies, in most organizations such decisions turn on a limited set of capabilities — for example, strategic thinking and the ability to establish a new direction for the organization; your ability to ensure execution without getting pulled down to too low a level of detail; your skill in leading innovation and managing change; and your knowledge of how the organization works as well as the influence and persuasion skills required to get things done across organizational lines. Without a clear sense of how you are viewed by your company's senior-level decision makers — the strengths you have displayed and the skills you need to develop — you're at a disadvantage in knowing where to devote your career development energies.

    Your next step is determining whether you are in an assignment where you can display the necessary capability or need to engineer a move to a new job that allows you to do so. For example, some jobs put such a premium on execution that it's virtually impossible to demonstrate your strategic ability. More often than not, however, with some creativity and assistance from your boss, you can devise a way to both develop and display a needed skill — for example, by participating in a company-wide project to showcase your ability to work with peers from different parts of the company to drive change. It's even better if the team has the opportunity to present its final recommendations to senior management.

    Finally, seek out candid feedback on your executive presence — and dig below surface issues related to dress, grooming, and personal carriage. Are you able to project the sense of confidence required to make difficult decisions and take control of unexpected situations? Can you maintain your poise and composure under stress? (Note: how you handle yourself in executive-level presentations is an important indicator of your ability to manage stress in most organizations.) And do you convey a sense of unused "bandwidth," the ability to take on even greater levels of responsibility — or do you project a harried, overwhelmed demeanor that leads others to conclude that you are "maxed out" at your current level?

    Some managers, in the absence of this kind of feedback, wait passively in hopes of being tapped for a promotion. By taking the initiative in your own career development and actively working to display your executive-level skills in your current job, you'll find that you're much better equipped to advance when the next promotional opportunity arises.

    This blog post was originally published HBR.org, where you can find more of John Beeson's writing. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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