by Bob Ronan

Advice on how to get promoted, from a retired CIO

Sep 22, 2015
Relationship Building

It can be difficult for aspiring employees to climb the career ladder, and doing a job well is not the only factor in obtaining promotions. This article discusses some of the less obvious, but critical, behaviors people can take to advance their careers.

ladder clouds
Credit: Thinkstock

During my career, I had many people ask me what they needed to do to get to the next level or, in the long run, make it into the C-suite. Unfortunately, most of these people expected the answer to be a quadratic formula for advancement that they could simply execute and, presto, they would get a promotion.

That’s because most advice on career advancement suggests that the roadmap for success involves mastering a number of specific competencies. For example, you need technical skills, you need to be able to communicate well, and you need to have industry knowledge. All of these competencies are important and obtaining them should help you get promoted as part of the formal review process, but they are only part of the story.

Many big promotions do not happen on a schedule; they happen when situations arise that require personnel movements, and managers get together to think about people who might be able to do new jobs. Certainly these executives look at succession plans but they also brainstorm during these meetings. The purpose of this article is to discuss behaviors that will improve your chances of being discussed during succession planning or when one of these opportunistic conversations takes place.

Do every job to the best of your abilities

Okay, this sounds really obvious. But, do you really do every task that is given to you to the best of your abilities? Perhaps an example will help demonstrate that the answer to this question is not as clear cut as it might seem.

One of the toughest times in my career was when I had to move several jobs to another geographical area, and I had to sever a number of employees. On the final day these employees were in my group, most were long gone early in the day but I saw one employee, who I did not think was one of our top performers, still working at 5:30. I asked him what he was doing at work, and he said he wanted to make sure anyone picking up his work would start at a clean breaking point.

After he left, I asked a few people about him and they told me my view of him was wrong. They said he was quiet but very talented. A few months went by, and I received a call from another company asking if I could give them feedback on my former employee. Because he stayed late that last night, and because that prompted me to ask a few questions, I was able to tell the company a good story and he was hired. While most people were long gone that last day, this employee did his job to the best of his ability, and it ended up helping him get another opportunity.

Develop and maintain a network of contacts

Early in my career, I was told I needed to network in order to get ahead. A senior person suggested I attend a business breakfast that was held once a month in order to meet others in the business community. I hated it. As an introvert, making small talk is not my forte, and at this event it seemed like everyone was there simply because they thought they needed to network. I decided networking was not for me, and I stopped going.

A funny thing happened over time. I realized that networking does not require making small talk with strangers. It can be done by interacting with the people you work with on a daily basis, and then keeping in touch with these people over time. Unfortunately, most people talk to the same individuals over and over. Try to get away from this rut, as this tendency hinders most people from developing a good network. Talk to participants at meetings who you don’t know well, and make sure you respond when people reach out to you. (It is amazing how many people do not respond, especially if they receive an email addressed to a group). Or, if you hear about a problem someone is having, offer to help them with it. People love receiving unexpected help.

Over time, you will develop a long list of people you know and like. I have found that successful networking is no more complicated than making sure I keep in touch with these people over time, even after I no longer interact with them in my job.

I do this in a couple ways. First, I have different groups of former colleagues that I have dinner with on a regular basis. (I am often the one who initiates the get-togethers.) Second, I have developed a habit of sending email to people I know when I see something I think will interest them. If you see an article you think will be of interest to someone, why not send them a quick note with a link telling them you thought of them?

Every once in a while, I think of all the people in my network to make sure I have had regular contact with them. Depending on the relationship, the level of contact might be frequent (monthly) or infrequent (every year or two), but I make sure it happens. Taking the initiative to keep relationships current will differentiate you from others and is likely to generate opportunities for you in the future.

Know your areas for development, and work on them

Everyone has a development opportunity. Some are fatal flaws that prevent a person from advancing, while others delay the time it takes to advance. Here’s an important point — most of the people around you know what your development areas are, and if you don’t, you are at a disadvantage. The best way I have heard this concept described is that everyone has a bumper sticker on their back that identifies their strengths and weaknesses. Everyone else can see the bumper sticker, but it is difficult for the person to see it, and the two views may be quite different.

Just like corporations, individuals have brands. It is what someone would say about you in a couple sentences if they were asked. Understanding your brand — and improving it — is critical to career advancement. While most people understand what they need to do at a high level, most do not understand at the level required to make improvements.

The problem is often the performance management systems we have at work, which allow managers to sugar coat feedback in order to avoid difficult conversations. To address this issue, you need to actively seek out feedback. One tool is the 360 review which provides feedback from your boss, a few peers and a few direct reports. This is a good start, but it has problems. For example, there is a temptation to select reviewers who will provide positive feedback, and because these reviewers know only a few people are selected, they are likely to soften the messages. Also, many of the tools use a simple one-to-five grade scale to score feedback questions, but people use different scales when they fill out these forms.

Here’s a technique I once used to solve these problems. Everyone in my department was asked to provide anonymous feedback on anyone else in the department they wanted to help. We asked for two to three sentences of what they would say about each person if asked by someone who did not know them. We then had an independent person take all the feedback, create a Word document for each person with the comments about them and give each person a sealed letter with their feedback.

It was a tremendous success. In my case, I wasn’t surprised by any of the feedback but I found the wording to be very helpful in developing a deeper understanding of my “bumper sticker.” While you may not be able to do something like this, you can ask multiple people to give you feedback on your brand, and this will allow you to better understand the modifications you need to make to improve it.

Communicate career aspirations to management

This is a short but important point. There were many times in my career when I was involved in personnel discussions, and objections were raised about a person that were merely speculations. For example, we once had a perfect candidate for an opportunity, and the objection was raised that she had two young children so probably wouldn’t be interested. Fortunately, I had the benefit of having had a recent discussion with the woman, and she told me then that her career was extremely important to her and asked me to keep her in mind if there was an opportunity for advancement. She got the job. Don’t let other people make assumptions about your career aspirations.

Summary of advice on how to get promoted

When managers have discussions that impact people’s careers, there can be many reasons why a certain name is brought into the conversation. It might be something obvious, such as the person being a top performer, or it might be because a participant in that meeting worked with the person previously. Alternatively, it might be something less obvious, such as someone in the meeting thinking about a person because they recently had a conversation with them.

As you do your work and interact with others, remember that these important discussions can happen at any time, so make sure your daily behavior positions you to get your name into the dialogue. Good luck!