In most organizations, professionals who want to move up get lots of feedback. Did you hit your numbers? Make your budget? How did you perform in managing a major project? Many companies provide you with so-called 360-degree feedback based on anonymous surveys from your boss, peers, and direct reports. And there is also, of course, your annual performance review. In reality, for managers seeking promotion, such feedback is of only marginal benefit because its frame of reference is how you’re doing in your current job, at your current level. To maximize your career progress, you need answers to three questions that focus on upward mobility — the answers to which are elusive in the vast majority of organizations.
- What are the factors that govern who does — and doesn’t — advance to the senior level?
- How am I currently viewed in terms of those promotional criteria, and what skills and abilities do I need to demonstrate to move ahead?
- How does one navigate the “political thicket” in the company to get things done at the senior level?
In order to tease out answers to these questions, you need to know why they aren’t communicated more explicitly in most companies, who to ask, and how to listen to the responses.
In an attempt to address the first question, many companies publish leadership competency models comprised of a laundry list of skills and behaviors, such as external perspective, customer focus, collaboration, and teamwork. These are all useful, but the models typically apply to a number of different management levels, and they lose credibility when people see managers promoted to senior levels who noticeably lack some of the enumerated skills. As a result, your task is to gain access to the people who make decisions about senior-level promotions to find out what factors truly come into play when such decisions are made.
The technique I recommend is — with your boss’s knowledge — to schedule career discussions over a period of several months with as many mentors and senior people as possible who know your work. Start with your boss’s boss if you have worked with him or her, and target other leaders at that level (and above if possible) who are likely to be involved in placement decisions for jobs you’d like to be considered for in the future. Ask them what skills were most helpful to them in moving up the ranks and what abilities were critical to their success. In all likelihood, you’ll hear some common themes about the ability to chart a direction for a group versus helping implement someone else’s strategic vision, or the ability to initiate fundamental change to work processes versus improving existing ways of doing business. Listen carefully for behaviors related to these skills, such as the ability to make decisions in situations of uncertainty or the courage to go against the organizational grain and push the organization out of its comfort zone in the interest of innovation. Piece together the common themes you hear in these discussions, and stay alert to what isn’t mentioned, since these are usually the nice-to-have skills that aren’t central to promotional decisions.
Next comes the hard part: Actively solicit feedback on how you are viewed in terms of those senior-level promotional criteria. You need to ask the tough questions — the answers to which may be hard to hear. Understand that most people, including senior leaders, are uncomfortable providing this feedback. By definition, leadership capabilities have a subjective element and are open to varying interpretation by different people. And there’s always the risk of demotivating a talented manager the company doesn’t want to lose. So avoid any hint of defensiveness since that will tend to shut down a mentor or leader’s feedback. Instead, try to convey a sincere desire to learn what you need to advance over the long haul of your career — and dispel any sense that you’re simply angling for a promotion. At the end of a productive career discussion, ask one useful summary question: “What one or two things — above all others — would most help build others’ confidence in my ability to succeed at higher levels in the organization?” Assuming the leader has leveled with you, this question tends to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of the capabilities you most need to display to senior leaders.
When many managers hear the term “organization politics,” they run for cover and think of a blood sport with winners, losers, and collateral damage. In most companies, however, political skills have to do with how decisions get made at the executive level: who the key decision makers are, who the trusted lieutenants are who influence their opinions, what trust-based relationships one needs to be built within the executive ranks — and what the expectations are for how proposed initiatives should be vetted and advanced to ensure ultimate endorsement. These are topics that are not typically discussed openly in most companies, so once you have developed a close mentor relationship with a senior person who’s prepared to discuss them, you’ve been afforded a rare luxury. Keep in mind that a senior person generally does not want to be quoted about such behind-the-scenes machinations or the predilections of his or her colleagues, so treat this information with the utmost discretion.
It’s clear that at the top of the organizational pyramid, promotional opportunities are few and far between. However, if you are skillful in researching the answers to these three golden questions with the right mentors and leaders, you’re likely to separate yourself from the competition and be richly rewarded.