Suggestions and considerations to help you move up
At its best, a promotion to a more senior level of responsibility can challenge, energize, and reward you, and enable you to accomplish something of greater meaning in your professional life.
Moving up isn’t for everyone—it may not be important to you, and/or you may be happy with the level of responsibilities / influence you have today.
I’m writing to those of you actually interested in the next level, or a more senior role, wondering what's taking so long, and/or thinking pragmatically about what’s needed to get there.
Why Your “Why” Matters
That said, I don’t advocate ambition or promotion for its own sake. I’m not proud to say that I spent years aiming for a certain level / title simply because I thought it would be cool to be a member of the club. Something like 14 years later, literally from the mail room to the executive suite, I got the title and position I wanted. On that same day, I realized it meant little to nothing to me. I wish I had been seeking greater influence and leadership because I felt I had something meaningful to accomplish that could be done more effectively from post of greater responsibility. My own experience suggests WHY you want to move up is well worth your time to examine.
So I urge you to ask yourself what you can do at that next level that you can’t do today. Satisfy yourself that there’s something more meaningful for you—and others--there. Not only will that piece of self-awareness help you get there, but it’ll also give you a greater sense of happiness when you arrive.
Now About the “How”
I work with executives every day seeking promotions. I’ve found that moving up is a combination of four elements: opportunity, perceptions of you, your fit / skills, and contention / competition, each of which warrant your attention if you’d like to exercise influence to take that next step.
I say “exercise influence” because some feel that if they do a great job it’ll be rewarded with greater responsibility. This takes trust or faith in your organization and its leadership (if not simply in your boss), which may well be warranted. If so, that’s good news, and I recommend that you keep doing a great job.
1. Opportunity: face it, if there’s no more senior post open (or likely to open up) that might be suitable for you, the likelihood that you can create one is low, although not impossible. It’s critical to gain insight into openings at the more senior level via your network, and to understand what’s out there now, or potentially on the horizon. Ask questions about succession plans, new areas / divisions, organizational changes, etc. Keep an eye on job postings, and an ear to the ground.
2. Perceptions of you: I’ve never met a leader or aspiring leader who doesn’t have a blind spot—that is, your behavior and the way others see you that is obvious to them and a mystery to you. Those issue-tunities build up like household dust under a couch, and are worthwhile to explore and clean up from time to time, particularly when you feel ready to take on greater responsibility.
You can be the most competent, capable person, yet if others see you as difficult, arrogant, guarded, controlling, incapable, people-pleasing, etc., and you don’t know it, there might be an endless wait for that promotion you seek. This is always a good area for you to explore, particularly if you honestly believe a promotion is taking too long.
Ask others what they see about you that you may not be noticing: “What would help me to know that I’m not seeing?” “How am I getting in my own way?” These are blind spot clean-out questions worth asking.
3. Your Fit / Skills: if there’s an open spot, and you’re clear that perceptions of you are positive, consider the match between your skills and “fit” with the opportunity at hand, from the perspective of others. “I can do it” might be your thought, but what if your personality style is too similar or too different from those associated with the new role? Perhaps you lack one or more critical skill(s) for the job, and people don’t want to take a risk?
I suggest you ask those responsible for the promotion or hire: “In all candor, what stands in the way between me and this role? Please be blunt.” I had one experience where the answer was, “Actually, now that I think about it – nothing,” and the promotion happened because the question helped them move through low-grade resistance.
And this is where your reflection about (and ability to articulate) what has meaning for you, and what you can accomplish at the next level comes in. What stands at the intersection of your passion, capabilities, and values? It can be very compelling to those looking at candidates to hear you say “If I were to take on this role, here’s what I can do with it that’s relevant to the organization, and important to me.”
4. Contention / Competition: particularly in larger organizations, there is typically more than one choice for an open post. The more senior the opening, the more likely this is true. Internal promotion versus external hire, a desire (or predisposition for) differing backgrounds, skills, personality styles, and the list goes on. In many cases, there’s no way to know in advance the considerations of the promoting leader(s). Again, you can be the most qualified candidate in your own mind, yet have the wrong profile given the bias(es) toward a certain type of person. It’s worthwhile to ask, “What are some of the key considerations for this role that may influence my own suitability for it?” Be prepared not to get all the information you need here, but if you don’t ask, you definitely won’t know.
If you have something to give at the next level that you can’t offer in your current role, and you want to go for it, I hope these questions and considerations will help you in your quest.