Pathways to Promotion: What Does it Take to Reach the Top?

“How do I align my talents with the right company and leadership team?”

execunetselect-top-mountainThere’s no magic bullet for securing a promotion. Some criteria, such as demonstrating technical expertise, a proven capacity for strategic leadership, and general business acumen, are within your control. You can find mentors, join networking groups, and participate in continuing education to sharpen these skills and broaden your experience set. Other criteria, like a senior-level retirement that creates advancement opportunities, are out of your control. In this sense, reaching the C-suite can feel a bit like dating to find that forever relationship: timing matters just as much as compatibility.

That said, there’s no reason to sit back and wait for the opportunity to come to you. Your daily actions are key to setting the stage for success and staying ahead of the curve. In executive recruiting, we call professionals who do this “super employees with a sixth sense.” To outsiders, these professionals seem to have an innate understanding of what needs to be done and how to do it. It’s not that they have a crystal ball– they’ve simply chosen the right environment for their talents and are proactive in their daily work. As you consider your own advancement trajectory, start by asking these three questions.

  1. Am I at the right company?
    It’s hard to be a super employee if your talents and values don’t align with both your company’s needs and your direct supervisor’s needs. Study the preferences and goals of your company at large and your direct supervisor, paying close attention to what your supervisor values. Does your supervisor value what you bring to the table and recognize your success? If you think you’re acing your job but your supervisor thinks differently, there’s a fundamental misalignment that needs to be corrected. More broadly, if you’re a big-picture thinker with out-of-the-box ideas but your company needs a taskmaster who will keep the trains running on time, this position is not going to play to your strengths. Choose an environment where you can thrive.
  2. Am I proactively positioning myself for success?
    As a mid-career professional, you face a delicate balancing act. You’re often in a position with your current company that requires you to execute organizational priorities even if you’re not the one setting these priorities. It’s easy to fall into a habit of task management rather than genuine leadership, which can create the perception you aren’t quite ready for the top. To fix this perception, start by honestly assessing your daily workflow. Do you use a time management tactic to set aside time each day for big-picture thinking or are you still jumping from one seemingly urgent task to another? Next, consider your leadership style. Is your leadership style aligned with your values? Do you bring intentionality to daily team interactions or are you defaulting to a “my way or the highway” approach? You are responsible for your team’s performance and micro-culture. Taking the initiative to improve your leadership skills and set aside time for strategic thinking can go a long way towards improving your advancement potential.
  3. Am I stuck in my current role?
    It’s important to differentiate between being impatient with the current pace of promotion and genuinely being stuck. In general, a cause for concern is being in the same role for three years or longer with no new opportunities and without gaining additional skills or experience. Ask yourself, “Are there opportunities for upward mobility or is the current leadership team staying put?” In addition to promotional opportunities, consider the bigger picture. Do you genuinely enjoy working with your clients, your co-workers and your company’s leadership, or are you ready for a change? Perhaps you’re seeking a company with greater work-life balance, or maybe you need more purposeful work. Or, maybe you’re feeling disengaged and need a fresh challenge. Take time to consider what you genuinely need from your next step. While a bump up the org chart is nice, if other issues are contributing to your current dissatisfaction, a new title won’t fix these problems.

Asking for a Promotion: Framing the Conversation Around Excellence

Asking for a promotion puts you in a vulnerable position: you’re putting yourself forward to be judged and you could be found “not worthy” – a potentially embarrassing and uncomfortable outcome. Of course, you can’t assume that an organization will take care of you simply because you’re doing a good job. Your company is looking out for their best interests, not yours, and at the end of the day, you can’t get what you don’t ask for.

Want some help with this important career situation? ExecuNet’s Career Strategists can guide you through this. Get the help you need and the job you deserve!

I always coach professionals to remember that a promotion is not a single conversation but a series of conversations about your impact potential. Your supervisor needs to hear consistently “I want to be sure I’m not just doing a good job but an excellent job.” Then, prove your point by proactively taking steps towards professional growth. For example, if the next role requires significant business development responsibilities, what can you do now to demonstrate your ability to bring in new clients, in addition to acing your current responsibilities?

One surefire way to not get promoted is to act like it’s a done deal. Expecting to be promoted based on tenure or even past accomplishments, rather than your potential, will set yourself up for disappointment.


Written by Audra Gaswirth

Lucas Group

Lucas Group

As North America’s premier executive recruiting firm, Lucas Group works hand-in-hand with thousands of companies and talented professionals across a variety of industries and functional specialties. Since 1970, Lucas Group recruiters serve our clients and candidates with an unrelenting commitment to achieve clear executive search and hiring goals.

Lucas Group has been ranked 5th on the Forbes “Best Professional Search Firm” list for 2020, an independent ranking of 250 professional recruiting firms. The Forbes “Best Professional Recruiting Firms” ranked companies that place employees in roles with less than $100,000 in annual income. Lucas Group also ranked 8th on the Forbes’ “Best Executive Recruiting Firm 2020” list, defined as companies that place executives in positions with at least $100,000 in annual pay.

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