A few weeks ago, I was standing in an airport security line that was moving much more slowly than the lines on either side of me, even though it was a TSA-pre line and therefore, I had hoped, faster. Unfortunately, the line was so long that I couldn’t really tell what the hold-up was. Finally I got close enough to see that the TSA agent operating the X-ray machine was in training: Another agent was very slowly and carefully going over everything with him to make sure he was noticing the right stuff.
It reminded me that one of the most frustrating experiences for most people is waiting for something that takes longer than you expected, when you don’t know why it’s taking so long and, therefore, whether you can do anything about it.
Kind of like our careers. For those of us who are working in medium to large-size companies, especially, it can be agonizing not to know whether you’ll be able to move into a bigger, more responsible, more interesting job; how long it might take; and what you can do to expedite the process.
Getting clear about how things work in your particular organization is essential. Do people get promoted? How long does it usually take? Is it best just to apply for jobs when they’re posted online, or should you talk to your manager about how to get a head start on open jobs? Understanding these actual processes – both unspoken and stated – for getting promoted at your company will at least give you an overall sense of what’s going on and what might get in your way.
But just as my knowledge of how a security line works, and even knowing what the hold-up was in my particular line didn’t make the line go any faster, knowing your company’s processes for advancement won’t necessarily help you to advance.
Over the years, I’ve noticed again and again two qualities that stand out to senior management when they’re considering whether to promote someone. I’ve also noticed that demonstrating both qualities impresses decision-makers even more. If you can develop these two qualities, it could catalyze your career advancement:
1. Be Farsighted: Especially these days, with things changing faster than ever before, organizations need people who can think ahead in ways that benefit the organization. In my research, I’ve found this is one of the six characteristics that make leaders “followable” – that is, that elicit productivity and loyalty from followers. If you can demonstrate this characteristic even before you’re formally leading others, it serves as a powerful indicator of your leadership capability. Here’s what being farsighted looks like:
- See possible futures that are good for the enterprise
- Articulate your vision in a compelling and inclusive way
- Model your vision
- See past obstacles
- Invite others to participate in the vision
You might read this list and think that you can’t do these things unless you have a group to lead. But I beg to differ – you can start behaving in these ways within the framework of your very first job. And if you do, your boss and others in management will start to think of you as a leader-in-training.
I just saw an example of this recently. I was going to facilitate a meeting with a senior client and his team, and he had decided to hold the meeting in a space that wouldn’t have been ideal – a small hotel meeting room with no windows and uncomfortable chairs. He chose it simply because it was close and inexpensive. His assistant, who was coordinating the meeting for him, instead of just saying OK and making the arrangements, realized that this wouldn’t be a great space for people to think together over a two-day period. She did a little research, and found a place that was nearly as close, about the same price, and much better – lots of natural light, more room, better chairs – and with a staff that was more knowledgeable and responsive, as well. Then she took the new option to her boss, sharing it with him in a way that demonstrated she understood his goals and was working with him to better meet them. When he said OK, she took responsibility for making it happen. When the dates changed and that room wasn’t available, instead of giving up, she asked if there were other rooms available. She was able to arrange for another, similar room because she had built great relationships with the venue staff. So, in her role as an assistant, she saw a possible future, articulated it well, modeled it through action, saw past obstacles, and invited others into achieving the vision with her. She was farsighted. Her boss was very impressed and has since given her more responsibility; she’s well on her way to a promotion.
2. Do Your Job Wonderfully: Being able to look ahead in this way, see how something could be better, and then work with others to make it happen – being farsighted – is half of being seen as promotable. Consistently doing a great job at your job is the other half. If the assistant in my example had envisioned and found the better venue – but hadn’t taken care of all the other off-site details for which she was responsible… well, let’s just say her boss would have been much less impressed.
This is what doing your job wonderfully looks like:
Keep Your Agreements — Do What You Say You’ll Do: Period. And If it’s simply not possible to keep an agreement, let those affected — especially your boss — know as soon as possible, and say what you’ll do instead. If your boss knows that you will always do what you commit to do, and do it well, without prompting or needing a lot of oversight – you will be seen as someone to keep and grow.
Be Responsive to Feedback: Listen, make sure you understand, find out what needs to be done differently, and do it – don’t blame, complain, or make excuses.
Manage Your Own Growth: Discover and take the steps you need to develop – don’t expect your boss or HR to do it for you. If you’re fortunate, they’ll support and encourage your growth – but they shouldn’t have to be in charge of it.
Be a Good Company Citizen: Build positive, productive relationships with those around you – nobody likes a prima donna, and making it harder for others to do their job by virtue of how you’re doing yours is pretty much the kiss of death in terms of promotability.
As I’ve been wandering around companies of all sizes over the past few decades, and as I’ve worked with my business partner to grow our own company, I’ve seen these two approaches rewarded again and again – with more responsibility and influence, better compensation, more challenging work. If you can develop your skills of being farsighted while doing your current job really well, you’re much more likely to have a career that evolves rather than one that gets stuck in neutral.
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