Getting that First Promotion

Harvard Business Review

If you've been at your company for a few years and hope to move up to the next level, you may feel like you're standing at an airport looking up to see one plane after another stacked up in a holding pattern. That's because promotion rates in most industries have slowed dramatically since the recession, creating a backlog of talented employees intent on moving ahead.

Fortunately, at least in the United States, that logjam is beginning to break up, as the economy strengthens. So that leaves you with the question: What steps can I take to break out of this unusually large pack?

The first thing you must understand is that producing strong results in your current job won't be enough. That's just table stakes, the minimum needed to get you into consideration for a promotion. But finding out what else is required is tricky. Few companies spell out the criteria they use to make promotions to the first rung of management. Companies like GE and McKinsey are rigorous about promotion standards, but they are the exceptions.

So, what are some rules of thumb to keep in mind?

In making promotional decisions to the management level, companies typically look for people who take initiative — and know how to do it the right way. That means going beyond the narrow confines of your current job and finding new ways to add value and improve the performance of your group. In doing so, it's important to be not only a problem finder but a solution seeker. Some people will identify a problem or barrier to performance and neatly drop it at their boss's doorstep, naively expecting to be rewarded. In reality you've just added to your already-harried boss's job jar. No kudos for that.

Solution finders work with others to devise ways to fix the problem and gain support for the proposed approach within the company. They anticipate how the recommended solution will affect other parts of the organization and take steps to build support within those departments. In the process, they display a sense of professional maturity that starts with an understanding of which battles deserve to be fought and which can be won. Virtually all organizations are inefficient in certain areas, but that doesn't mean every inefficiency is worth tackling. You won't set yourself apart from the pack by solving a problem that won't move the performance needle in terms of increased customer satisfaction, revenue, or productivity. A smart solution finder also attempts to fully understand the boss's and senior management's performance goals, relationship concerns and career ambitions to ensure they will be prepared to deploy some of their scarce political capital on the proposed initiative.

In addition to initiative and professional maturity, you also need to find ways to demonstrate that you have the interpersonal skills required to manage a variety of potential direct reports — to set objectives for them, guide their work, provide performance feedback, and address the performance problems that inevitably occur in any group. Demonstrating people management skills also involves recognizing that different people are motivated by different things and showing that you are flexible enough in your motivational style to get the best out of each staff member. Admittedly, this can be hard to do if you aren't already responsible for managing people. However, how you interact with others on group projects can be an important "preview of coming attractions" in terms of showcasing your interpersonal and people management skills to your company's management

And finally, as you work with others to develop your proposed initiative to improve performance, look for opportunities to display your ability to anticipate and marshal the resources that will be required for successful implementation, another important skill at the managerial level.

If you think all this sounds like extra work, you're absolutely right. In any environment, but especially in this post-recession one, those who emerge from the pack will be the ones willing to go the extra mile to distinguish themselves from other talented people. But if you are successful, beyond moving up to the level you want, you'll have a head start in gaining critical skills that can continue to propel your career upward: the ability to get things done with and through others; to influence and persuade peers over whom you have no formal authority; and to delegate work so you are freed to think about the future and identify potential innovations that can create a quantum leap in performance.

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