Excerpt: The Unwritten Rules

Managers in most organizations get lots of feedback: Whether you made your numbers; how you did in managing a project; whether you accomplished your annual performance goals. What you all too frequently miss is what I call the feedback that really counts— feedback about where you stand in terms of the unwritten rules governing who gets promoted to the executive level in your organization. Since most companies tend to do an extremely poor job of providing such feedback, it is often left up to you to tease out how senior-level decision makers perceive you, the initial step toward displaying the skills and behaviors required for success at higher levels.

But first, it's important to understand the reasons executives in most organizations are hesitant to provide this kind of feedback about how managers are viewed in relation to their company's requirements for selection to the executive level. Several factors are in play that together inhibit most executives from providing meaningful feedback:

The inherent subjectivity of this kind of feedback.

Obstacles in most companies to achieving a consensus point of view (based on multiple inputs) about a manager's leadership skills and career potential.

A desire not to demotivate a manager who receives less-than-glowing feedback or fear of creating unwanted attrition on the part of strong performers who are not seen as promotable to the next level.

A tendency to jump to the conclusion that a manager is incapable of developing some needed skill.

These four reasons combine with a very human tendency to avoid giving people bad news. When pressed by the aspiring manager for an explanation of why he didn't get promoted, it's almost always safer for the senior executive to move the conversation to more neutral territory, for example, the job experience the manager hasn't had or the results she would like to see him produce. For all of these reasons, a manager intent on cracking the C-suite level needs to be skilled in finding ways to access the feedback that really counts. In order to do so successfully, you'll need to address three important questions: who to ask, how to ask, and how to respond.

Whom to Ask

Your current manager is an obvious starting point for getting feedback. Regardless of the nature of your working relationship or how long you have reported to him, begin your conversations with your boss. If he's candid, his feedback will be useful since he is typically the one closest to your work, and his perspectives can shape the opinions of senior executives. Realize, however, that your manager may not be willing to give you the straight scoop and that his views about your career potential may be different from those of other key decision makers. In any case, your boss will almost certainly be involved if you choose to contact others for their input since senior executives will usually ask for a green light from your boss before agreeing to speak with you. As a rule of thumb, try to contact the highest-level managers who are knowledgeable about your work and with whom you've had a positive working relationship.

Make sure that the executives you approach understand clearly why you are seeking their input: to gain additional insight into your career development priorities. Look hard for the patterns and commonalities that emerge from your conversations, especially if they relate to the core selection factors described in The Unwritten Rules:

Demonstrating strategic skills and the ability to set direction for the organization.
Building a strong team of talented people.
Managing implementation— without getting pulled into the details at too low a level.
Exhibiting the capacity for innovation and change.
Working with and through others to get things done across organizational boundaries.
Projecting the executive presence that builds confidence in others.

How to Ask

If there was ever a time for active listening, this is it. When you ask an executive for feedback, it is vital to project a sincere desire to understand how you are perceived and the skills and capabilities you need to demonstrate in order to advance your career. Anything you say that conveys defensiveness or any negative body language is likely to reinforce the other person's inhibitions and cause him to either shut down or move the conversation to safer, but less productive, territory.

Sometimes you'll receive feedback phrased in overly general terms such as a need for "better communication kills'' or "increased leadership.'' Such comments are usually code words for important issues. For example, if you hear you need to become a "more impactful team player,'' that may signal the importance of developing your skills in persuasion and collaborative problem solving as well as influencing key decision makers to get your proposals accepted at higher levels within the company.

At the end of a productive feedback session, ask one important summary question: "What one or two things— above all others— would most help build others' confidence in my ability to succeed at higher levels within the organization at some point in the future?'' Assuming that the other person has leveled with you during the conversation, this question tends to get to the core issues of what you need to display in order to move ahead.

How to Respond

If you've been successful in determining how you are truly perceived within the organization, the results can unleash strong emotions. Your first response may be that the feedback is inaccurate or unfair or that you're the victim of a double standard since you know of others who have been promoted without the skills you are seen as lacking.

The first step in responding to the feedback you've received, often after calming down and letting the dust settle a bit, is to face a basic fact: right or wrong, how you are perceived has a huge impact on whether you'll get promoted to the C-suite level. Simply bemoaning what you see as unfair feedback will ultimately get in the way of your efforts to change how you are perceived to your advantage.

As a next step, carefully prioritize the information you've received, and try to identify the one or two things you need to demonstrate in a consistent way in order to change the commonly held perceptions that are holding you back.

Next, answer the following question as precisely as you can: "How would I like people to describe me differently in six to nine months?'' More innovative? More open to new ideas? More forward looking and focused on the marketplace? More comfortable with uncertainty and taking risks? As you think through the feedback you've received, make sure that you frame your response to this question in a way that is clear and meaningful to you.

As you take steps to breed confidence on the part of those who make C-suite level decisions in your organization, be aware that you won't fundamentally change perceptions unless others can see you doing something new and then share their observations with others within the organization.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., The Unwritten Rules by John Beeson. Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

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