What’s the Best Strategy for Climbing the Ladder (and Why Might You Want To)?
To advance your career, whether you’ve been working for years or are just starting out, you’ll need a values-oriented strategy to achieve your goals.
There’s a difference between wanting a promotion and getting one. Creating a plan for moving forward in your career doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to actually move forward. You can work hard and focus on your company’s success, but you could still find yourself constantly on the outside, looking in. And you look at the people who do get promoted, and you wonder, “Why them? I do a better job than those clowns.”
Are You Really Sure You Want a Promotion?
And even if you finally get that coveted promotion, there’s no guarantee that the transition will be smooth or successful. Perhaps you’ve even read the Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter that tells us that, “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” You might wonder if you’ve already risen to your own level of incompetence. Is it possible that your bosses are tremendously wise by helping you avoid that fate?
It’s possible that your next promotion would be great for both you and the company. Yet a new position can bring new anxiety, reduced confidence, uncertainty about your performance, and new leadership challenges. How do you lead former coworkers or even a former boss? You’ll have to adjust to a completely power relationship with different people that may not be stress-free or easy—and the new dynamics may be well outside of your comfort zone.
The Answer is “Yes. I Want the Promotion.” So What Do You Do?
You can prepare. Even if you have excellent communication and collaboration skills, you may want to take courses in communication and managerial training programs. You can take on leadership roles in the community to build your skills, because leadership skills really are transferable. You can also ask your boss or your upper management to evaluate your level of managerial skills so that you can improve them. (Make sure you get some of your feedback from people who are not close to you—because then they won’t butter you up.)
You can also build your technical competence, whether it’s taking courses towards a full-fledged MBA or taking individual courses that are more closely targeted at the next position you want to move into. You may need to do homework to study parts of the company that you would ordinarily never encounter. Some people do this by volunteering to handle problems all over the company when they arise, but without the homework, you might never find out what the needs are.
Volunteering to help with problems outside of your area does not merely get you brownie points, nor does it simply expand your resume. It also gives you the opportunity to observe the company from many different perspectives. You’ll be able to study the power structure from different places in the organization and determine where in the company you would find the most abundant possibilities. An apparently plum position might in reality be enmeshed in a truly toxic level of interpersonal dynamics. Volunteering gives you information that you can use to navigate.
In addition, it helps to put yourself out by offering creative suggestions. However, without doing research on what the real issues are, you run the risk of making knee-jerk recommendations that gain you nothing. Put your ideas forward, but avoid forming strong opinions before you have enough real evidence. Try to make sure that your creative suggestions are an expression of “empirical creativity”—based on collecting data.
What if I Don’t Have the Personality to Manage Others?
(And yes, promotions often lead to leadership positions.) Personality is not as important in managing as you might think. One of the great chief executives of the last 30 years is Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airline, and he just wasn’t normal. For example, he once solved a trademark dispute with an arm wrestling contest—and I don’t think he learned that in a business management course. He was also known to sometimes go to the office wearing a flowered hat and a feathered boa.
According to Mark Thompson, senior executive coach and bestselling co-author of Success Built to Last (with Jerry Porras and Stewart Emery), “If the leaders of 99% of the world’s organizations—both for-profit and nonprofit—walked into your office right now, you would not recognize them. They’re not larger than life, handsome, or gorgeous personalities. They don’t look like impressive people and you’d not be enamored with their speaking style or their presence.” In his experience coaching presidents of Fortune 500 companies, he describes how two completely different executives have become phenomenally successful with “almost polar opposite personalities.”
A perfect example of a successful person with a bad personality is Bill Gates. When he was first building Microsoft, he had a really low tolerance for the “fools” who didn’t understand his mission, and as a result, he nearly lost his company through his profound level of arrogance. He personally drove away many of his most talented collaborators because of his self-importance, and it took a while before he had an epiphany in studying the life of Teddy Roosevelt, who had once said, “People really don’t care much about you until they know how much you care about them.”
Be In Service
Eventually, Gates developed what might be called humility, but it wasn’t humility in the sense that we might commonly define it. Rather, he learned to subjugate himself for his cause, which initially was his company and values. He became a fanatic in his discipline for this work, and only later translated it more and more to people—eventually through his philanthropy. He became more aware of his impact on others, and as he became aware of this impact, he developed the will for that impact to be more and more positive. Whether you like Gates or not, the growth in his career mirrored the growth of his ability to be in service.
There’s a certain chutzpah in knowing that what you do matters. Thus, when you’re in service, you don’t denigrate your personal power, but you see yourself actually making a difference in the world. When you act as if what you do matters, your career benefits. But this is not because you’re trying to earn brownie points, but because you know deeply that your actions are important—as are everyone’s. Thus, being in service from authentic self-knowledge and authentic self-empowerment makes you stronger and more authentically attractive in your career.
When you believe in the importance of your actions and your service, you can inspire other people to believe in importance of their own service to the company, to the world, to the community, to themselves, and to the values that ultimately will serve everyone.
This will inspired authentic respect, and that will serve your career.
Be Committed and Values-Driven
Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, says, “The advice I give to people is first get deep and then get broad.” He describes how as a salesperson, he went very deep into the methods he needed, and then he broadened his skills to use them in more and more areas. “At GE,” he says, “I would always do what was asked me with integrity. I would try to do it in bits at a time, but do it well. Then I would expand the horizon. People get derailed when they start saying, ‘Well, this stuff’s beneath me. I’m worth more.’ I valued every step along the way. I did some jobs for a year. I did some for 5 years. But I did all of those jobs like I was going to have them forever. And that’s my advice: Do every job like you’re going to have it forever.”
In some ways, Immelt did have every job forever—he just went deep, and then he went broad, and he took the values he provided to the next level. He could not have taken this approach if he had found his work meaningless, and in fact, any job you do in the progression of your career can have a deeper meaning if you find it. You just have to look for it’s significance. That is not as hard as you might think, because people are meaning-making machines. As you move up the career ladder, your job is to lead others in understanding the meaning and the values in what you’re all doing.
Whether you’re helping customers live their dreams, lighten their loads, improve their relationships, improve their lifestyles, be happier, or be more effective, you can find positive values in what you’re providing. If you’re not satisfied with the value you bring, you can morph your job to increase the real value you provide people by changing how you present what you do. If you bring more values into your communication, it will become more value-oriented. The way to find those values is to go deep. Then when you find them, go broad.
You might as well live every day as if it’s going to be significant and that some part of it matters. Learn to distinguish the why, the value, the purpose, and the integrity that you can convey in your career—and that will serve your career as you move forward.