I read a lot about people who are stuck in their jobs and don’t know how to move upwards. In this article, I’ll explain what really matters and I will share my own experience.
One of the most common ideas is that getting promoted is all about who-knows-who and building a strong network. Coffee talk and smoke breaks. All that. Although some of that is part of it, it’s not all that matters.
So, where to start?
First of all, you’ll need to work hard. Faking it might work on a certain management level (I’ll cover this topic another time) but on junior level it’s all about hard work and tangible results. Showing you’re the best in something is what ultimately will put you in the crosshairs of senior management. Even if you hate working in a KPI based environment, being top of the class in a few of the tasks that are being measured is vital.
But what if you work hard and nobody notices? Or what if you work hard but the KPI’s don’t reflect this?
The key is to become an expert in one or two things that you do on a daily basis. This will in the long term make you the local authority and gain respect from all your major stakeholders. In some companies, we call these employees power users or subject matter experts.
If you know what’s important for the company try to focus on something that adds value in that field. Most companies revolve around sales – if you see something that’s broken and your expertise can drive it to a better level to ultimately improve the customer experience you’ll gain a lot of respect from sales & product management and voila…you’re now an authority.
A good example could be the way customer complaints are handled. If you feel the process is slow and inadequate it could very well be the same feeling for the end customer. By working on this task you should think about how it could be improved. I’m not talking about totally re-inventing the process but small, noticeable changes that would benefit all who are involved.
If you can translate these ideas into a solid plan you’ll gain the attention of everybody else. Even if your plan fails you’ll be regarded as the smart and proactive customer-oriented guy in the room. If your plan leads to a better solution for the company and its customers you’ll be seen as someone who can fix things based on their knowledge and hard work.
Second, share your expertise. This might be hard for ultra-introverts but nobody likes people who know everything but close themselves off from the rest of the company to just ‘do their thing’. You risk two outcomes by doing this. First of all, someone might take credit for your work and it could be difficult for you to dispute this or prove the opposite. The second issue is that by not sharing your expertise you’re basically blocking the growth of your team or division by creating succession risk. Not sharing your knowledge is a risk for the company in case you leave and management will at some point force you to share your skills anyway. If you do it proactively however it really raises your company profile.
Sharing your expertise is a good way of taking credit for your work without looking like a know-it-all. Ways to share your expertise are: training newcomers, present your improvements in meetings, or be vocal about your results or concerns in conference calls.
Next, document your progress. I’m not talking about updating your CV with every achievement but make sure any performance review or development discussion reflects what you have been doing. This is important for a couple of reasons. First of all, it will help your future discussions and anybody else who looks into your file. Think about internal talent hunters or HR people who might need access to your resume. Having everything documented also helps when your boss leaves or you change teams.
Finally – make your intentions clear to your manager. Any good manager will appreciate your openness about your ambitions and career plans. Be specific about your timelines and make sure to discuss how realistic your expectations are. Too many people enter the workforce expecting to be promoted within a year or so. Although it’s possible, it’s unlikely you’ll make that good of an impression that will put you before people who’ve been grinding longer than you.
Assuming you have regular catch-ups with your boss (see my other article about the importance of 1-to-1’s) you should have your personal development as a fixed topic during these conversations. Always remember who you work for: yourself.
But if I do my job that good, will I risk making myself unnecessary?
Making your job obsolete is not a bad thing – it shows you know how to run things. This is very counter-intuitive but believe me, this is how companies work and upper management thinks. Explain to your boss you want to learn and grow and that at some point you’ll get bored and look for new things. If you’re of any value to the company (you’re an expert after all) a good company should consider you for the next round of promotions. If that’s not the case, you’re working for the wrong company.
This is not saying that companies are always bad for not promoting people. But sometimes the circumstances are not optimal. It could be the case that all interesting positions are filled or they’re simply not recruiting. Bad companies are those who promise growth and promotions and don’t fulfill on that promise without providing any good reason.
In the end, networking and connections play a role but it’s not as defined as you would think. Reputation is what counts and you can only build this by showing expertise and ownership. If you’re good at networking and have a lot of energy in you that’s fine, you might get there sooner than others but it’s not what drives decisions. In upper management, we’re looking for dependable, decisive, and mature people. We’re not looking for that cool guy from the after-work drink.
Now let’s get personal. How did I got promoted?
I started working for my job in a support function at a national level, although the function meant I was a lot in contact with my international peers. My job was easy so I started to look at improving some of the stuff we were doing. Nothing big. Making some better Excel templates for our reporting (by looking for templates online) and re-organizing the workload (by setting up weekly calls with some international peers). Simple stuff.
I started asking the sales department if there was anything they needed that would make their job easier and that quickly transformed into regular catch-ups with these guys too, making me better understand my role as part of the bigger picture. Thanks to this I also got invited to do some customer visits which helped me better understand the impact of my own role.
In year two I started getting bored but fortunately, there were a few projects going on where my help could be used. Good, I got to learn more and started to better my Excel and PowerPoint skills on the job. I also naturally got more social around people in the office, something I never really cared about before.
This helped me in getting quicker solutions when help from other departments was needed. If you can show your willingness to help out others it really proves your trustworthy character and your ability to see the bigger picture – again something management will notice quickly. Understanding the end-to-end processes in your company is a show of great maturity as an employee.
Year three I got really bored and decided to leave but when I resigned my bosses offered me a better package and the involvement in a major international project, basically confirming my status as a subject matter expert. This lead me to win an award for excellence and made me discover business travel and last but not least, I now became one of the authorities in the region for everything related to my job field.
Year four was when it all changed. Our division was going to merge with another department and a manager would be recruited to lead the new division. I posted for the job and although I had to go through the whole recruitment process (assessment, interviews, etc.) I was clearly the logical choice for senior management. People knew who I was, where I came from, and how well I understood the business. A few years later a got promoted again but I’ll save that story for another article.
Bottom line is, getting promoted comes down to two conditions. Your willingness to put yourself out there by working your ass off and of course the company you work for to create those opportunities.
To summarize keep these key topics in mind:
- Do the work in your first two years (that includes overtime or stuff you don’t really like). Don’t go too far in this. Just show your willingness to contribute to the overall results of the company and think outside of the box. Better to fail than not try at all. Management will love your attitude and trial-and-error is part of our own jobs.
- Make your intentions clear with your boss by reviewing your career journey regularly.
- Document what you do and share your success.
- If you don’t get where you need to be, move on. Everybody is looking for experts, you’ll fit somewhere else if the conditions are not optimal at your current workplace.
Feel free to reach out to me to discuss any of this or your current situation. I’d be more than glad to advise you along your journey.