After working for almost 30 years I’m still amazed at how completely clueless people are of why they don’t get promoted and don’t rise to the executive ranks of the company they work for. Some people are smart, hardworking and don’t advance very far while others are of average intellect, work barely more than the minimum and yet somehow enjoy meteoric careers. Why? I’ll tell you and the reasons may surprise you.
What makes me qualified to make such statements you might ask. That’s a fair question and this is why: 1) I’ve gone from file clerk to CEO during my career, always been promoted and always been asked (sometimes begged) to stay when I hand in my notice (there has never been an exception to this); 2) I’ve been in charge of personnel departments and been directly involved with hundreds of promotions and terminations; and 3) I have seen what works and what doesn’t, from the lowest clerical job all the way to the top CEO position.
-It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a good job if your boss doesn’t think so
-Intelligence doesn’t correlate with job performance
-Working harder doesn’t mean you are doing a good job
-You think you understand what’s expected of you but you’re most likely wrong
-You believe you know how your performance is measured but you probably don’t
-Doing well in your job involves more than just doing your job well
-Telling your boss about problems is bad
-Not telling your boss about problems is bad
Let’s take a look at what you need to do to get ahead in your career.
The first and by far the most important thing you have to establish with your boss is trust. He relies on you to succeed in his job and you have to do whatever it takes to make him look good. You must make your boss dependent on you. How do you do that? You need to understand exactly what your boss does, how he’s measured and what his success factors are. If you don’t understand that, you’ll never obtain the edge you are looking for. Most employees believe they know this but in reality they have absolutely no clue.
Let’s look at an example. Bill, the Engineering Manager, is involved in developing an important new product for his company. He is extremely intelligent, works around the clock, and does his administrative duties on time and without error. Bill should be a slam-dunk for the Director of Engineering position right? Yes, but unfortunately played his cards wrong. The timeline for the company’s high-profile project had been established a year ago and Bill was going to meet the timeline no matter what. And he kept telling his boss, who believed him. Just before the due date Bill’s boss assured the CEO, who again committed to the board of directors, that the project would come in on time. Well, it didn’t. The board scolded the CEO who in turn had a very unpleasant talk with Bill’s boss.
Joan, another engineering manager with far less tenure, not as smart and hardworking as Bill, but had the judgment and courage to understand the timeline risk and had months earlier voiced her concern about getting the project done on time. Joan got the director job. Bill wasn’t fired but his boss no longer had any confidence in Bill and the trust that had taken years to build was instantly gone.
Your personal character defines who you are, is a critical element to how you are perceived and to your job success. Integrity is the cornerstone of your character and is required for developing trust and confidence with your boss and everyone you work with. It takes a second for trust to evaporate but many years to rebuild. Don’t ever compromise your integrity no matter how tempting. Integrity is necessary but not sufficient for success. Judgment and your decision-making abilities are the two most important factors influencing your career.
Every day you are faced with making judgment calls in your job, which is typically followed by a decision. Gather ten people in a room and present them with a set of facts and you will have a variety of different conclusions and proposals based on their individual judgments. For you to be successful in your job you need to demonstrate that you 1) have sound judgment, and 2) have the ability to make a decision and execute on it. And you need to do it all the time, every day. The bigger the decision, the more critical your judgment becomes.
Many incredibly intelligent people have surprisingly poor judgment. This is the major reason for why many very smart people repeatedly get passed over for promotions. Conversely, there are plenty of people with good judgment who are incapable of making decisions. I’m not sure what is worse, but I know that those with good judgment and excellent decision-making abilities go far. Think about this every day when you make a judgment call and are faced with a decision. The only thing worse than making a bad decision in your job is making no decision at all.
The boss needs to have confidence in you but you also need to be confident. Knowing everything about your own job and the people that work for you (if you have any) makes you more knowledgeable than anyone. Superior knowledge of what you do is the secret to possessing job confidence. Again, you can have superior knowledge without superior intelligence. Bosses respect and want employees who know everything about what they do!
There is a common misconception that risk-taking is bad. It is not. On the contrary, it is possibly the single most important success factor in your life. I’m not talking about taking stupid risks like not wearing a seat belt or jumping off a cliff. What I’m talking about is venturing outside your normal comfort zone, doing something different than everyone else at work and having the courage and confidence to explore and try alternative approaches and solutions. Again, do like everyone else and you won’t get a promotion like everyone else. Successful people have the courage to take risks and do not let the fear of failure stop them.
People commonly play it safe with the result that the slope of their career trajectory is almost flat. Don’t be afraid of losing your job! You are more employable than you think and sometimes the only way to advance in your career is to change jobs, even if it is caused by an involuntary termination. Lots of successful careers have been ignited after a person has been fired. Knowing this fact makes you more confident, more likely to take some risks and more confident in your job. Your boss will like this and your status at work will undoubtedly improve.
People enjoy being around nice, enthusiastic, energetic people. A fabulous attitude is an invaluable asset and differentiator! People who make them feel good and make them laugh are always liked. What does this have to do with your job description? Absolutely nothing but promotions are not about job descriptions. Your boss, like everyone else, prefers pleasant people and can’t stand chronic complainers who make criticism and excuses an annoying part of work life.
Work hard at being nice to everyone in the office all the time every day. No exceptions! It doesn’t matter if you like them or if they are nice to you. Practice being nice and you’ll find that you’ll start getting luckier. But don’t confuse being nice with being a pushover, which you definitely don’t want to be.
The High Road
Office politics, employee conflicts, heated arguments are unavoidable at work. Usually over stupid, small, meaningless things. You’d be smart to rise above it all and not get sucked into such counterproductive behavior that fills the work place with dissent and negative energy. Nobody likes a complainer so don’t ever complain! Believe me, complainers and chronic gossipers have a very tough time getting promoted. Always take the high road although it is often tempting to join in the fray. Doesn’t matter what she said or did or who is right or who is wrong. If you behave like everyone else you’ll become like everyone else. You want to be special and get ahead of everyone else!
At the end of the day you have to produce results regardless of the job you have. You may work hard and be super-intelligent, but you have to deliver what your boss needs. If you can’t figure that out – many employees never do – you are basically SOL to use a technical term. This is a critical and necessary criterion for success but it is not enough. And yeah, working hard usually helps too!
Know the Details
You have to know the details of whatever you are doing because “the devil is always in the details” as the saying goes. Understanding the details is critical to successfully accomplishing your own and your manager’s objectives. Nothing frustrates a boss more than employees who don’t know the fundamental details of their job and cannot answer simple questions. The converse is also true. Knowing every little thing gives the boss confidence that you know what you’re doing and this builds trust, a key factor for your eventual promotion. The details are nothing but a means to an end and are themselves not important. So don’t get fixated on details and lose sight of what you are trying to achieve.
There may be many things you are supposed to do in your job including a number of minor tasks that don’t make any difference to the company and your boss doesn’t care about. Don’t worry about the trivial but invest your time and energy on noteworthy activities.
Nobody likes wishy-washy people and your boss is no exception. Proactively make recommendations and volunteer alternative solutions and courses of action. Your manager is the final decision maker so arguing with or questioning his decision is nothing but counter productive. Your boss has more information than you do, has a better perspective and usually can arrive at better decisions than you do. But don’t argue if he’s wrong! He’ll have to live with his decisions just like you do.
Now, if you know that your boss is absolutely wrong in a very critical decision and is about to fall on the sword, you can 1) let him self-destruct or 2) try to save your manager from himself. If you can do the latter without completely alienating your boss you are golden. If you don’t, and your boss keeps his job, you may be wrongly blamed for the decision and be damaged goods for a long time. You may want to consider a change of employer if you should find yourself in such a position.
Solutions Not Problems
When you reach the executive ranks of the company you become a problem solver. And the higher up you are the bigger the problems you get to resolve. So when you enter the office to report a problem, the reaction will not be very positive as your manager’s day is already filled with a variety of problems and issues. You should approach it this manner: “I’ve discovered that we made a major design error in our Gamma product but I’ve come up with a way to resolve the issue with negligible impact to both the project timeline and cost.” Your boss may not jump up and down with joy but he’ll be very appreciative of your proactive approach to fixing the problem. Always come prepared with a proposed solution when you present a problem to your boss!
Sometimes it’s very tempting to hide a problem from your boss in the hope that it’ll somehow disappear. That rarely happens unfortunately, as small problems typically snowball into bigger and bigger problems, and by the time disclosure of the issue becomes unavoidable, you are in big trouble. When your boss finds out you didn’t inform him of the problem, his trust in you is instantly diminished. And, as we’ve discussed above, trust takes but a moment to lose and a very long time to earn. Remember that the earlier you address a problem the easier it can be resolved. People don’t like hearing about problems but it is part of life, and you might as well face the bad news right away. Believe me, this has ruined a lot of careers and eliminated lots of people from the promotional track.
Managing your boss’ expectations is a vital element to earning his trust and keeping you on the promotion track. A valuable rule to live by is to never over-commit and always deliver a high quality product on time. If your boss asks for something, build in a buffer of a day or a week so you’ll always meet your commitment. This way you’ll often be in a position to exceed your manager’s expectations by delivering earlier than he expects you to. This is an essential element in your undertaking to earn the trust of your boss. The converse is of course also true so be careful.
Never compromise the quality of your work product by trying to deliver early. It’s always better to deliver quality on time than shoddy work early. Setting expectations occurs on a daily basis including the smallest details. Doing something worthwhile that is totally unexpected goes a long way and will be appreciated and remembered. But keep in mind that there is a fine line between being a well-respected employee and being perceived as a distasteful brown-nose and complete suck-up!
It’s extremely valuable when other people in the company say good things about you to your boss. Especially if a colleague that your boss has tremendous respect for makes complimentary comments about you. That’s why it is important to get along with other people and always make an excellent impression on everyone. A little self-promotion can go a long way but it has to be done with finesse or it could easily backfire.
Don’t Expect Pats on Your Back
Bosses are all different – good, bad, likable, demanding, fun, boring. You are not in a position to redefine your boss’ personality or change his behavior. But in one respect all bosses respond the same way; they are appreciative when they get what they need, although they may not openly express their gratitude. The trick is to never expect any pats on your back so you’ll never be disappointed. I hear all the time that “my boss doesn’t care,” “he never compliments me,” and so forth. So what? Nothing is more nauseating than seeing an employee in a funk, complaining about these things. You are exhibiting behavior that jeopardizes your future promotions. Don’t worry about pats on your back, set your expectations low and you won’t be disappointed. You’ll also feel a lot better!
As long as you work for a company you need to be 100% loyal and committed to its objectives and to your boss. Deep loyalty is a quality that companies value perhaps more than any other trait. Never give your boss a reason to believe you’re not totally committed to your job. This does not mean that you should ignore your family and sacrifice your personal life, but it does mean that you should be 100% loyal to the company and the job you have been entrusted with.
One day you may find yourself in a situation where you are faced with a very difficult choice. Your may discover that your manager is engaged in unethical or illegal activities related to the company, or that he is harassing you, i.e. abusing the power of his position. There is no simple way to resolve a situation like this but you have no choice but to do something about it. You can of course ignore it, which I strongly recommend against. Looking for a new job is always an option and something you may end up doing anyway after the dust eventually settles.
My recommendation is to take a logical, calculated and unemotional approach to the problem. First, make sure there is no doubt as to what your boss is doing. Gather facts and document everything in writing, including every little detail no matter how insignificant it may seem. You may also discuss it with your spouse, a close personal friend or even an attorney if the impropriety is serious enough. But don’t gossip about it around the office. Take an objective, professional approach to resolving the issue, not matter how difficult it may be for you.
When you are ready you should sit down with the HR director – come prepared with notes – and discuss the situation. Alternatively you can go straight to the CEO or Chairman if you feel better about that. A word of caution, allegations and accusations are extremely serious and there is no guarantee that the appropriate action will be taken against your boss. If, after addressing the issue through proper channels, nothing is done and your boss is now aware of the situation, you have no choice but to find another job and/or file a lawsuit against the company. I have seen these situations play themselves out a number of times and most often justice prevails, but not always. It’s very hard to do the right thing but the alternative is worse. Let’s hope this never happens to you.
But I Know…
After reading this article you may say that you have known a number of stupid people, dishonest people and disloyal people who’ve been promoted while you continue to be passed over. You are of course right that this happens over and over again as there are plenty of managers who make bad decisions and promote the wrong people. The fact is that incompetent people hire and promote incompetent people and breed incompetent organizations. That’s why hiring and promotions are so critical to a company. There are plenty of employees who may not be the most well liked and sympathetic individuals but they serve their boss well and consequently get promoted. My premise is that you work for a reasonably competent boss in a good organization, which is usually the way it is. Don’t worry about others. You can only influence what you do!
Sometimes there are no possibilities for promotions in a company. You may want to turn such a situation into an opportunity and seriously consider making a career move. Have supreme confidence in your abilities and employability! More often than not such a move, unless you do it too often, is very beneficial to your career and frequently a springboard to being promoted, albeit in a different company. But never, ever quit your job before you have another firm job offer in hand!
The Gold Standard
In summary, let me repeat what you need to do get ahead in your career:
-Earn the trust of your boss and make sure you keep it
-Know what’s expected of you
-Understand what’s important to your boss and how he is measured
-Consistently deliver quality results
-Bring solutions not problems
-Proactively manage expectations
-Be nice to everyone, never complain and always take the high road
-Stay 100% loyal and committed