Climbing the corporate ladder requires extra effort. Our expert advice will give you a leg up.
The desire to get ahead or be promoted is innate. Due to flatter organisational structures, these days promotion may seem more elusive, more like climbing around lattices than up ladders.
Making an impact early in your tenure with an organisation and ensuring you spend more time with people than your laptop are sound pieces of advice from Dan Schawbel, author of the recently released book Promote Yourself: the New Rules for Career Success.
To discover more secrets to getting ahead, INTHEBLACK asked some experts to share their wisdom.
1. A mentor’s good, but a sponsor may be better
What’s the difference between a sponsor and a mentor?
“A sponsor talks about you – favourably, of course – a mentor talks with you, providing career advice and coaching, often specific to a work environment you share,” explains Patti Bellinger, executive director of Executive Education at Harvard Business School, who was formerly an executive at BP and Bristol-Myers Squibb, and is an international expert on diversity, equality and leadership.
Sponsors take an interest in you and your career and believe in you; they have developed a familiarity with your skills, your style and your goals, ambitions and professional preferences, Bellinger says.
“They keep you top-of-mind for professional opportunities, both personally and when they are involved in succession planning or those senior level ‘who could do this or that job?’ discussions, many of which occur unscheduled.”
Bellinger, who gave her insights at the recent Women on Boards conference in Sydney, says she’s even seen sponsors at senior levels support an individual’s candidacy for company boards.
Some companies have developed formal structures to find sponsors for their employees.
For example in the UK the professional services firm PwC has a Female Partner Sponsorship program, which began in 2010 when 26 female partners were matched with senior male executives.
Three years on, all but two of the women have been promoted and nearly two thirds have moved into leadership roles, such as a place on a board or running a business unit.
2. Win the respect of your boss
Skills garner credibility, along with a can-do attitude. Both help to win respect from a boss.
First assess the parameters of your relationship with your boss and then ask what you can do to achieve their goals, advises business coach and counsellor Babette Bensoussan.
“It depends on what type of boss you have. A good boss would respond with ‘you could do a, b, c and that would really help’. On the other hand an angry boss would say ‘just read your job description’,” says Bensoussan, who has more than two decades of experience and is an adjunct professor with the School of Business at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Her key piece of advice is never go to your boss with a problem. “Always offer a solution to the problem; some innovative ideas of how you can help.”
You don’t have to do it alone.
Seize the initiative and work with colleagues in a collaborative way, Bensoussan advises, so you can come up with other creative ideas and your workmates are part of the decision-making process and action.
By taking on this additional responsibility you show you can tackle issues beyond your role.
This also demonstrates your leadership, teamwork, organisational and project-management skills, and means your boss does not have to shoulder the stress and distraction of sorting out this problem, Bensoussan says.
3. Be a faster, more effective learner
“If you don’t have a dog in the fight, then managerial development is just infotainment,” says Associate Professor Peter Heslin, course leader of managerial skills for the Australian Graduate School of Management’s Executive MBA.
He believes executives and managers learn more effectively and faster through action-learning, aimed at addressing their real workplace challenges.
“It’s not about what I am going to teach the students, it’s about what they are to do to experiment with fresh ways to improve their effectiveness; beyond just sitting back and reading articles from academic gurus or the titans of industry,” Heslin says.
Real learning stems from people rolling up their sleeves and systematically experimenting with evidence-based concepts to tackle issues they care about, he insists.
Accelerated executive development often results from taking on a difficult challenge within your job, a special project, or by volunteering in another capacity.
First you need to adopt what Heslin calls a growth mindset.
“It’s the assumption that new capacities can be developed by concerted deliberative practice,” he says. “Be willing to step outside your comfort zone, trial new approaches and realise setbacks are often par for the course when learning.”
Part of this process is also about active reflection, says Professor Robert Wood, director of Melbourne Business School’s Centre for Ethical Leadership.
While this requires a tolerance for uncertainty and a willingness to work through complexity, Wood says, you will be rewarded in the long run with quicker and greater learning.
You can do this by stepping back from your own feelings and beliefs and being more attentive. Ask more questions and listen to the answers.
Also you can use tools such as SWOTs and decision trees to observe a situation through an independent lens. You do this with deep, rather than shallow, thinking, Wood says.
“Deep thinking involves analysis of what is observed through activities such as hypothesis testing,” he says. “This also involves systematic diagnoses that consider a range of situational and personal factors as possible attributions, synthesising different pieces of information into a coherent picture or evaluating an event from different perspectives and combining the insights obtained into a single conclusion.”
Conversely, shallow thinking occurs when a person simply notes what they see or hear and evaluates it as good or bad.
A shallow thinker provides certainty and simplification, which is good for decisive action, but less effective for learning.
Wood says accelerated learning is a process by which some executives can extract more value and understanding from experiences than their colleagues.
“Good learners learn more quickly over time, simply because prior knowledge is one of the best predictors of learning. The more you know and the better organised your knowledge, the more you can learn,” he says.
4. It’s all about who you know or network with
The first step is to acknowledge that you don’t and can’t know everything, says Simon Hardman, financial controller at Microsoft Corporation in Sydney.
“Early on in your career you need to get over your embarrassment and learn to become comfortable with asking for help, realising there is no such thing as a silly question. Most people are more than happy to share their wisdom and experience with others,” Hardman says. “Real leaders surround themselves with people who have a deeper knowledge than they do.”
So it almost goes without saying that networking – seeking out people who can increase your expertise in particular areas or add to your skill set – can enhance career development.
At his current career level, Hardman says that rather than seeking people with particular technical expertise, he now looks to executives whose leadership style he admires.
“It’s more about learning about their soft skills, so I can improve on how I relate to other people or how to present better,” he says.
If you want to be promoted into a different area of the business, Hardman suggests building relationships with people in that area.
Then, with their guidance, you can develop a discreet project that you can sink your teeth into.
“This will show you have initiative and drive, that you want to be part of that area and you are building your knowledge, too,” he says.
Also you shouldn’t underestimate the power of social media to develop relationships, Hardman says.
He gives the example of Yammer, an enterprise social network Microsoft has joined, which enables users to pose questions and then anyone can contribute ideas to assist them.
“I was recently doing a presentation and posted a question. A person I’d never met sent me links to articles, copies of talks he’d done. It’s an unbelievable medium to transfer know-how and network around the world,” Hardman says.
5. Make an impression on the board
Peter Day FCPA has a wealth of board experience, gleaned during his past as an executive and over the past five years as a non-executive director.
He’s currently chairman of Orbital Corporation and a director of Ansell, Federation Centres, SAI Global and the Accounting Professional and Ethical Standards Board.
Day’s advice to people trying to get promoted is don’t try to impress the board. “It’s not really a case of trying to impress, it’s more about doing what you do best and that’s being yourself,” Day says. “You might be impressive with your knowledge of a topic and that will make an impression on board members.”
The best way to get noticed, he says, is to learn how to engage in discussions and adequately put across your ideas.
“You have to learn how to insert yourself into a discussion, ensuring your point is relevant. If you are invited to present to or join a board, then that is an open invitation to participate and to express your opinions.”
Knowing how to contribute is also important. “Obviously a 10-minute monologue would not be appropriate; then you would have overstepped the mark. You need to be succinct,” Day says.
Adequately preparing for a presentation to the board is invaluable. “I learned that failure to prepare is failure. You should be so comfortable with the topic that you feel you have already done it and can then reply to questions with ease.”
It’s also vital not to feel intimidated by the board. “This idea that being on a board is like ascending a mountain and the people are all demigods who are vastly superior and will judge you is not correct. Most board members will listen to you respectfully,” Day says.
All boards engage in succession planning, he points out. “In many boards there is a deliberate talent map laid out and if you are there, then chances are they want to see you and you are part of their plan.”
6. Yes, qualifications make a difference
Simon Meyer, Michael Page International’s Australian managing director, says an MBA was much more desirable before the global financial crisis (GFC) than it is now, particularly for roles with salaries above A$200,000.
“In the post-GFC period companies are now looking for the greater balance of practical experience; how someone handled the economic downturn, demonstrated by driving a business effectively,” Meyer says.
Qualifications relevant to your professional role, such as the internationally recognised CPA designation, are worthwhile, he says. However, post-GFC, other postgraduate qualifications and degrees are less so.
Steve Shepherd, group director of recruitment and HR specialists Randstad Australia, agrees.
While employers value postgraduate and professional qualifications, showing practical experience and a proven track record of success is vital today, he says.
However, when an employer is faced with two candidates with a similar amount of experience, a qualification can be the difference between landing the job and missing out.
Investing time in developing soft skills and leadership skills is also crucial, Shepherd says.
“We have many situations where people have learned everything from a textbook and have the qualification on paper, but then are no good at putting it into practice,” he says.
“Really, at the end of the day, for most employers it’s the adage ‘hard work drives success’ and assurances that you can get the job done that will get you promoted.”
7. One last thing … sell yourself!
Microsoft’s Hardman says to move up the career ladder, you must learn the subtle art of self-promotion.
“No one likes someone jumping up and down all the time and blowing their own horn,” he says. “It’s good to be humble to an extent, but not to sell yourself short.”
Unfortunately, Hardman says, in the Australian cultural context with the ever-present tall-poppy syndrome, some people are missing opportunities because of perceived cultural constraints.
Australian Graduate School of Management’s Heslin agrees.
“When people get caught up in trying not to be seen as big-noting themselves, it distracts them from the real action. It’s a big energy drain that should be unnecessary,” Heslin says. “But within pockets of Australian industry, I sense it still is.”
Cultural differences in Asia mean there’s less likelihood of people asking questions or participating in presentations or discussions for fear of losing face.
In a global marketplace, people need to put aside these cultural constraints because to be regarded as a leader, to be promoted, you need to be visible, Hardman says.
“Often the person who is noticed, a very powerful person, is the first one who follows the leader’s initiative, who has the courage to stand up and support him or her.”
This article is from the September 2013 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.
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