Ok, so you got the gig, now what? What’s next and how do you get there from here? This is a familiar theme for growth-oriented new hires and tenured staff feeling like their career progression has lost some momentum. The answer isn’t always obvious. It’s rare to find clearly defined career paths as you see in the military, for example. As an E-4 Sonar Systems Technician, I knew exactly what it took to become an E-5, get another stripe and earn more money, and maybe even a better place to sleep on board ship. When I got into the business sector it felt more like chaos theory, actually, I think it might be easier at times to forecast the weather than career progression.
For years I was getting promoted and I really couldn’t tell you exactly how or why. I started in an entry-level position in Fender’s Customer Service department taking calls for replacement parts. I’d see the ten-digit part numbers in my dreams…0064063000, reverb tanks Twin Reverb amp. I was promoted ten times in twenty years, eventually becoming Fender’s Executive Vice President and CPO. It felt like I was motoring along, working hard like everyone else, and all of a sudden, like an alien abduction without all the creepy medical stuff, I was picked up and dropped into a new role. I never felt ready, I was always scared I was in over my head…and it always turned out ok.
As the years progressed and my leadership responsibilities increased, I found myself seated at the conference room table discussing new strategic opportunities, capabilities, organizational relevance, and talent, AKA people. The situational variables in some of these conversations were mind-blowing. What mattered, to whom, when and why, could vary greatly.
The debate would circle through the team, around and around, and then someone would say “What about Jane?” In milliseconds, everyone in the meeting that ever had any direct or indirect experience with Jane is formulating their opinion/perspective. It happens in seconds, the silence is broken in a chain of affirming words and gestures of agreement, or body language starts shifting about slightly and someone says “I don’t know…” Just that fast.
The source of the “I don’t know” could be just about anything. Experience, track record, capabilities any of the hard skills the mission required. Sometimes a nomination with solid qualifications would stall out based on a negative interpersonal experience, lack of follow up…once, inaccurate work…once, opinions about urgency, demeanor, team-play, social media behavior. You name it, if it was a business-related mechanic that someone believed was relevant it came up.
After years of observing, hiring, firing, and promoting employees I came to the following conclusion - beyond the individual’s capabilities and experience, there are two intangibles that carry significant influence.
A History of Positive Interpersonal Engagement - If you are a tenured employee this is money in the bank. If you have a history of positive connectivity with your peers they will likely support, recommend and look forward to seeing you win. If not, well, you know.
This includes a high degree of accountability. You don’t leave a positive impression when your peers have to constantly come to you for follow- up. As a senior leader, if I have to ask you for it, it is late. If I have to ask twice, well you know. At least I hope you know! That’s not going to help your cause, and it will definitely create an “I don’t know” moment in the conference room. Energy, versatility, positivity, encouragement, and collaboration are what leaders are desperately looking for.
Fit - There is a rhythm, tempo, and tribal motif to business, just like music. Leadership teams always reminded me of being in a band. Everyone is a unique individual, but on a parallel path, playing in the same key, in tune, with the same dynamics. Your instincts need to guide you - understand what band you’re auditioning for. I am not saying you need to abandon who you are, kiss-arse and desperately try and fit in, not by any means. You do need to make some effort to match the flow, energy, urgency, and tone of the team you are hoping to be a part of. Birds of a feather…
Authenticity is King. It’s too hard to try to bend yourself into something you’re not. You have to want it like everyone else. You have to be on the same wave-length. There are organizations that operate by the clock and others that are project-oriented. It doesn’t matter what time it is, the project has a deadline that has to be met. Fit matters! In the same way that desire always outpaces discipline, you will be able to sustain a higher level of performance if it feels comfortable, and you feel like you belong. Here are a few other elements to contemplate.
Where You Work - Is it a dynamic business in a growth industry? Or is it a big fish in an evaporating pond? Organizations operating in progressive growth industries typically offer greater opportunities for training and advancement. For example, Amazon versus just about any other old-school retailer.
Look for signs of growth, expanding services, and clearly defined career stepping-stones. Consider what new divisions have been created in the past few years, are their vertical opportunities, and how the organization sits in the competitive marketplace. All of these environmental factors can create a rich, fertile field of opportunity for advancement.
If you are currently in an industry that is going backward, it may be time to consider a change. Sometimes we have to move sideways to move up. If you know it’s time to make a move, The Spirit of Reinvention will be there to serve your needs, you just need to find the courage to take the first step. The Good News - It is not that difficult to put yourself in the top 5%. In some cases, just showing up on time can be a defining behavior. The fact you are reading this puts you in an elite group of seekers, lifelong learners, and individuals preparing for the next opportunity. Well done!
Competitive Landscape. Make an effort to understand your competition. In tough economic times, you might find highly qualified individuals competing for lower-level positions. This can be challenging if you’re trying to move up and the chairs are being filled by people moving down. Ask yourself where do the strengths and weaknesses lie? How do your qualifications stack up, what intangibles do you bring to the party? At the very least, understand you are in competition, don’t phone it in. Your observations will help define your course of action.
Elevating Your Personal Brand. Did you know you had one? Yep, you do.
Its profile is defined by your beliefs, behaviors, and actions. What does your
brand represent? Are you the brooding, complicated artist, or the sunshine-pump-wielding optimist? Your personal brand is defined by the sum of your interpersonal experiences with others. Your personal brand is how others perceive you, not how you perceive yourself. You see cool, they see fool.
Positive Personal Differentiation. How do you break through, rise above the crowd, and get noticed…in a positive way? This concept speaks directly to your personal brand and the competitive landscape. I always encourage mentees to purposefully attack this opportunity. Again, it’s not a thing you do, it’s everything you do. Compete, raise the bar for yourself and the team!
Start at A and work to Z. Attitude, Attendance, Accountability, Accuracy, Belief, Communication, Demeanor, Energy, Focus, Grace, Honor, Integrity, J…ok this is getting hard, you get my point. If everyone is late be on-time. If everyone is on-time, be early. It’s Biblical, if you’re asked to carry the load for one mile, carry it for two. Pick up the piece of trash everyone walks past, do everything without murmuring or complaining, and volunteer.
Self-Initiated Performance Review. Most organizations have a Performance and Professional Development program of some kind. The majority are focused on a one-on-one review with your direct manager. Instead of waiting to be evaluated, seek it. Draft a simple survey or better yet, use the templates provided in the Objective Self Assessment blog, then download your own Objective Self Assessment worksheets here.
Write a cover letter explaining how to use the template, make a short list of key individuals that you believe will offer constructive, relevant feedback. I would select one or two individuals representing your cross-functional peers and a couple of supervisors you have direct contact with. Schedule formal appointments, this isn’t a break-room conversation, treat it with a great deal of professionalism. Sit down and have a thoughtful conversation…”I’m preparing to set new personal and professional goals and I need your transparent feedback, help me understand where you believe I may have opportunities for growth.”
It takes courage to invite criticism. It takes a commitment to excellence to ask others how you might serve them more effectively. It takes self-confidence to open your kimono, smile, and say “cheese.” It takes action to evolve. And this is exactly why no one does it. I have only seen this a few times in my thirty years of business experience. It is absolutely a 1% club.
Network. For years I watched the carpet wear, from the executive offices to the conference room, from the bull-pen to the lunchroom. Like migratory animals marching to the watering hole. Stop hiding in your office! Stop hiding behind emails, get up and engage, create positive connectivity with others. Meet your coworkers, make an effort to understand their roles and responsibilities. I had a formal goal to meet my peers. I would take the phone list and select ten people to meet each month. I looked for organic, meaningful reasons to introduce myself. Instead of sending an email, I walked to their desk. Do this purposefully, don’t lower people’s productivity but meet people, get to know them. Depending on your field I would also recommend joining professional associations or philanthropic groups in your area. Remember! Be interested, not interesting!
Reporting. Most new hires or those in entry-level positions, do not think about generating business reports. “You see reports come to me, I don’t make reports.” Or the worst-case scenario “I’m not sure my supervisor would approve.” Danger Will Robinson…Danger. (60s pop-culture reference I probably shouldn’t have used for relevance sake…oh well). I have actually had that conversation more than once. Red flag.
We are not preparing information to blow past our boss and make us look awesome. Our goal is to do everything we can to make our leaders successful. That includes providing accurate, relevant, synthesized information designed to save them time and elevate their intimacy of the business's performance. Do this AFTER you complete your normal responsibilities, not instead of. This is extra credit.
If your peers ask what you are doing, share everything! If they are interested, run them through your project. Give them any templates you created. This is Positive Personal Differentiation and something called…Leadership. This is a 1% club approach. It’s always interesting to see who is inspired and follows suit. In my experience, most don’t see the value.
I hope some of these ideas ignite your curiosity. If you have specific questions or have a topic you would like me to address, please email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org