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How to Climb the Corporate Ladder – 5 Keys to Career Success

It’s good to be the boss. People in charge of an organization not only make more money, they also have happier family lives, are more satisfied with their work, and worry less about their financial futures, according to a Pew Research report. Those in the top levels consider their employment a “career,” not just a job that pays the bills.

Of course, promotions to those top levels are never guaranteed. However, there are a number of steps you can take to improve your chances of advancing your career – whether with your existing employer or a new one. Long-term success relies on having as many options as possible and ensuring that you’re prepared when an opportunity arises.

What You Need to Advance in Your Career

Getting to the top of the corporate food chain becomes increasingly more difficult in the higher tiers of management. In many organizations, average performers in the lower ranks can expect some promotions simply by being competent and building tenure. Attaining higher positions or advancing at a faster rate, however, require the following elements, at the very least.

1. Corporate Opportunity

The more opportunities available to you, the better. For example, a rapidly growing company is dependent upon numerous managers to implement its strategies, whether introducing new products, expanding into new geographic territories, or capturing a larger market share. On the other hand, mature companies that already dominate an industry may have slower career paths, but may provide valuable experience and security for those willing to wait for their turn in corporate leadership.

Some mature companies have policies aimed at inducing turnover at the top levels. They may offer early retirements, buy-outs, and titles with superior compensation but no authority or responsibility – a kind of in-place retirement – in order to retain younger, aggressive managers who might otherwise leave the company. Your selection of employer is a critical element in the speed of your progression up the ranks.

Surprisingly, according to the Pew report, a greater percentage of employees are satisfied in their current position (43%) than those seeking promotion (39%). Nevertheless, competition increases as you climb the ladder, simply because there are fewer and fewer jobs the higher you get. Many may hear the call, but not many are chosen.

2. Getting Noticed by Those Who Matter

A popular supposition about artists, singers, and other creative types is that the unknowns who never achieve fame have as much, if not more, talent than superstars. Whether true or not, it doesn’t matter if you’re an expert in a particular field if no one knows who you are. Companies are filled with nameless employees who spend years toiling in the trenches without recognition. Professional notice is the result of deliberate strategies and efforts to obtain it.

  • Seek Employer Feedback. People often passively wait for their annual or semiannual employee reviews. Unfortunately, those reviews are often attempts to merely facilitate terminations or avoid lawsuits. Develop the habit of seeking feedback from your direct supervisor regularly, especially after every project. Take note of compliments and criticisms, modify your performance where necessary, and involve your boss in those efforts – your achievement reflects well on them.
  • Volunteer for Extra Work. Look for ways to make your superior’s job easier. Employees who help their bosses stand out become visible to additional supervisors who may have opportunities as well. When you do extra work, be sure you complete the assignment on time and as expected.
  • Participate in Company Activities. Being active in company social events, sports teams, and sponsored charities exposes you to more people who can help along the way. Whenever possible, do favors for other employees without any expectation of a quid pro quo. Over the course of a career, you never know who’s eventually going to help you with a recommendation, an introduction, or valuable advice.

And be sure to proceed thoughtfully. A personal human relations campaign can easily be misunderstood by your superiors and resented by your fellow workers if done inappropriately. Remember, it’s important that your efforts be sincere and not viewed as attempts to fool colleagues or ingratiate yourself with a boss. To impress your superiors, seek to convey an attitude of selflessness, not selfishness.

Advance Your Career

3. Internal Sponsorship

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group Ltd., wrote that mentoring is the missing link between a promising businessperson and a successful one. He believes that success takes “hard work, hard work, and more hard work. But it also takes a little help along the way.”

A mentor is someone who has traveled the journey before you, knows the ins and outs of an industry or organization – and its people – and is willing to give you true, unvarnished assessments and advice. A good mentoring relationship can speed your progress, smooth bumps in the road, and help you avoid the obstacles that can derail or destroy a career. Find a mentor who recognizes your talent, truly cares for you, and exposes you to other successful people. Do not be afraid to ask for assistance and advice – the most successful people had help along their journey, and many of them are willing to give back.

4. Extraordinary Achievement

Promotions are not just the outcome of visibility, luck, or sponsorship. If your work habits, capabilities, and track record are not exceptional, you are unlikely to get the rewards you seek. Mediocrity in performance usually results in a mediocre career, so if you want to get ahead you have to bring something to the table besides “ordinary.”

Some people are extraordinary because they achieve an unlikely and unexpected result in a single instance – for instance, the super-salesman who breaks a long-standing sales record, the engineer who designs a new product, or the production manager who significantly improves quality without cost increases. Other folks are extraordinary because they consistently deliver the goods every time without excessive supervision, delay, or histrionics – the “no muss, no fuss” people supervisors can always rely on. Extraordinary is more a matter of attitude and effort than skill or knowledge. It is available to anyone willing to put in the work.

5. Appropriate Skill Set

If you lack the minimum requirements to practice your profession, no mentor, connections, or experience can enable you to do your job. Depending upon your field, there are likely to be minimum technical capabilities and educational benchmarks you must master to perform at any level, much less advance.

However, certain management and personal skills are universally needed in every organization. Those who master these skills are the formal and informal leaders of a company, able to influence others and promote exceptional results. Examples of these capabilities include the following:

  • Strong Communication Abilities. As you progress up the management ladder, the ability to educate, persuade, manage, and motivate subordinates and peers is essential. Similarly, you must communicate expertly to superiors.
  • Social Competence. As you ascend in an organization, reliance upon and rapport with direct reports and superiors is essential. Those most likely to promote you are the ones whose careers depend upon your performance. Steadiness, consistency, truthfulness, dependability, and charm are social traits to be developed and practiced in all instances.
  • Problem Solving. Critical thinking – the ability to dissect a problem, identify root causes, understand relations, and rationally assess likely outcomes – is a highly valued capability in every level of an organization. Critical thinkers minimize the outcome of potential disasters and recognize overlooked opportunities. Like many skills, it can be learned and practiced.

The Importance of Patience

Ambition is a double-edged sword. Brandished with reason and restraint, it can spur one to efforts and achievements once thought unattainable. However, when unfulfilled, it can leave a person bitter, empty, and alone.

As a young man in the dominant Wall Street firm of the 1960s, I hungrily sought promotion into office management, being the graduate of a unique and selective two-year training program with three exceptionally successful years as a stock brokerage representative. In those days, conventional wisdom was that workers under the age of 35 lacked the experience and sangfroid to successfully manage a retail brokerage office, especially with older representatives who had more experience.

Frustrated with a policy that seemed antiquated, I resigned from the firm and sought employment elsewhere. As a consequence of my departure, and that of others from the training programs, the firm changed its policies – to the benefit of my more patient colleagues. In the two years following my resignation, many of my classmates were promoted to office management with higher salaries and benefits before the age of 30. By Wall Street standards, their rise in the ranks was unprecedented.

Success in the form of promotions rarely occurs as quickly as we would like. Big companies have big bureaucracies that sometimes react slowly. However, the best-managed organizations, regardless of size, do ultimately correct course. Exhibiting patience early in one’s career can pay off with big benefits later.

When to Seek a Change in Scenery

Unfortunately, those most familiar with your work may overlook your natural abilities or later achievements, especially if success is slow developing. You may be in a situation where corporate history dictates promotion policies that are not to your benefit. In such cases, your best alternative may be to seek opportunity elsewhere.

In my case, I became the chief financial officer of a technology firm and subsequently guided it through a national public offering of common stock and several acquisitions and mergers. I did return to Wall Street finance after two years, becoming a specialty product manager with a regional investment boutique, a position that would have been unavailable without my time as a CFO. The combined experience enabled me to form an oil and gas exploration firm and accomplish a multi-million dollar public stock offering before age 35.

Seek Scenery Change

Final Word

While several skills are necessary to every person’s progress up the corporate ranks, the most essential thing you can do is take responsibility for your own career success. You have a significant number of competitors, many of whom are just as (if not more) qualified for the promotion. If you want success, you have to seek it. Be patient when patience is justified, and don’t be afraid to seek greener pastures when necessary.

How do you intend to climb the corporate ladder?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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