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How to Climb the Corporate Ladder – 11 Keys to Career Success

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It’s good to be the boss. People in charge of an organization not only make more money, but they also have happier family lives, are more satisfied with their work, and worry less about their financial futures, according to a 2014 Pew Research report. Those in the top levels consider their employment a “career,” not just a job that pays the bills.

So what can you do to get a promotion to those top levels? 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. Your long-term success depends on having as many options as possible and being prepared when an opportunity arises.

11 Ways to Advance in Your Career

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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 by merely being competent and building tenure. Attaining more senior positions or advancing at a faster rate, however, requires the following strategies, at the very least.

1. Evaluate Corporate Opportunities

Opportunities Hands Raised

The more opportunities available to you, the better. For example, a rapidly growing company depends on numerous managers to implement its strategies, whether that’s introducing new products, expanding into new geographic territories, or capturing a larger market share. At the same time, a growing company typically takes risks to meet profit targets or expand into new markets.

Successful small companies can become acquisition targets for larger competitors. If their efforts are successful, the acquirer typically cuts redundant staff and replaces poor and average performers with their own people. In other words, the choice to work for a small growing company is a high-risk, high-reward proposition for an ambitious employee.

On the other hand, mature companies that already dominate an industry may have slower career paths but provide valuable experience and security for those willing to wait for their turn in corporate leadership. If the company chooses to blend acquisitions and internal growth to achieve profit targets, the opportunities for advancement can exceed those of a smaller company, with less risk.

That said, many mature companies have policies aimed at inducing turnover at the top levels. They may offer early retirements, buyouts, and titles with higher compensation but no authority or responsibility – a kind of in-place retirement – to retain younger, aggressive managers who might otherwise leave the company. Your selection of an employer is a critical element in how fast you climb the ranks.

Identify the most important aspects of an employer for you. For example, do you seek financial security or the opportunity for rapid advancement? Are you willing to sacrifice leisure time for a promotion? Are you competitive or more passive? Do you work best as an individual or part of a team? Where does work fit into your priorities?

Gather as much information about potential employers as possible. Public companies’ required disclosures are easy to access, newspapers and magazines often run articles on local companies and businessmen, and most companies have websites with information on various facets of the company. Review comments about potential employers on sites like Glassdoor, Vault, and PayScale, remembering that some reviews may be negatively biased. If possible, talk to current and former employees. If you find anything that concerns you, ask the company’s recruiter for an explanation. After all, you’re making one of the most important decisions of your life.

2. Get the Lay of the Land

Business Woman Leading Meeting In Office Colleagues

Every company has a culture, whether intentionally or informally developed. It’s the company’s personality and includes shared values, ethics, and expectations that govern employee behavior. Ignoring an established culture is one of the worst errors a new employee can make; it’s effectively inviting battles without knowing your foes or having a battle plan.

A company’s public statements and recruitment conversations can vary significantly from acceptable day-to-day behavior. As a consequence, new employees eager to make a significant impression may be admonished with the comment “That’s not the way we do things around here.” Before implementing your plan to get ahead, take the time to understand the rules of the game you’re playing.

3. Avoid Company Politics

Office Gossip Bullying Colleagues Whispering

Company politics are a fact of life in any organization, especially businesses. According to research published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, the desire to climb the corporate hierarchy stems from an innate need for power and control found in all humans. As a consequence, cliques and factions arise, especially around those contending for the corner office. Participating in company politics is always a risk since being associated with the wrong side invariably leads to career setbacks.

Some years ago, I advised a newly hired CEO of a major public company, who had been brought in from the outside due to the board’s unwillingness to choose one of two senior vice-presidents vying for the position. Enmity between the two officers’ supporters was overt and destructive. Despite the reputations of the two rivals – both were considered highly capable in industry circles – the CEO replaced both men, sending a message to the remaining officers that results, not politics, would be the basis for future promotion. The executives lost their positions, and their perceived followers’ careers also stalled. If you want to get ahead, avoid unhealthy alliances and personal conflicts with other employees. Treat all people with respect and courtesy.

4. Get Noticed by Those Who Matter

Office Charity Volunteering Helping Team Work

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. To ensure you get the recognition you deserve:

  • Seek Employer Feedback. Many employees passively wait for their annual or semiannual employee reviews. Unfortunately, these reviews are often merely attempts to justify 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 other supervisors who may have opportunities as well. When you take on 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 you on your climb to the top. Whenever possible, do favors for other employees without any expectation of a quid pro quo. Over the course of your career, you never know who might help you with a recommendation, introduction, or valuable advice.

When employing these strategies, be sure to proceed thoughtfully. They 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.

5. Find Mentors

Mentoring Training Support Motivation Success Goal

Business mogul Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group Ltd., has said that mentoring is the missing link between a promising businessperson and a successful one. He advises that success takes “hard work, hard work, and more hard work. But it also takes a little help along the way.” Even geniuses need help now and then; in a letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke in 1675, Sir Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further [than other scientists of the time], it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

A mentor is someone who has traveled the path before you, knows the ins and outs of an industry or organization and its people, and is willing to give you authentic, unvarnished assessments and advice. Mentors may be within or outside your own company. A good mentoring relationship can speed up your progress, smooth bumps in the road, and help you avoid the obstacles that can derail or destroy a career.

Finding a mentor is more than identifying someone you can exploit for their contacts and sponsorship. Mentoring is a two-way relationship, much like that between a pupil and teacher. Find mentors who recognize your talent, genuinely care for you, and expose you to other successful people. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance and advice; the most successful people had help along their journeys, and many of them are willing to give back.

Consider having several mentors at once, much as a CEO works with a board of directors. In my career, I’ve been fortunate to have the advice of many wiser and more-experienced businesspeople. In most cases, our relationships spanned a lifetime – hopefully, a mutual pleasure, but certainly to my great advantage.

6. Nourish Your Network

Nurture Friendship Relationships Diversity Sitting

As you progress in your career, spending time at different management levels and possibly other companies, there are ample opportunities to make valuable business and personal contacts that may be helpful as time goes by. Unfortunately, most people jump from one position to another, eventually forsaking comrades of the past to embrace those of the present.

Apart from the lost emotional benefits of sustained personal and business relationships, career nomads squander the opportunity of their former colleagues’ advice and experience. President George H.W. Bush was well-known for the thickness of his Rolodex, a collection of acquaintances, friends, and business associates accumulated over a lifetime. He maintained his network through occasional favors, letters, cards, and phone calls. A significant factor in the elder Bush’s success was his ability to reach out for advice and assistance when needed. Many political observers credit the political success of George W. Bush to his father’s contacts.

Maintaining a network can be tedious and tiring at times, but the benefits more than justify the effort to stay in touch. Friendship is reciprocal. When it is possible to help someone, do so gladly, with no strings attached. Never burn bridges, and keep your relationships in good shape.

The value of a network grows as it expands and is nourished with thoughtful effort. The young woman sitting in the adjacent cubicle may be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company one day, while a golfing buddy may rise through the ranks of executives at your biggest supplier.

7. Put Your Best Foot Forward

Put Your Best Foot Forward Signs Light Bulb

Attracting attention for the right reasons is critical because promotions are not just the outcome of visibility, luck, or mentorship. If your work habits, capabilities, and track record are not exceptional, you’re unlikely to get the rewards you seek. A mediocre performance usually results in a mediocre career, so if you want to get ahead, you must bring something extra to the table.

Some people are extraordinary because they achieve an unlikely and unexpected result in a single instance – for example, 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 stand out from the crowd because they consistently deliver the goods every time without excessive supervision, delay, or histrionics; they’re the “no muss, no fuss” people supervisors can always rely on. Anyone willing to put in the work can stand out as extraordinary; it’s more a matter of attitude and effort than skill or knowledge.

8. Maintain an Optimum Skill Set

Businessman Solving A Maze

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

Also, specific management and personal skills are always in demand. Those who master these skills are the formal and informal leaders who can influence others and promote exceptional results. Examples of highly sought-after skills include:

  • Strong Communication Skills. 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. Develop and practice the traits of steadiness, consistency, truthfulness, dependability, and charm.
  • Problem-Solving. Critical thinking – the ability to dissect a problem, identify root causes, understand relationships, and rationally assess likely outcomes – is a highly valued skill in every level of an organization. Critical thinkers can minimize the consequence of potential disasters and recognize overlooked opportunities. And like many skills, critical thinking is something you can learn and practice. For example, the University of Massachusetts’ decision-making process can teach you how to better control your emotions under stress. Through time and practice, these skills will become second-nature.

9. Recover From Setbacks

Try Again Set Back Success Dont Quit

Unless you’re the boss’s son or daughter, your career path is likely to be uneven, with periods of apparent stagnation and occasional failure. Setbacks can be self-inflicted or out of the blue, such as not getting a promotion or raise you expected, receiving a poor performance review, or the failure of a project you’re working on. Whatever the nature or cause, learning how to react to disappointment is critical to getting back on the right track.

According to a poll reported by Harvard Business Review, one in five employees who experience a setback take no personal responsibility and blame others for the failure. They also take too much credit for their successes. In their anger and disappointment, these employees are most likely to quit either on the job or formally, compounding the severity of the consequences.

My first job after I graduated from college with a degree in industrial engineering was with one of the largest farm equipment manufacturers in the world. My plant employed more than 3,000 workers, most of whom were members of the UAW labor union and therefore covered by a comprehensive bargaining agreement. Midway through my first year, I decided that union members in a particular department were circumventing work rules and costing the company over $1 million annually.

When I expressed my feeling to my manager, he disagreed with my conclusion and directed me to focus on my regular duties. Being young and confident I was right, I continued to pursue the project, ultimately producing a multi-page report complete with pictures and operating data.

Chafing under the previous criticism, I did not consult with my manager but sent my report over his head to the plant manager. I then waited for the accolades that were sure to come, perhaps an immediate raise or promotion. Much to my surprise, the reaction was an official black mark on my company record and a profanity-filled lecture from my boss. Like the 20% in the Harvard poll, I was sure my analysis was correct and that I had been treated unfairly. I left the company three months later.

After considerable self-analysis and feedback from friends and family, I realized that my actions had triggered the event and my inflated ego was the cause. Accepting that I didn’t know everything and regularly made mistakes was difficult to acknowledge but enabled me to become a better employee and manager in later years. From that early experience, I learned to limit my self-pity and disappointment and instead conduct a thoughtful analysis of disappointing situations: What went wrong? What were the causes? What had I done right? What had I done wrong? What steps could I take to avoid a repeat incident?

I apply a similar attitude to success, relying on the wisdom attributed to Winston Churchill: “Success is not final; failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”

10. Know When to Change Course

Change Chance Career Explore Dice Letters

Unfortunately, there may be times when circumstances dictate a new beginning or company. The trigger might be an unexpected call from a headhunter offering a promotion and a substantial raise, or when those most familiar with your work overlook your capabilities or achievements. You may be in a situation where corporate history dictates promotion policies that aren’t to your benefit. In such cases, your best alternative may be to seek opportunity elsewhere.

For example, I left a comfortable position with a Wall Street firm to become the chief financial officer of a technology firm, which I subsequently guided through a national public offering and several mergers and acquisitions. I returned to Wall Street finance after several years, becoming a specialty product manager with a regional investment boutique, a position that would have been unavailable without my time as a CFO. These combined experiences enabled me to form an oil and gas exploration firm and accomplish a multi-million-dollar public stock offering before age 35.

11. Be Patient

Patience Long Road Ahead Horizon

Ambition is a double-edged sword. Brandished with reason and restraint, it can spur you to efforts and achievements you never dreamed possible. However, when unfulfilled, it can leave you feeling bitter, empty, and alone.

As a young man in a dominant Wall Street firm in the 1960s, I hungrily sought promotion into office management. In those days, conventional wisdom was that employees under the age of 35 lacked the experience and composure 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 former colleagues who had stayed put. In the two years following my resignation, many of these colleagues 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.

Career progression rarely occurs as quickly as we would like, and big companies have big bureaucracies that sometimes react slowly. However, the best-managed organizations, regardless of size, do ultimately correct their course. Exhibiting patience early in your career can pay off significantly later on.

Final Word

While several skills are necessary to climb the corporate ranks, the best thing you can do is to 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 a promotion. If you want success, you have to go after it. Be patient when patience is justified, but don’t be afraid to seek greener pastures when necessary.

Critical turning points occur throughout a person’s life and career. The decisions you make – or don’t make – can have lifelong impacts on your career, happiness, and fulfillment. Fortunately, few decisions are irreversible, so a single mistake doesn’t define your life or limit your future opportunities. Be bold in setting your goals and resilient when setbacks appear.

How do you intend to climb the corporate ladder? What have you done to get to the point you’re at currently?

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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