Promotion: Past, Present, or Future Tense?


(This is one of many posts inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I suggest you just give up and buy the book now.)

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg talks about some of the differences in the way men and women are considered for promotion.  “Men,” she writes, “are promoted based on potential, while women are promoted based on past accomplishments.”woman exec

Forget the gender differences for a moment. Being promoted on performance (past accomplishments) is the conventional way we assume everyone is considered for their next move. When people ask me how to get the attention of senior managers to be considered for promotion, I start with the advice to be excellent where you are.  You can’t be considered for another job if you’re not good at the one you have. Performance is the baseline for being considered a high potential candidate – the price of admission.  But what can you do to demonstrate potential – the future tense of being promotable? Here are some ideas.

Be good at what you do, and understand what makes you more productive. If you understand the system that you’re using to perform well, you can explain it to others and replicate it throughout the organization. If your performance is just an advantage you have because of your personal gifts, it may not be something that can be repeated by others.  That’s actually counterproductive; if you are the wunderkind who just does this job better than your peers, you may be kept in place because of your prowess – people hate to lose their best worker.  Write down what you do and how you came to discover the best way to perform. (“We found that it took, on average, three calls to get an appointment with a prospect.”) Offer to share your system and knowledge with your team. That kind of systems development and training shows that you are thinking beyond your own job description.

Don’t be afraid to make creative mistakes. High potential performers don’t get that label by always playing it safe. In fact, understanding how to assess and manage risk is one of the key qualities of executives. Look for opportunities to try new methods in situations where negative outcomes won’t be too harmful and the upside may be very beneficial. When you approach your manager about trying something new, lay out your thinking – let him know that there are potential risks and what they are.  Basically, ask permission to make a mistake. “If this method doesn’t work, I’ll be behind in my monthly goal, but I have a plan to get back up to speed by…” Showing that you are not afraid to make a mistake positions you as a confident leader who trusts her skills.

Offer to solve problems. Leaders don’t just keep the status quo humming along; they look for ways to improve the system and get better results.  This sounds a bit like making creative mistakes, but it actually might impact more than your personal performance. Making the case for change sometimes involves playing in someone else’s sandbox.  Understanding the problem holistically (across departments or functions) shows that you’re thinking about more than just your team. Be prepared to talk about three things: the problem, the process, and the people.  How would your solution impact all three? What is the return on investment if we try this solution?  Do you have data to support your idea? How do you think the other teams will react to this idea? What’s the worst thing that can happen?

There are three things you must have to be flagged as high potential: ability, agility and visibility. Prove you can do what you do well, prove that you can do new things well, and don’t be afraid of connecting with people inside and outside the organization.

Your past is not your potential. In any hour you can choose to liberate the future.

Marilyn Ferguson

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