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Many Paths To Promotion

interior of building with glass ceiling

How do people get promoted? Many people feel ready for more responsibility and a more senior role. How do they get there?

One client had been doing well in a position for three years, and was ready to tackle something bigger. He volunteered to work on a newly-formed task force working on an area of strategic importance to the organization. He was deeply interested in that topic, and worked hard and smart on that project—in fact he took the informal lead. He made sure the project was visible to senior leadership, making presentations and communicating it widely and appropriately. He essentially worked two jobs for the better part of a year. As the project successfully wound down, he was offered a more senior position.

Some people have jobs that are good matches to their skills and interests. If they work hard and smart, they’re likely to perform well. Working smart means understanding and meeting or exceeding the needs of customers—internal or external, or both—and understanding and meeting the needs of the organization. Working smart also means making sure to get recognition for efforts: by contributing at meetings, seeking out and making presentations, and volunteering to take on more responsibility.

People are especially likely to be considered for promotion if they’re in a role highly valued by the organization. If they’re in a less-valued role, a promotion might be more difficult to achieve, so, then, it could be time to find a role that is more valued. One of my clients finds himself in a role that is less valued by his senior leadership. He’s been passed over for promotion for two consecutive years and is currently deciding whether to seek a more valued position in the organization—one that would require relocating—or to explore possibilities outside the organization. He’s also talking with peers and seniors to learn what he could do differently to be seen as ready for a more senior role.

Another client charted a path that is proving successful. As a physician leader in a large medical group, when the current CEO announced his retirement in five years, he voiced his ambition to become the next CEO. Given he had ample time to prepare, he got a confirmation from the CEO that he would be on a short list. Then, most importantly, he met with the other members of their ten-person executive team, ensuring that he had an open, trusting relationships with each. He also volunteered to lead an important culture-change effort and made sure the two departments he managed were effective and profitable. He formulated a new vision for the organization. He went to get his MBA. Now, with less than one year remaining, he is now leading the executive team meetings and has become accepted as the next CEO.

Many people are effective at some parts of their job, and less effective at others. For these people, it becomes important for them to identify their weaknesses and work on them, either on their own or with a coach. One client I worked with was highly intelligent, hard-working and extremely effective at the technical parts of his job, but had become unpopular with some colleagues who felt that he talked down to them in meetings. He worked with me to communicate his ideas more diplomatically and respectfully, especially when there were disagreements. He successfully altered his style and received a promotion six months later.

Sometimes people develop reputations earlier in their career that are just hard to erase. One client, who joined the organization fresh out of grad school, found himself in this situation. While he had strong technical skills, he did not demonstrate much leadership. Over time, he matured and acquired new skills. But the organization still saw him as a junior contributor who lacked leadership ability. He recognized this reputation issue, so he found a leadership role in another organization, one where he could begin with a clean reputational slate. He’s been so successful there that he received a second promotion after only eight months.

Pathways to promotion vary, depending on the position you find yourself in. The challenge is to accurately assess your situation, including the probabilities of success. Then to take steps, including working smart, learning new skills—even altering your style—to move you into the role that you deserve.


Daniel White is a leadership coach, facilitator and organization development consultant who specializes in helping leaders, teams and whole organizations reach their full potential. He works with clients to strengthen their ability to inspire their stakeholders; and align with organizational culture, constituent needs and personal values. Dan serves as coach and facilitator enabling leaders to develop new behaviors and mind-sets that enhance their effectiveness. Dan has been a Guest Presenter at iCoach PCP Program for many years.

He presents on his experience with clients using a cognitive behavioral approach.


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