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Getting ahead in business (� Mark Evans/iStockphoto)
Getting ahead in business (� Mark Evans/iStockphoto)

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The 'Unwritten Rules' for getting promoted Add to ...

If your career has stalled, there's more than the soft economy to blame, a new book warns. Those aspiring to the C-suite must realize that those currently in the top roles are not only reluctant to discuss what you need to get ahead, they may want to keep you where you are, says succession planning consultant John Beeson in The Unwritten Rules: The Six Skills You Need to Get Promoted to the Executive Level.

That's based on research the principal of New York-based Beeson Consulting has done in his 30 years as a leadership coach and interviews with senior executives at 20 large multinational companies - including many with operations in Canada - about the factors they use to determine who gets ahead.

"There's a human aversion to giving people criticism, no matter how constructive, and there's a tendency to want to keep strong performers in place, especially when good results are difficult to come by," Mr. Beeson said in an interview. Getting unstuck isn't always easy, but focusing on developing six skills will give you a boost over the competition, he says.

The essentials are: demonstrating strategic skills, building strong teams, managing implementation, having a desire for innovation, involving the whole organization and projecting executive presence. And then you have to take action to put them to use:

Be wary of traps

"I find most big companies are rife with talent hoarding. Unless there is a very strong succession planning process at lower levels, most companies will tend to keep people where they are," Mr. Beeson says. Bosses want top performers doing what they're doing in their immediate jobs, which helps make the managers look good. "So my message is that you shouldn't count on your manager to promote you, or wait for opportunities to be offered, you have to take charge of your own career development."

Get out of your comfort zone

Many executives focus on getting promoted "up the silo," looking for new titles or functions in the same division, but that's narrow thinking, Mr. Beeson says. "You should be looking to take on new jobs in other parts of the organization. New functions that demand you change your managerial style will pay big dividends."

For instance, "I worked with a senior manager who had never been more than 100 miles from his home and never had more than 10 in his team. He was asked to manage a staff of 50 in Hong Kong and was scared to death but excited, because he knew that if he succeeded, it would mean great things and if he didn't, he was cooked and would be stuck there forever, far removed from corporate headquarters. But by taking the leap, he was forced to learn to make decisions when he didn't have all the information and by necessity became excellent at delegating," Mr. Beeson says. He came out of the experience with a great deal of self-confidence and today he leads an organization of 5,000 employees.

Get feedback that counts

The best feedback is seldom what's discussed in your performance reviews, which are often too structured and formal. "Over a period of time, schedule more-informal meetings with your boss and others in senior positions to get a variety of candid viewpoints and help you clarify your goals," Mr. Beeson advises. "If there are concerns that are holding you back, you need to ask about them. Do people see you as more tactical than strategic? Do chronic relationship issues with peers present a stumbling block? Are you seen as resistant to change?"

"Be non-defensive and listen carefully. At the end of a session, you can ask, 'What one or two things - above all others - would be most helpful to me in getting ahead with my career?' " Mr. Beeson advises. "The feedback not only tells you what you need to strengthen, but will help clarify your goals, identify opportunities and give you a higher profile in the organization." In all of this, be sure you keep your boss in the loop on all your discussions to avoid having him think you're going over his head, he cautions.

Be a driver of change.

"One of the problems of staying in a job for a long time is the tendency to get stale and rely on old approaches. When executives look for someone new to bring onto their teams, they don't want 'maintainers,' they want people who can re-invent how things are done and make quantum leaps in performance. So you should regularly evaluate practices in your area and propose innovative approaches. Success at doing that can generate positive buzz in the organization and make you attractive for jobs in other areas," Mr. Beeson says.

You should also be involved in setting strategy and direction for the organization. "But while these are classic components of leadership, the trick is that in middle management you are not asked to create strategy." You may have to engineer a move into a role in which you are able to demonstrate your ability to turn strategic gears, rather than just achieving current results, he says.

Delegate more each year

Micromanagers seldom reach the top, Mr. Beeson finds, because they are so focused on daily issues that they never see the big picture. So being willing to delegate more work to others is not enough; you also have to learn to trust others with responsibility. "For you to continually focus on the most critical issues and position yourself as C-suite material, the over all capability of team members must increase each year. What this really means is that each team member needs to get better at operating independently," he says.

Build a strong team around you

Obviously you can't delegate effectively if you have weak links on your team. "Too many managers get trapped into focusing on the day-to-day and playing the hand of employees they were dealt, rather than trolling the organization for talent they can use to make their teams stronger," Mr. Beeson says. If you are working to build up the skills of your existing team, looking for more go-to people, and building bridges to other parts of the organization, management will pay attention, he says.

Seek out the spotlight

Most organizations create task forces and cross-functional project teams to deal with key issues: Always look for opportunities to join those teams. "This will also help you broaden your perspective on the business and the entire organization," Mr. Beeson says. But more importantly, it will increase your exposure to other key people who can advance your credibility with the company.

And, finally, always aim high. "In every opportunity you have to present your ideas to senior management, you have the opportunity to create buzz."

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