The Most Important Thing to Know When Seeking a Promotion

career advancement Feb 28, 2024
Job Interview Women's Career Success

TL;DR: The single most important thing that you need to know when you're seeking a promotion is that and how leadership differs by level.

Good morning from the shores of beautiful Rincon, Puerto Rico, where this morning, I am musing on the most important thing to know when you're seeking a promotion.


First, Do This!

Before I get into it, I want you to try something. 


If you're in a place where you can stand up, I'd like you to do that.  


Take your dominant hand, extend your pointer finger and raise your hand with your finger pointing straight up above your head and with your arm, make a circle going clockwise.  Look up to make sure that that circle is going clockwise.



Now bring your pointer finger directly to eye level, and look at - don't feel - what's happening.

And then lower your hand below eye level, keeping your pointer finger pointing straight up, look down. 


What direction is this circle now?  


I hope that's blown your mind. When I've done that in workshops, the whole room is saying, "Oh, that's magic!"  


(If you're not in a place where you can do that standing up, try this instead.

  • Take a mug or a cup and lift it straight above your head and look up. Chances are you see a circle formed by the bottom of the cup or mug.
  • Now bring it down to eye level, and you'll see a shape representing the side of the cup or mug.
  • And then bring it below eye level and look down and you're seeing into the top of the mug.)

If you did the pointer finger activity as I was best able to describe it without showing you,

  • What you would have seen looking straight up is your finger moving in a clockwise circle.
  • Continuing that clockwise circle with your arm and your finger pointed straight up, at eye level you would have seen pretty much your finger moving back and forth.
  • But when you bring your hand below eye level, you would have seen the circle going counterclockwise (or anticlockwise as they say in some parts of the world).  

Both of these activities drives home the point that

What you see, depends on where you stand.


And this is brings us to the single most important thing you need to know when you're seeking a promotion:


The job you seek looks very different from where you stand than it does from the shoes of the hiring or promoting manager.

In other words, you see the clockwise circle, the incumbent sees the fingers moving back and forth and the hiring manager sees the counterclockwise circle!


Leadership Differs by Level

You might be wondering what's different. Well, for this, it's important to understand that and how leadership differs by level. Generally speaking, the higher you go, the more important become  3 things. 

  1. First, the nature of the work you do,
  2. The shift from operational to strategic work
  3. The importance  and composition of your strategic networks.   

This morning, we'll explore t a little bit about each of them.


The Nature of Expected Work & Shift from Operational to Strategic Focus

At the individual contributor level, you are 100% responsible for your work performance and achieving outcomes, but you have opportunities to show interpersonal and team skills in how you interact with others;  whether you're able to bring colleagues together to solve a problem or whether you're able to onboard new colleagues or whether you're able to work effectively with others when you're assigned to a interdepartmental  project.

When you're a manager of individual contributors, your work is primarily focused on developing the individual contributors who do the work in order to ensure that your team is producing  the required operational results.  You're also focused on navigating change as strategic initiatives come to you at your level, which means not only  motivating your team  to perform in the new ways required and deliver the newly expected results,  but also to ensure that you've shifted the metrics of your team to align to the new strategic initiatives. 

When you're a manager of managers, your staff development focus is on developing the leadership capabilities of your direct reports. So you're quite distant from developing the operational skills and more focused on making sure that your team members are doing that.  You're also beginning to be more responsible  for setting strategy, which I've already top which I've already touched on,  which means  that your responsibilities now include  the beginning of positioning the organization in its marketplace  for future success.  

At the executive level, there is some responsibility for developing team members, but pretty much they're already proven.  Your primary responsibility is to position the organization for success in its marketplace  and to manage relationships with the board and other key external stakeholders. 


Which leads me to talking about the nature of  your strategic networks and how they change as you move up in the organization and what a promoting manager would be looking for. 


The Nature of Strategic Relationships

At the individual contributor level, you're expected to have good collegial relationships with your colleagues and  with others in the value creation chain that you're supporting. Of course, you will want to add to those expectations your own personal goals for developing a strategic network that includes mentors, the potential to earn sponsorship, and career decision makers.  

At the manager level, all of that continues to be true, but in an elevated way.  If you're managing a team of individuals, you're expected to play nicely with other colleagues whose success depends on your team and vice versa. You're beginning to be expected to have  external relationships that enable you to import ideas for innovation.  And you're beginning to be expected to be a voice - perhaps a thought leader in your profession or a voice among your colleagues. 

As a manager of managers, all of the aforementioned continues to exist, but the external relations required  to position the organization in the marketplace come to the fore. This could involve your relationships with vendors, customers, industry leaders. 

At the executive level, you are expected  to have those external relationships in place, to be a voice in the industry,  to have strong relations with the board,  to understand  the concerns of your external stakeholders including key customers, analysts, etc..  


Why do I mention all of these expectations?

Because if you're seeking a promotion you have to understand what's expected of you at the next higher level and what the hiring or promoting manager is dealing with. This enables you to:

  • Position your proven performance -  and the case you make for your potential -  to resonate with the hiring manager based on how the new position you're striving for will help him or her succeed,
  • Make the case for how you will be able to be successful yourself in that new position. 


What's a Woman To Do?

So let's recap. 

The single most important thing that you need to know when you're seeking a promotion is that and how leadership differs by level. 

Knowing this, what's a woman to do?

  1. First, use that understanding to put yourself in the shoes of the hiring or promoting manager who is looking down at the open position. Seek to understand what his or her expectations are for the person who will fill that position. 
  2. Second, use your business savvy to make the case for why you will be able to perform in the open position. And here, I'm talking specifically about the expectations of developing team members at the manager level  or developing managers' leadership skills at the more senior manager level.
  3. Third, use your business savvy to make the case for your capacity to act more strategically to meet the demands of the open position. 
  4. And fourth, use your business savvy to make the case for how your internal and external networks will enable you to meet the demands and be successful in the open position.  


Remember, interviews for promotions are

  • Not a reward for past performance.
  • Not an opportunity to only showcase your past performance.
  • An opportunity to show whether you can perform at the next higher level. That's why it's crucially important that you're prepared to make the case for why and how you will succeed at the next higher level. 


I hope you have found this motivating, challenging, and illuminating. 


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