A vice president of a financial company once told me, “Make a plan—or someone else will make one for you.” And this advice is never truer than when it comes to taking charge of your career.
If you’ve worked hard, fulfilled your responsibilities, and received positive performance reviews, then you’ve successfully followed what most people would call a career development plan. Unfortunately, that’s a far cry from what I call a career advancement plan. To make significant forward movement, you’ll need to go beyond being great at your current job—but, as I often tell clients in my leadership coaching practice, if you’re waiting on advice from your boss about how to do that, you’d be wise not to hold your breath.
Pace Productivity, Inc. found that while managers overwhelmingly cite “people management” as their most important priority, a typical mid-level manager spends a measly 3.3 hours per week managing people. Of that time, only two hours are allocated to coaching, training, and mentoring. Meanwhile, administrative tasks suck up a whopping 24% of their time. So, sure—your boss wants to help you grow. Right after he or she files travel expenses, signs off on a purchase order, and declines a meeting request.
So, to give you more reliable input for your career advancement plan, I talked to two of the smartest leaders I know: Donnell Green, global head of talent management and development with Blackrock; and Dr. Caroline Simard, associate director of diversity and leadership with the Stanford School of Medicine. They shared some key strategies that all employees should know—but aren’t always told—about moving upward.
1. Get Good Bosses
Those who have successfully advanced in the workplace—and hope to continue on that path—know that working for the right leader is the first logical step to becoming a leader. Green, for example, knew that taking charge of her career meant building a support network of coaches, mentors, and sponsors.
“Don’t go it alone,” she advises, “and give careful consideration to who is in your management chain. Work for people you respect, and get a good boss. I have built great relationships with my bosses and created value for them. Having the support of your manager can make or break a career.”
Why is a great boss so important? According to Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, the best leaders provide career-boosting training, development, and coaching, and they help employees capitalize on their strengths. They also provide you with role models to emulate as you learn to lead. If you don’t know of any great talent developers in your direct management chain, ask around to discover who they are. If there’s no possibility of working directly for them, enlist them as a mentor.
2. Narrow Paths Can Be Precarious
Imagine if you tried to nurture a delicate seedling by gripping onto it so tightly that you almost squeeze the life out of it. Don’t do that to your most important career goals!
What I mean is this: You may have a very specific idea of where you want to be and what you think you need to do to get there. And if you are fortunate enough to get your manager’s input, he or she will probably prescribe your company’s pre-set career track: a narrow, linear path with fewer opportunities the higher you climb.
But according to Simard, you need to be open to adjusting that plan. “If you’re too attached to a very narrow definition of success or plan for your career, you will ignore amazing opportunities,” she warns. “Keep your eye on the goal, but don’t stand in the way of the end result. Sometimes, that means doing a task that you’re not particularly interested in. But if it’s really important to achieving your vision, it’s absolutely worth doing.”
Even in her own career plan, Simard doesn’t have a set route: “I try to have a plan, but it’s a flexible plan.”
As a president in the automotive repair industry once told me, “Choose the one thing that is most important to you in your next role—be it location, a certain function, a particular level in the organization, whether you’d like direct reports, or whatever it is—and then be as flexible as you can about the rest. You’ll be more likely to actually get that next role.”
3. Timing is Everything
In 2011, when Accenture surveyed 3,400 executives, they found that only 37% had asked for a raise, promotion, or job change, but of those who asked, 65% said it helped. In fact, 59% of people who asked for a promotion got one. So what’s the simplest way to get a promotion? Statistically speaking, it is to ask for one.
But no one—including your boss—is going to tell you when or how to make that request.
And according to Green, strategically timing your request is incredibly important. “The right conversation held at the wrong time can be harmful,” she warns, “as is failing to be mindful that your boss is in a bad mood or the person you’re talking to is the wrong person. Pay attention to timing and use those instincts for these conversations.”
So, consider the corporate culture of your office. When is the right time to ask for a promotion? For example, some organizations want you to indicate your interest in moving up when you sit down for your annual performance review. But in others, you would have missed the boat entirely because succession planning already took place, and candidates have already been identified to fill their superiors’ roles. In that case, six months before your review would be the ideal time to ask HR if your performance merited you a place in the succession pipeline.
To determine which approach is best, observe how others get promoted. Ask about when and how your organization handles talent development decisions like succession planning, performance evaluations, and identification of high-potential talent so you can choose the optimal time to make your request.
4. Don’t Be All Business All the Time
You might assume that your boss wants you to give 110%, all the time—but ironically, doing so could cause you to miss out on a key strategy for high performance and getting ahead. In fact, the Corporate Executive Board found that employees who believe they have good work-life balance work 21% harder than those who do not.
Simard, who leads an initiative at Stanford School of Medicine to increase work-life integration, concurs that maintaining a healthy balance is extremely important in career advancement. “Don’t ignore work-life fit,” she advises. “These two pieces need to go hand-in-hand in everything you do.”
Green agrees. “Mind the seriousness and intensity!” she says. “If you’re someone who people enjoy being around, have a sense of humor, and don’t take yourself seriously, you’ll have followership—and that followership will advance your career.” By being a role model of balance and encouraging colleagues to do the same, you’ll increase their desire to stay in their jobs, the performance of the team, and your own leadership potential.
Your own boss may not tell what you need to advance your career, and you won’t find the best strategies listed in the corporate employee handbook, either. So take it from these two pros who have seen what it takes to lead. Find a great boss, set flexible career goals, consider the timing before you ask for a promotion, and get some balance.