So you want to climb the ladder? Help for the aspiring leader

Flourishing People, Healthy, Team Leadership | ,

so you want to climb the ladder   help for the aspiring leader
Used with permission of Darryl Smith

Okay leaders, here’s a post for your staff, not you. It’s for people who aspire to enter management or rise to senior management. Here’s what they can do to prepare themselves for promotion. (Whether you should aspire to leadership is a different question that I’ve written about in a previous post.)

High potential employees

The June 2010 edition of Harvard Business Review contained new research into the anatomy of an employee with a high potential for leadership (“Are You a High Potential?” by Ready, Conger and Hill). Here’s their definition of high potential employees:

High potentials consistently and significantly outperform their peer groups in a variety of settings and circumstances.  While achieving these superior levels of performance, they exhibit behaviors that reflect their companies’ culture and values in an exemplary manner.  Moreover, they show a strong capacity to grow and succeed throughout their careers within an organization – more quickly and effectively than their peer groups do.

Let’s unpack that definition. As I considered it, and thought back over all the people I’ve met in my own career who progressed or did not progress, I realized how important both hard and soft factors are to a person’s career progression. You need both. This definition captures the two elements quite well, so it is worth paying attention to it!

  • High potentials consistently and significantly outperform their peer groups in a variety of settings and circumstances.
    • Merely doing the work you are paid to do well will certainly get the appreciation of leadership, but it won’t wow them. That’s just doing what you were paid to do. No one hires someone thinking they won’t do the work well, so thanks for doing your job!
    • Doing something really great every once in a while will also get leadership’s appreciation, and its special thanks. But this is still not enough to identify you as high potential because it does not show consistency over time, which is what really counts.
    • Continuing excellent performance “in a variety of settings and circumstances” is highly valued because it shows what leaders are looking for: people who can consistently deliver, who are adaptable to different scenarios and who can rise from the specific to the more general, who can solve problems, who show initiative and creativity, and who have skills and talents that are transferable to leadership.
  • They exhibit behaviors that reflect their companies’ culture and values in an exemplary manner.
    • No one will be invited into leadership who does not reflect the organization’s culture and values. Whatever the organization aspires to be, its leaders must model that. You should be an exemplar of everything the ministry stands for. So take a close look at your ministry’s aspirational statements of culture and values and act accordingly.
    • In Parliament, the duty of the Opposition is said to be to oppose. That isn’t at all helpful – that is just being obstinate and a pain. The duty should be to propose. If the Opposition does not support the Government, then it should propose an alternative. It’s quite easy to oppose, but many opposition parties have found it much more difficult to propose once they are the governing party. They suddenly realize how complex and complicated the world is!  In a work environment, opposition will rarely work to your benefit (I want to say never, but who knows?). Most organizations value cooperation and collaboration, working together to solve problems. In Christian ministry that value should be universal. People who only oppose have set themselves up as the opposition and therefore are not aligned with the management team and will not be seen as suitable candidates for promotion. An “us vs. them” mentality is a sure way to stop your career progression in its tracks! What leaders want is people who will work with them bringing multiple perspectives to a discussion, not working against them. Remember, the most effective persuasion takes place in private conversation, not in public confrontation. Proverbs 15:1 says “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” The same can be said about how contrary ideas are presented. Leaders highly value ideas that challenge the status quo. Having real choices is a crucial ingredient for good decision making. But how those contrary ideas are brought forward makes all the difference. And of course, nothing will ever happen if the Opposition never engages the Government but simply chatters within its own ranks.
  • They show a strong capacity to grow and succeed throughout their careers within an organization – more quickly and effectively than their peer groups do.
    • If the only way you get to move ahead in your career is to change employers, that indicates you are pretty good at selling yourself to someone who doesn’t know you, but you probably find it difficult to deliver what you have sold. In sales training, they say that the first sale is easy because you are selling hopes and dreams. It is an emotional sale. It is the second sale that is hard because you are asking someone to invest again in something they have already experienced and it is a logical sell. Sometimes there is no room to advance at an organization for reasons beyond your control (most ministries are quite small), but otherwise take a hard look at yourself if you need to change employers to get a promotion. Perhaps you have an inflated view of your potential or you are sabotaging yourself in some way. Usually the sabotage is not due to lack of skill, but to attitudes and behaviours that are not helpful in leaders (and, frankly, are probably not helpful to you in any capacity).
    • Take a look at yourself today compared to a few years ago and define how you have grown professionally in that time. If you haven’t grown much, you need to consider why. Even if there are few development opportunities at work, there is nothing stopping you from finding some on your own outside of work. For example, the best thing I ever did outside of my job was to join Toastmasters. I did my MBA on my own time and paid for it myself. I volunteered on the leadership team of the local Institute of Canadian Bankers chapter, which raised my profile within my banking unit. I served on a board early on and was volunteer president for a couple of clubs or groups, which taught me how to run meetings. All of these activities gave me experience and skills that I could not get at my paid job, and they all have served me very, very well over the course of my career. My employers never told me to do them. I did them on my own initiative and almost entirely at my own expense, and then I brought what I had learned and applied it in my job so that my employer benefitted.
    • If you are growing, it makes a difference whether you are growing more capable in doing your current job or are growing more capable for the job you want. If you want a promotion, you should be doing both. Show yourself to be ready for promotion by demonstrating the skills, judgment and attitudes that the next job will require. Leadership won’t promote you until you are ready to be promoted. While you may still need a lot of training to fully do the job, leadership needs to see enough capability that they think you will be able to do it.  Preparation comes before promotion.
    • No one who is a ‘high maintenance’ person will be promoted because leaders just don’t have the time to give you that much attention. If your good results are only achieved because your manager spends a lot of time working with you, if you bring problems for your manager to solve that you should be able to solve yourself, if you require a lot of hand-holding to do your job, or need a lot of stroking to keep you motivated, you are going to be stuck where you are. Instead, leaders will promote people who are self-motivated, self-managing and who through their initiative and creativity actually push the leader. A leader does not want to think for you;  a leader wants you to think for yourself and contribute to the cause.

My own non-researched but nevertheless I believe still valid career advice

Here are a couple of bonus tips:

  • Be predictable and transparent. Just as you want this from your leaders, they want the same from you. A leader should never have to wonder where you stand on an issue. They should never hear from someone else what you really think about something. A leader must be able to count on you to present your honest views and to be honest about your results. Operate on a “no surprise” policy. Never blindside a leader and never hide bad news. These are trust-busters and a leader needs to trust the people on his or her team. If you want to join the management team some day, then start thinking like a manager now.
  • Leadership skills include influencing people, planning, directing, visioning and much more. Ask to lead a project or develop a strategic plan for an existing or new service and propose it to management. Start applying leadership skills in your current job even if you have no staff reporting to you. Leadership is about more than leading people, it is about leading a department or a whole organization. Apply those organizational skills to whatever is within your current responsibilities.
  • Leadership is all about change. If nothing ever changed, all you would need is management. (Before you think I am disparaging management, let me tell you that leadership without management is chaos, and management without leadership is stagnation. The two go together.) Those who aspire to leadership need to understand that to be a leader is to be a change agent. So become a change agent right where you are. You don’t need a formal position or authority to positively influence your peers. Jesus had no formal position to be a change agent. He spoke from a powerless, informal position, but in fact his moral authority gave him all the power and authority he needed. You can do the same. Show that you are an effective change agent by creating positive change among your peers or anywhere else at work where you have influence.

Well, there you are. Some ideas to get a promotion. Now back to you who are already in leadership. What tips would you pass along?

Thoughts on So you want to climb the ladder? Help for the aspiring leader

  1. Jason Bouwman

    “Leadership without management is chaos, and management without leadership is stagnation”

    …and I might add: “Leadership & Management without Labour is disappointment. Labour without leadership & management is not fulfilling at best, unsustainable at worst.

  2. Ed Drewlo

    Thanks for the very practical advise on leadership and leadership development. This has many applications including how to work as a Board member in the church. I’ll have to save it and pass it on.


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