By Sabina Nawaz
Jason, a general manager at a Fortune 100 company, worked hard. His businesses were thriving and his team liked working for him. Given his successes over the past year, Jason was hopeful that he’d soon be promoted to vice president. His company usually announced VP promotions in September and February. But in September, Jason wasn’t promoted; another GM was.
Contrast Jason’s situation with that of Bohdan. Bohdan was considered a high-potential leader, the kind of employee CEOs get excited about. He appeared to have a career on an upward trajectory with a huge future ahead of him. Bohdan is exactly the kind of candidate companies like to invest in, so he and 30 other high-potential leaders were invited to a three-day retreat with the CEO and members of the C-suite. During the retreat, Bohdan asked the CEO and CMO, “Do you have any feedback for me on how to prepare to be a vice president one day?”
After the participants left the retreat, the CEO, other executives, and I sat down to discuss the participants. When it came to discussing Bohdan, the CEO smiled and said, “It was funny. Bohdan asked me if I had feedback for him on becoming a VP. He’s barely a GM and he’s thinking about becoming a VP!”
A couple of the other executives had similar responses. Their comments indicated that they liked Bohdan. A lot. Bohdan had a long series of successes and was well liked by his team and his colleagues. But they also thought it was way too early for Bohdan to be asking for feedback on becoming a VP.
Yet after two years, Bohdan was promoted to VP. He had done something key that day at the retreat. He had asked: What will it take? His direct question indicated to senior leadership, the people he knew would be discussing his career and had the power to decide on his next steps, that he was interested in furthering his career and contributing to the organization. Both Bohdan and Jason had worked hard to prove their capabilities and had delivered exceptional business results. The difference was that Jason had never asked his bosses what it would take for him to get promoted.
You might think it would be obvious that Jason wanted a promotion. Don’t all of us want to advance in our careers? Not necessarily. Some people are content to operate at their current level and do good work because they don’t want the pressures of the level above. Others might not want to relocate (since sometimes that’s necessary to move up). Yet others might want to move up but at a slower pace, once they’re more certain of their skills and the business landscape.
C-suite executives don’t know where you stand if you don’t tell them. As they work on succession planning, they’re eager to help you succeed. Ideally, they’d like to have a phalanx of executives-in-waiting so the organization thrives over the long term. Knowing you are someone who produces stellar results and has the ambition to move forward is the powerful combination they’re looking for, and it will make them more willing to invest in you.
“CEOs, boards, and senior leadership teams in general are always looking to ensure they have bench depth to cover departures, and succession planning is part of that,” Blake Irving, CEO of GoDaddy, told me in an email interview. “While I believe executives (and in fact any employee) should focus on doing a great job at the role they’re in, they also have to let leaders in the company know that they’re hungry to take on more, and when deemed capable, willing to step up. I’ve never believed in blatant self-promotion, but I do believe that you have to let your boss know you’re ready for something bigger.”
What holds you back from asking for what you want? Maybe you think others will see you as overly eager, an aggressive and ambitious attention hound. The truth is, you would risk those negative perceptions if you worked too hard to sell senior management on why you should be promoted. But simply asking the question and then backing up your request with a consistent track record pivots the focus from you and your wants to the well-being of the company.
So where do you start if you want to make it known that your ambitions include a promotion? First, express your overall career objectives with your manager at least once a year. When you ask for feedback, make sure it includes your suitability for the level just above yours or for your desired next career step. You should also make sure that not just your manager but also your manager’s manager and a few of your manager’s peers know your goals and can provide you with feedback. Communicate your plan clearly with your manager so she knows your strategy — you want to make sure she’s not caught off guard when you ask others for feedback and advice. Finally, communicate the breadth of experience you’re looking to build so decision makers can consider you for a wider range of jobs. This might include letting them know whether you’re flexible regarding geographic locations or other logistics.
The executive team wants people who want to lead. Moving up isn’t just a perk; it’s a responsibility. Indicate that you’re willing to take on all the challenges that come with the promotion, and your company’s leaders are more likely to welcome you into their ranks.
Sabina Nawaz is a global CEO coach, leadership keynote speaker, and writer working in over 26 countries. She advises C-level executives in Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies, non-profits, and academic organizations. Sabina has spoken at hundreds of seminars, events, and conferences including TEDx and has written for FastCompany.com, Inc.com, and Forbes.com, in addition to HBR.org. Follow her on Twitter.