10 Things You Need to Do To Get Promoted
by Bryan Neva and Allen Laudenslager
Over our 90 plus years of combined working experience, we've seen what it takes to get promoted to a leadership or management position, and it's probably not what you'd think. So before we begin, we'd suggest that you first spend some time observing your organization, inquiring with long-time employees, and pondering if you really want to move up your organization's career ladder.
First, survey the landscape by observing the type of people who've already been promoted to different levels of responsibility. What kind of people are they? What are their age, race, personalities, interests, and belief system? Are they kind and considerate, or are they mean and self-serving? Corporate culture begins at the top of the organization, so the personalities of the managers is a good thermometer of the corporate culture.
Second, gather intelligence by asking long-time employees (not managers) what they think of management. They can provide you with some historical context and notable events that have occurred. Look for a pattern of behavior. You'll probably get all sorts of answers both positive and negative, so try to ask as many employees as you can and then draw your own conclusions. This is akin to measuring the blood pressure or happiness of an organization.
Finally, knowing the state of affairs with your employer, you can make an informed decision whether or not to even bother trying. It might be better to just cut your losses and run. But if you still aspire to a leadership or management position within your organization, here's what you'll need to do to get promoted.
1. Look and dress the part
If you want to move up in any organization you must also look and dress the part. Dress to impress. Look at those who hold the next higher position than yours and dress like they do. Also, consider getting a hairstyle similar to your superiors.
Always be clean and well groomed when you come to work. If you’re overweight, you need to go on a diet and shed those unwanted pounds. Overweight people generally don’t get promoted. If you smoke, you need to quit, or at least try not to smoke at work by using nicotine patches. Always use breath mints while at work, and go easy on the cologne or perfume: less is more.
Studies have shown that attractive people generally are given more opportunities than less than attractive people. So do whatever it takes to improve your appearance through better grooming, hairstyles, clothing, weight loss, healthy living, and fresh breath.
You shouldn’t think of this as misrepresenting who or what you really are. If you were learning to play tennis, you wouldn’t wear Levis and cowboy boots so why wouldn’t you dress appropriately for your new job. If you're in the military they have a strict dress code. If you work at McDonald's they have a dress code too. Even if it’s not your current job, but rather the job you aspire to, look and dress the part.
Some people have asked, what do you do when your personality is Levis and cowboy boots and your job is a three-piece suit? You either have to accept that your job demands you display a different part of your personality at work or change career fields to one that more closely matches what you think of as your personality.
When I (Bryan) was in the Navy, there were sailors who worked in the greasy diesel engine rooms. Most of them walked around the ship covered from head to toe in grease and grime. They'd even come to the mess deck and eat without washing themselves first. It was really gross especially if I were sitting next to them. I'd lose my appetite and just leave. But there was one sailor who also worked in the engine rooms, but took personal pride in his appearance and was always clean and well groomed. We jokingly used to kid him about his cleanliness, but he'd just say that working in a dirty environment is not an excuse for filthiness. Guess what, he was eventually promoted over his peers.
You have to think of going to work like going to a party or club and trying to attract the opposite sex, or going on a job interview and trying to get the job. You only get one chance to make a good first impression. But consistently dressing well can leave a lasting impression that will help you get promoted.
2. Be very careful what you say, who you say it to, and how you say it
The great philosopher Aristotle once said, "To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing!" The first step in getting a promotion is to mind your "p's" and "q's." Be very careful who you talk with and what you talk about. While not being rude or making others feel uncomfortable, do not share too much personal information about yourself. Try to diplomatically sidestep personal inquiries. And don't ask others any personal questions either as you never know if they'll be offended. Even small talk or conversational openers such as, "Where do you live?" could be offensive to some people. Don't brag about yourself or your accomplishments in life. Be meek and humble to a fault.
The less you say at work, the better off you'll be positioned to getting a promotion. Other than benign details, be guarded about sharing too many personal details about yourself with anyone. If you're having personal problems at home, don't bring them to work. Even if you're going through a bitter divorce and custody battle, keep it to yourself. Don’t be rude about it, just be coy about discussing your personal business. Think of professional television and radio personalities, you may think they’re being open about themselves, but in fact, if you listen carefully they’re actually being quite guarded about sharing details about their lives. They say just enough to connect with the audience and no more.
Be very careful if you go out for drinks with coworkers. A little bit of alcohol can lower your inhibitions and you may say something they can use against you later. In fact, it’s probably better just to order a soda. Just tell them you’ve got to drive or you're on medication which doesn't mix well with alcohol.
Abraham Lincoln once said, "It's better to remain silent and thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt." People will judge you by the words you use.
3. Don’t criticize or complain about anything
Being negative won't get you anywhere in an organization (or in life for that matter). In fact, in time it'll probably get you fired. Organizations don't like malcontents or dysfunctional behavior. They want everyone to be happy campers even if the working conditions are in fact miserable and your superiors are misbehaving. So if you want to get promoted, you'll have to become stoic at work. The old cliché, "If you can't say anything nice, then don't say anything at all!" really applies here.
As far as your colleagues are concerned, don't say anything negative about anyone else. If someone says something negative about someone else, retort by saying something positive about them.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if things are really that bad at work where you have to be extremely guarded, you might be happier looking for an exit. No one likes working in a toxic, dysfunctional work environment. There is no shame in recognizing that the place is broke-beyond-repair and you just can’t fix it.
Euphemistically phrase everything you say. For example, if something is going really badly, say it's challenging. If you work in deplorable conditions, say you work in a rugged setting or an early century environment. If someone is behaving badly, say they were having a bad day. You get the idea. In other words, don't call a spade a spade, instead be very diplomatic in everything you say. Bridle your tongue by thinking about what you’ll say or don’t say before you even say it. And never use profanity or foul language at work.
4. Be completely honest and trustworthy
You have to be completely honest and trustworthy in everything you do. These are virtues to strive for whether or not you’re at work. If you make a mistake, then fix it and humbly admit it. Don't try to hide your mistakes or blame it on someone else. If you catch someone else making a mistake, help them fix it and make them look good and you’ll earn their trust and respect. Let your work speak for itself and be your calling card so that when someone else comes behind you they'll be impressed with the quality of your work.
When you're on official business or travel, keep your expenses down to a minimum. Think of business travel like you're spending your own money when you go on vacation. Economize. Companies generally don’t mind paying legitimate business and travel expenses, so just follow the organization’s rules and regulations on business and travel and try to come in under budget.
Being honest and trustworthy is easy at the lower levels of an organization, but as you move up it becomes a bit more difficult as you’ll be faced with more ambiguous situations. At the lower levels, you can pass the buck of responsibility and decision making up the chain of command. But at the higher levels, you have to make sense of ambiguity and try to make wise and prudent decisions. This is why it’s so important to have guiding principles in life to point you in the right direction when you’re lost and don’t know which way to turn.
We’ve both have been in jobs where the culture was to make unethical decisions if it helped the bottom line. And if anyone in the organization actually tried to make a principled decision it actually got them into trouble. All we can recommend is run, do not walk to the nearest exit. Trying to fight the organization by making principled decisions will only destroy you. But we promise you that if you consistently make unethical or illegal choices it will eventually catch up with you and cost you much more than simply changing jobs.
5. Be well liked and respected throughout the organization
In order to get promoted you first have to be personally liked and respected by your colleagues. And you have to be cognizant of who in your workgroup is the most influential as they can either help or hurt your career. If you're working with jerks, then kill them all with kindness. But never let them perceive what you really think of them. As far as they’re concerned, make them believe you like and respect them too (even if you really don't). Showing respect to others can be as simple as showing the common courtesy we should all show to another human being (even if they really don't deserve it).
The next thing you need to do is be personally liked and respected by your manager. If your manager doesn’t personally like or respect you, then you'll never go anywhere as they can sabotage your career. If you're working for a jerk, kill him with kindness too, but look around for a lateral move within the organization. Changing bosses can make all the difference and help you get ahead. If a lateral move isn’t possible, it’s probably time to look for another job with another company. If your boss doesn’t like or respect you, no matter how well you do your job it’ll never be good enough for him or her.
The next thing you need to do to get promoted is to be liked and respected by other managers (your manager's peers). They too have influence with the decision maker and can help or hurt your career.
Finally, you have to be liked and respected by your manager's boss. Any chance you get to make a positive impression on this person can only help your career. Emails, presentations, exchanging pleasantries are all good ways to make a good impression. But be careful not to let them perceive you’re sucking up to them, that’ll turn them off. Less is probably more when it comes to dealing with this individual.
You should think of going to work like being an actor in Hollywood trying to win roles and eventually winning the academy award, a political candidate trying to win votes and getting elected to public office, or a salesman trying to make a good impression and closing the deal. This is not about being disingenuous with others; it’s just like going to a wedding and being kind and friendly to the other guests so that the wedding can be fun for everyone there. So, make the same effort at work.
The Golden Rule says, “treat others the way you want to be treated.” But the Platinum Rule says, “treat others the way they want to be treated.” In order to be liked and respected by others, you have to follow both the Golden and Platinum Rules. Once again, you really can't fake this. You must truly care about the people around you. That doesn't mean you will like and respect everyone, just that you must care that they succeed and that the organization as a whole will make its goals.
6. Keep your creative ideas and solutions to yourself
The only person allowed to be creative in any organization is the person at the very top. Everyone else is only allowed to carry out their creative ideas and solutions. You have to walk a fine line here.
Many organizations that claim to want creative solutions to their problems really only want creative solutions that don’t violate established policies or procedures. The problem for you is that if the established policies or procedures could fix the problem they wouldn’t be looking for a creative solution! Whenever possible frame your solution as a one-time exception to the rules so that you don’t make the bean counters too nervous.
7. Be consistently outstanding in performing your job
Doing your job and doing it well is a very important prerequisite to getting promoted. In fact, if you want to stand out from your peers, you'll have to exceed your boss' expectations and give him or her more than what they asked for in a timely manner (even if that means coming in early, staying late, working Saturdays, and bringing work home with you). When you do your job well, it makes your boss, as well as the entire organization, look good.
Think for a moment about the skill level of professional athletes. Most good athletes were high school or college sports stars, but only a few of those made it into the pros. Are the few outstanding athletes who do make it into the “big leagues” really that much more talented? Or did they just put in the extra effort and time to hone their skills to the professional level?
There are plenty of people who do a good job, and they make up a majority of the workforce. Nevertheless, most high performing organizations have raised the bar so high that being good is no longer good enough. If you're not consistently performing at a superior level you might be in danger of losing your job. To get promoted you have to have sustained, superior performance.
Jack Welch, the legendary and controversial CEO of GE, pioneered a method of annual employee evaluations where GE would cull the bottom 10% of their workforce every year. Managers could only rate 20% of their employees as "excellent”; 70% of their employees could be rated "good", and the bottom 10% would have to be rated "poor" and subsequently let go. Following in GE's footsteps, many other large companies adopted this scheme of annually culling their workforce. Personally, we’re opposed to culling employees for many different reasons, but then again we’re not running GE. But if you consistently do your best at work, then you’ll have nothing to worry about.
Along with doing a great job at work is showing flexibility and adapting to change. You may begin your career with a certain job description, but how you end your career depends on your flexibility and your willingness to accept change as inevitable. There will always be some people who just want to be a designing engineer and have absolutely no desire to be the managing engineer. That’s perfectly OK as long as it’s a choice and not the result of not doing their best work.
8. Prove you can do the job above you
Over time you have to prove to your superiors that you can do the job above you. This means stepping up to the plate every chance you get to go the extra mile. If your boss goes on vacation offer to cover for her while they’re gone. Maybe there are routine reports that have to be filed, do those for her. In fact, try to relieve your boss’ work-load by taking on some of her collateral duties.
One way you can prove to your superiors that you’re ready for more responsibility is by furthering your education. If you’ve got a technical background, consider getting an MBA. If you don’t have a college education, go back to school and finish your degree. Online distance education has made is so much easier than when we were young and you physically had to go to a brick and mortar school. Also, take seminars that will help you improve your job performance. Or earn certifications that will prove your skill level. Go to the self-help or business section of your local bookstore and peruse the books. You may find a book that could be transformative.
Remember that anything you master will not only prove to your current boss that you are motivated and prepared, it will prove exactly the same things to a future boss if you decide the current company doesn’t value you.
But as Dirty Harry said, “A man has got to know his limitations!” So don’t fall prey to the Peter Principle by getting promoted to your highest level of incompetence. It’s better to pass on an opportunity until you’re absolutely sure you can do the job. It won’t help you in the long-run if you’re promoted and eventually fail.
9. Share your superiors values and interests
People who get promoted more or less share their superiors values and interests. More often than not, you’ll get promoted because your superiors personally like you. And they’ll like you more if you share their values and interests. But you have to be very careful here if you want to maintain your personal integrity.
If your superiors are politically liberal or conservative, don’t pretend you’re a liberal or conservative just to ingratiate yourself with them. If your political views are different, just keep your opinions to yourself. If your political views are the same, then nod in agreement. If they play golf and you don’t, then don’t pretend you like golf too. Just say you’ve never tried golf before and you've always wanted to learn to play. Maybe they’ll invite you along to learn to play golf and you might discover a new hobby. If you don’t have much in common with your superiors, then just show an interest in what they like even if you personally don’t like it. There’s nothing disingenuous about showing an interest in others and their hobbies. All you’re doing here is managing which parts of yourself you share with others. In exactly the same way you wouldn’t bore your wife with a review of a football game if she doesn’t like football; you’d save that discussion with your buddies who love football.
The one thing you do have in common with your superiors is your work. Try to learn more about the organization and the industry you work in. Start picking their brains and asking open-ended questions so you can learn more and become a more effective employee. Start doing your own research on the industry and problems they face. Maybe you can come up with creative ideas that you can do on your own to help your organization become more competitive.
10. Do Not Drink the Kool-Aid
"Drinking the Kool-Aid" is a figure of speech which generally refers to people who unquestionably accept a philosophy or go along with peer pressure or group thinking without critical examination. It is a severe criticism of those in an organization who don't think for themselves, go-along-to-get-along or engages in a sycophantic behavior.
This figure of speech has it's roots with the infamous American religious cult leader of the People's Temple, Jim Jones, who on November 18, 1978, in Jonestown, Guyana, demanded his followers commit suicide with him by drinking cyanide-laced, grape-flavored Kool-Aid. He is responsible for the murder/suicides of over 900 people.
Most companies will not ask you to Drink the Kool-Aid or do anything unethical, illegal, or morally questionable. However, there are some organizations where you’ll only get promoted if you’ll figuratively Drink the Kool-Aid. But that’s not the type of organization you’d want to work for anyway.
In those unethical organizations, they’ll want you to blindly follow whatever they tell you to do. If they want you to get rid of a good employee, you'll have to do it without losing sleep over it. If they want you to do anything questionable, unethical, or illegal for the good and profitability of the organization, you'll have to do it and not bat an eye. They'll ask you to reach into your own pocket to pay their legitimate business expenses. They'll pay you far less than you're really worth in the marketplace. They'll consistently ask you to put in sixty to eighty hours a week so they don't have to hire more people. And they'll motivate you by hanging your job security and livelihood of your family over your head. If that’s the type of company you work for, don’t waste your time and energy trying to get promoted. Just start looking for another organization that values honesty and personal integrity even if it means taking a pay cut. Over the long-run, it’s much better for the welfare of your family, your own health, and your long-term career success for you to just find another job than to fight within your organization.
We've both worked for unethical companies like those described above, and the big career limiting choice we each made was to Not Drink the Kool-Aid. Many of our colleagues in those companies chose to Drink The Kool-Aid and were subsequently promoted over us. As far as we know they thrived in their careers whereas we both suffered. But we were more concerned about doing what is right rather than in just doing the right things to get ahead.
In short, getting promoted is a combination of playing politics and then doing your job extremely well. Some people have a really hard time playing politics; they feel if they just do their job extremely well then management will notice and they'll eventually get promoted. But the reality is that the "C" students in school usually end up managing the "A" and "B" students. So doing all these things we suggest is no guarantee you'll ever get promoted to a leadership or management position. Oftentimes, the best and most qualified people don't get promoted, and that's just a sad fact of life.
We're all complex, multi-dimensional people with many facets of our personalities. You may be an engineer who loves riding motorcycles, a technical writer who loves building sailboats and campers, an accountant who rides mountain bikes, a janitor who's the part-time pastor of a small church, a waitress who writes romance novels, a businessman who likes to volunteer at soup kitchens, a physician who plays guitar in the church band, or a scientist who sings in the community choir. The point is that you may only display a small part of who you are at work and that’s OK. In fact, that’s a big part of the points we’re making here. You aren’t changing who you are when you follow these ideas, you are just selecting which of your existing facets you will show at what time to further your career.
You may read these 10 things and decide that trying to get promoted is really not for you, and that's OK as not everyone is cut out for leadership or management positions. Sadly, the big reason we've seen people aspire to leadership or management positions is simply that they want more power and money. Ideally, it should be because you'd like to make a positive difference in your organization. Nevertheless, if you consistently follow these 10 things we suggest, you'll greatly increase your chances of getting that promotion you've always wanted, and you'll do it in an honest and ethical manner.