In a time of significant upheaval in corporate America, “climbing the corporate ladder” may be quite different than it was even a few years ago. Vast changes in the workplace have made corporations as we know them flatter and nimbler, with more employees located offsite than in office towers, many working part time. The very nature of work may have been altered forever by economic crisis, increased technology, and globalization.
At a time when the income disparity in the U.S. is among the highest in the world, when people are finding it difficult keeping jobs or finding good jobs, and when executives of large companies are under attack from all sides, how does one approach the idea of advancement?
Having worked for many years in the upper ranks of leadership, served on corporate boards, and reported to many different board chairs, presidents, and CEOs, I found that working in leadership roles requires not only special skills, but also different attitudes and approaches.
Here is a list of my “10 stepping stones” learned through personal experience that anyone interested in climbing the corporate ladder should internalize:
1. Always Do A Superior Job
The most obvious is to make it a top priority to excel in your current duties. I have seen many would-be climbers who are not as interested in their own job duties as they are in other positions; this is a mistake. The first CEO I reported to told me that the most important task was doing a superior job with the duties I was given. “If you do that,” he said, “the rest will soon fall into place.”
2. Evaluate New Ideas Carefully
Thinking out-of-the-box must be re-thought. Creative problem solving should be your best tool in a challenging business climate. However, a study published this year by Knowledge@Wharton (University of Pennsylvania) found that new ideas are often perceived negatively in the workplace, and that “those who think outside the box may be penalized for it.” Therefore, innovators should evaluate new ideas carefully for viability, communicate the benefits in terms that people can understand and rally around, and be willing to do the work. In short: respect the system and people that work within it. As Linda Hudson, CEO of BAE Systems commented in a recent interview, “It’s better to work with the system from the inside” than to fight it.
3. Advance For The Right Reasons
When opportunity knocks, look before you leap. Not all career advancements will be right for you, so before taking one, be sure you want it for the right reasons. Investigate some openings, but not all, and don’t make a pastime of it, losing your focus. In her article “Female CEOs: What It Takes to Climb the Corporate Ladder,” Tisa Silver comments that management positions are a good bet because “they show willingness to accept increasing responsibility and can foster leadership skills.”
4. Expand Your Circle Of Colleagues
Continually expand your “nexus” of friends, associates, and advisers. We learn from others’ experiences and perspectives, so it is vital to continuously keep in contact with others, never forgetting to thank them for whatever help they give you. Kraft CEO Irene Rosenfeld tells women in her organization to “look for someone to speak on your behalf — like a sponsor who can put your name in the right place at the right time.”
5. Develop Future Leaders
Lift a helping hand to those who show promise. I learned from several CEOs the importance of developing a pipeline of future leaders, something I have tried to do throughout my career. It is essential for success, and is also one of the most rewarding duties I have known: to watch and help others grow and succeed.
6. Put The Organization And Its People First, Not Yourself
The CEOs I admire most know this instinctively and practice it diligently. They have a laser-like focus on people and results, but never forget the importance of the role their associates play in the overall success of the enterprise.
7. Never Stop Learning
A 2009 Corporate Internet Executive Research Study found “CEOs are reporting that their jobs are now requiring a huge array of skills and expertise.” And on the list of top 10 women CEOs compiled by Tisa Silver, all 10 had their four-year degree and six had post-graduate degrees. Working on any type of advanced professional education or certificate program shows superiors that you are serious about your career and willing to go the extra mile for it.
8. Explore Other Parts Of Your Organization
“Shadow” human resource colleagues in meetings when appropriate, and spend some time in manufacturing or with sales and marketing staff in the field. By understanding other divisions, you are expanding your value to the firm and your overall knowledge of how the business works.
9. Develop Your Global Outlook
Moving up may well require relocation, and your chances increase with your willingness to accept a position that takes you far from home. Stephen Green, CEO at HSBC, defines a global attitude as “having a passion and curiosity about the world” and “a willingness to accept good ideas no matter where they come from.” He says “no one gets to the top at HSBC without having worked in more than one market,” and that their executives are hired with the expectation that they will be very mobile.
10. Keep A Positive Attitude Lastly, don’t allow yourself to be influenced by those who are petty, backstabbing, cruel, or worse. Remain positive in your focus and don’t lose your sense of humor.
A wise person once said, “Many an opportunity is lost because a man is out looking for four-leaf clovers.” Despite all the change and volatility in corporate America, never forget that career advancement remains inextricably linked to the basic principles of organizational performance.