Why is it some people continue to get promoted while others do not? In studying leaders for over 30 years, I’ve found a few differentiators stand out. Of course competence and job skills matter, but other factors can often make the difference.
Collaborative, Motivated Attitude and Approach
Attitude is critical. You can teach skills, but you can’t teach attitude. A person with the attitude for success is self-motivated to do more, to be better, to make an impact, and to contribute to a positive working environment. Instead of complaining or gossiping, that person offers solutions and assistance when problems arise.
For example, when his team members complained about the difficulty of entering customer data into a new system, Adam asked for details. The fields were too short, they told him, so long names got truncated making the output difficult to understand. Realizing a solution was easy but needed to be implemented when the team wasn’t using the system, Adam asked his IT contact to come in over the weekend to revise the system’s code and test the new program with him. When the team came in on Monday, they were happy to see the problem was solved.
Many people seem to enjoy grumbling about their jobs, but those with the attitude for success seek to improve, not knock, the workplace. They take it upon themselves to understand the problem, seek solutions, and help implement them.
Having an entrepreneurial approach to your job—thinking about how your work impacts others beyond your immediate area of responsibility—is another hallmark of a successful approach. Is there something you can do to add value and make work easier for your colleagues, other teams, and your boss? It can be as simple as identifying who else might benefit from the information you have. We know we shouldn’t let our leaders get blind-sided, but the same goes for our coworkers. And while some might say, “it’s not my problem,” it may be a perfect opportunity to demonstrate your interest in helping the organization—not just your team or your career—advance.
Finally, taking the perspective of successful people, you will welcome new opportunities as a chance to learn and grow, whether it’s undertaking a new project, leading a project team, or even moving to a new department. Doing something new isn’t always comfortable and may feel risky. But there are ways to lessen the risk, like engaging a support network, attending training and development seminars, and seeking the advice of a mentor. Fear may be unavoidable and having confidence in your abilities and resources is the right attitude if you want to move up.
The ability to communicate in a way that is clear and engaging is a skill that’s useful beyond the workplace and one that can always be honed. Successful leaders are excellent communicators with an almost intuitive understanding of their audience. Whether they are writing an email, making a presentation, or speaking one-on-one, they think about what matters to the audience, how the audience prefers to receive information, and how to make it easy for the audience to use the information. And they make sure not to confuse their audience with unfamiliar acronyms or jargon.
A big part of understanding the audience involves listening and asking questions. By sharpening your listening skills, you will hear not just facts and data but emotions and viewpoints that will help you better position your communication in terms of what the audience cares about. Being curious is also important because it shows you are interested in what others think. Good communicators ask questions without assuming they already know the answers, and they use those answers to improve their communications, not as an opportunity to demonstrate their own knowledge.
The right mode of communication varies depending on the audience and the message. A lengthy email may not be necessary if a brief phone call or visit will suffice. But sometimes an email is required if it’s important to create a paper trail, such as documenting a decision or required actions. Some people do not want to be interrupted with phone calls, no matter how brief. In that case, a succinct voice mail message is the right mode. If the system allows it, listen to your message before you send it. If you rambled on and on and buried the point of your call, rerecord the message.
Whether communicating in writing or presenting, be clear about what your audience needs to know and take time to polish your message. It may feel good to dash off a memo or “wing” a presentation, but if it creates more questions than it answers, you wasted your time as well as your audience’s. A quote often attributed to Mark Twain—“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”—captures the idea that it takes more time to create a message that’s brief and to the point than one that’s long and unfocused. The burden is on the communicator to take the extra time, but the payoff is that the audience is more likely to receive and act on the message.
Work products that are accurate, grammatically correct, and formatted to be easily understood are a reflection of the author’s pride in his skill and care for his customers. Some may argue that typos, bad grammar, and incorrect punctuation are no big deal. But details matter. People may not be able to assess your knowledge or technical skills but they can make judgments based on what they see in front of them. A document that is hard to read and contains typos can make people doubt your expertise and commitment to quality.
When you make a request be sure to spell out key elements: what specifically is being requested, to whom you are making the request, what the conditions of satisfaction are, and when you need the request completed. It’s also helpful to provide sufficient context—why the request is necessary—so the person understands the broader objective that’s driving your request.
Having good relationships at work not only makes the workplace more pleasant; it also helps you get to know your co-workers and what they care about. And, when you are interested in others and offer to help them, they tend to reciprocate. Caring about your boss and what matters to your leaders is equally important. Leaders don’t often get positive feedback—they tend to hear when things aren’t working or when people want something from them. Be alert to things your leaders do well and thank them.
Establishing and nurturing relationships with people in other key areas of your organization is also important because no one operates on an island. You’re probably going to need help from IT or HR at some point, and having a prior relationship with people in those areas can facilitate their support. When your system is down and you’re on a deadline and desperately need IT help, it’s too late to start building that relationship.
Admittedly, building relationships takes time, but it’s worth the investment even if you can’t envision how the relationship might be beneficial in the future. Taking a proactive approach to relationship building, Carrie arranged to get together with her IT contact over coffee once a month so they could update each other on changes in their respective departments. That’s how Carrie learned before her peers that IT was planning to switch vendors, and she was able to weigh in on which vendors and platforms would be best for her team.
Ability to Influence
Carrie’s established relationship resulted in an opportunity to influence an important decision. But the ability to influence is more than making a case for your ideas. Influence stems from the three previous success factors—a collaborative attitude, effective communications, and solid relationships—that together help you know what others care about and explain how your idea can support their goals. And through your existing relationships with others, you can determine the best way to appeal to them. For example, people who are analytical will not be excited by your vision until you ground it in facts and data. For others, an emotional connection is needed to get them on board. Being flexible in influence styles improves your ability to affect others.
The ability to influence is an important criterion for promotion. As you advance, you often find you have less control than you expected but you’re in a better position to influence. That’s because most higher-level decisions affect multiple departments and are rarely the purview of just one leader. By developing strong influence skills, your ideas will get traction and you’ll demonstrate your ability to succeed at higher levels in the organization.
Be the job you aspire to
These days, we all have a personal brand; through social media, professional reputation and work interactions we communicate who we are and what we value. If you are interested in moving up, cultivate your brand with an eye toward where you want to be rather than where you are now. Whatever level, role, or function you aspire to, having a motivated attitude, effective communication skills, strong relationships, and the ability to influence will support you on every step up the ladder.