Are you promotable? by Jeffrey Cufaude
This article is reproduced here with permission from author Jeffrey Cufaude, the ASAE and the Centre for Association Leadership. While it relates to career progression in the not-for-profit sector in the US, many of the issues also resonate with career advancement strategies in both the public and private sectors in the Australian context.
If you want to get ahead in your career, it’s not enough to just work hard and hope for the best. Jeffrey Cufaude details what it really takes to be a promotable professional in today’s workplace …
To be deemed a promotable professional, effectively executing your present position’s responsibilities is a minimum expectation, not a differentiator. So what will make you stand out from your peers as worthy of additional responsibilities or more significant positions of leadership?
In Good to Great, author Jim Collins offers a five-level hierarchy of executive capabilities.
Figure 1 – Good to Great’s Levels of Leadership
“Builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”
You engage individuals’ commitment and contributions to a greater vision and better results.
You effectively and efficiently organise people and other resources toward predetermined objectives.
Contributing Team Members
You interact well with others and effectively contrbiute to group objectives.
Highly Capabile Individuals
You do your job well.
The qualities individuals must possess to be successful at each of Collins’ levels parallel the key themes and insights that more than a dozen association professionals offered on what is required to be a promotable professional.
Succeed with the soft stuff that some find hard. You excel in your own functional responsibilities, but do you play well with others? You should respond with a resounding yes if you want to move from level one to level two, and that requires mastery of the soft skills. “By far, I think one of the most important qualities when deciding to promote someone relates to emotional intelligence,” says Lola Pugliese, CAE vice president, finance and member services, for the Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute.
Emotionally intelligent individuals possess strong self-awareness, are able to manage their own emotions and their reactions to others, demonstrate empathy and truly understand colleagues’ perspectives, and handle difficult emotions and conflict with professionalism and maturity.
Leadership and career strategy coach Pegotty Cooper suggests this latter quality presents itself as being “willing to engage readily with others even when their opinions and viewpoints are radically different.” Given that individuals who advance in an association are more likely to work with a broad range of internal and external stakeholders, the capacity to engage effectively with diverse viewpoints becomes critical.
Promotable professionals see others’ perspectives and feedback not as hard and fast truths to either accept or reject but as useful insights into how their efforts and styles are perceived. They incorporate this understanding and modulate how they do their work to more effectively interact alongside others different from them.
Joel Albizo, CAE executive director of the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards, suggests this is essential: “To grow and be promoted one necessarily has to tackle and succeed at more complex and ambiguous challenges. This can make you uncomfortable, and there is a need to rely on external support.”
Embrace and contribute to the bigger picture. It’s one thing to perform the tasks of your position proficiently. But it’s quite another thing to perform them in a manner that demonstrates an understanding of your organisation’s larger strategic direction. “I lean toward promoting staff who are focused on our mission and what’s best for the organisation, rather than employees who are more inwardly focused,” says Stacy Brungardt, CAE executive director of the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine.
Taking an interest in and making a contribution to this proverbial bigger picture is seen as a critical quality for individuals who wish to advance. And the big picture also includes the priorities of other departments and the needs of your colleagues. Promotable professionals read and learn everything about what other departments within their association do and never fail to offer help, according to Sherrie Cathcart, CAE executive director, American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.
As professionals supervise others, the nature of their big picture changes as well. We’ve historically defined management as “doing things right” and leadership as “doing the right thing.” While the distinction should not be taken to an extreme, it does reflect a fundamental shift in focus as one moves from level three to level four in the Collins framework. Individuals with management responsibilities are more inwardly focused, ensuring their team’s projects and tasks are performed efficiently, on time, and in a way that’s consistent with specified objectives. Their long-term thinking often involves projecting how current efforts will extend into the future.
Professionals charged primarily with leadership responsibilities are more externally connected, interacting with a broader and more diverse range of stakeholders from both inside and outside the profession or industry and scanning the larger environment for emerging trends and opportunities. Rather than seeing the future as a minor variation or logical extension of the present, they see it as an invention that may require fresh thinking and innovative solutions very different than current organisational norms. Where a manager might identify ways to improve current efforts, the leader identifies the next new thing that needs to be embraced.
In many organisations, particularly those with smaller staffs, the leader-manager distinctions aren’t separated into two different levels in the hierarchy. People have to embrace both in an hybrid role. The ability to do just that makes you promotable, according to Elizabeth Lanston, CAE director of exam development for the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork: “I want someone who thinks of new ideas while paying attention to the little everyday things. Sometimes it is hard to see the forest through the trees, but it also is hard to see each tree in the forest.”
Take initiative and demonstrate accountability. “Self-starter. Someone who identifies projects and programs that will benefit members that are consistent with our goals and objectives.” That’s what Mike Grubb, CAE president and CEO of Southern Gas Association, seeks in a promotable professional. A quality frequently identified by other association leaders, demonstrating initiative can take many forms: offering to help colleagues when you haven’t been asked to do so, seeking out new information for an existing effort, linking one of your projects to other departments’ work, developing relationships that enable everyone to accomplish more, identifying ways to enhance operational efficiencies, and helping solve problems others are experiencing. The old adage is that opportunity knocks. Promotable professionals don’t wait for that to happen; they actively seek ways to make a useful contribution.
In whatever work they do, these individuals demonstrate a high level of accountability, a critical quality in the eyes of Alberta Hultman, CAE executive director and CEO of USFN – America’s Mortgage Banking Attorneys: “Being responsible, dependable, and professional is not for sissies or dweebs. Being bright and creative is great, but it is critical that the CEO have people s/he can depend on to deliver. Those are the people who get promoted to higher positions.”
Love to learn and take responsibility for doing so. The more you know, the greater the likelihood that you can be a reliable and consistent performer. Saying that professionals must be life-long learners is almost a cliché, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s the truth. Promotable professionals seek learning that will help them master their core responsibilities and pursue opportunities to acquire the new understanding and skills they may need in future positions.
“Whether it is reading books, attending classes, or pursuing a degree, it is so important to find ways to learn and experience new ways to grow and develop. But your professional growth must be intentional,” says Donna Heavener, CAE association executive with the Cobb Association of Realtors, In Cobb County, Georgia. “It took me a long time to realise how important this is.”
In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell echoes the importance of disciplined intention to get better at what you do. He suggests that true superstars have intentionally practiced the fundamentals of their profession over and over again to achieve a high level of mastery and confidence. Doing so builds muscle memory you can almost reflexively recall and execute on demand. It is this exhaustive practice (Gladwell mentions the oft-cited “10,000 hours” rule) that converts a mere talent into a reliable strength.
Know that it’s not about you. When contemplating your own career aspirations and how you can achieve them, it’s easy to get so self-obsessed that it becomes all about the positions you want and the recognition you seek. Turn too far inward and you may unintentionally impede the advancement you desire, particularly if you aspire to a CEO position.
Writing about Level 5 executives, Jim Collins offers an observation that may be equally true for professionals at any level of an organisation who wish to advance: “Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed they are incredibly ambitious – but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”
While making your career intentions explicit can help support your desire to be promoted, perhaps the efforts most likely to gain your advancement are the ones that support and help advance others’ efforts. Focus less on what’s next for you and more on what’s next and necessary for your organisation – and how you can contribute to making it happen. When you promote opportunities and efforts that help achieve a greater good, the good that you will achieve personally and professionally will be greater.
Does onward always mean upward?
Historically, a promotion has almost always meant advancing to the next level in the organisational hierarchy. But with flatter organisational structures and individuals redefining what they see as a desirable career path, that may no longer be the case. For some, the career ladder is being replaced by a career lattice.
Cathy Benko, vice chairwoman and chief talent officer for Deloitte LLP, spoke about this model in the November 8, 2008 edition of the New York Times. Benko noted, “While a so-called plateau or lateral move, or a move downward, was once viewed as the end of the line, today’s employees are more apt to reach a comfortable level of responsibility and compensation and stay there for a while to balance work and life demands. Later, many resume their upward climb – or not.”
These lateral moves can still mean more responsibility, new opportunities and even additional compensation. They may help you further establish your capacity and credibility for a significant step up the career ladder at a later time when you find that more desirable.
One useful lens is available at www.masscareercustomization.com/interactive.html. A simple interactive tool, based on the book Mass Career Customization (co-authored by Benko), allows you to chart the “sine wave” of your career’s ups and downs.
But if your interests and talents are varied, how do you know whether or not the career you are contemplating is the right one of you? Jim Collins again might offer some insight. While the Hedgehog Concept in Good to Great is most often discussed in organisational terms, Collins suggests it also is relevant for individuals.
To identify your personal Hedgehog Concept, ask yourself:
- What am I absolutely passionate about?
- What will people pay me to do? What drives my economic engine?
- What am I genetically encoded to do and could become best in class in doing?
The intersection of your response to these three questions may be the ideal career destination for you to pursue. The challenge Collins notes is that often we are well-compensated and praised for work that we are passionate about and that people will pay us to do. Those rewards sometimes prevent us from sufficiently exploring the critical third question: Is this what I could become best in class for doing?
Reprinted with permission, copyright May 2010, ASAE & The Center, Washington, DC.