Have you ever wondered why your peers keep getting promoted to very senior levels and you don’t? Most people have concluded that it can’t be their fault. After all, they work harder than everybody else, do all the important work, and bring unparalleled expertise. Therefore, if you’re not getting promoted, it’s obvious:
- Your manager is either biased against you or a fool. Or both.
- You don’t “play the game”.
- You’ve just been unlucky.
Those reasons are possible. There are incompetent, biased managers. Luck does play a significant role in finding the opportunity to get promoted.
And yet… You may also be sabotaging your own career advancement. As I spend more time evaluating senior talent and promotions, I’ve learned lessons that I wish I knew at the beginning of my career.
First, as you advance to more senior positions, how you’re perceived by your peers and management (those dreaded soft skills!) matters much more than technical excellence. Second, because perception matters so much, there are three mistakes people make to sabotage their careers. Third, you need to find the right ways to advertise yourself to senior leaders because you won’t advance without their support (perception, perception, perception).
Lesson 1: Perception Matters
As you become more senior in an organization, the individual talent and skills that led to your earlier promotions become less important. How often do you see a VP do anything concrete – code new features, troubleshoot a failed system, write marketing collateral, or close a customer deal?
As you become more senior, your job is to enable other people to get work done – remove roadblocks, point them in the right direction, teach them new skills, etc. What do those responsibilities have in common? They all involve guiding, influencing, and working with other people. You cannot code, design, debug, or spreadsheet (yes, I just used ‘spreadsheet’ as a verb) your way into making that happen. To make it to the next level, you need to become that mythical “leader”.
Leadership depends on perception. As the line goes, if nobody is following you, you’re not a leader. Some leaders are brilliant. Others connect well with people. Others are clever and devious. Regardless, you’re a leader only if people follow you. You’re a leader only if people perceive you as one.
Just as important, as job responsibilities become fuzzier, so do the criteria for promotion. After all, the executive team is asking themselves if they want you to join “their club”. Your peers are asking if they want to help you achieve your agenda. Once again, perceptions matter more than skills. To get that senior promotion, it is not sufficient to point to tangible measurements like lines of code written, system performance improvements, bugs fixed, or features added. Instead, the questions seem to boil down to two things:
- Do people follow you?
- Do the rest of us want to work with you?
You may think I’m being sarcastic, but if evaluators don’t ask those questions explicitly, they do so implicitly.
As you advance your career, things get more complicated – the skills you need, the expectations for the role, and how you get evaluated. While everybody can complain about how unfair the system is, there is a reason why it is this way. The requirements and metrics for senior positions are fuzzy at best. Thus, perception – of the team, of your peers, and of your executive team – matters.
Over the next two posts, we’ll talk about the most common types of self-sabotage and how best to position yourself to get noticed.
If people perceive you as a leader, you’re a leader; if they don’t…. you’re not.
Stephen Manley @makitadremel