Strong academic qualifications and solid work experience can help you get your foot in the door, but people who climb the ladder and have a successful career are defined by what they do in the workplace, rather than what they achieved on paper.
So, how can you get promoted? From trying out new projects to taking on responsibility and moving into management positions, five business experts give their best-practice tips for climbing the career ladder.
1. Make sure people get to know the real you
Cynthia Stoddard, CIO at Adobe, says professionals trying to get to the top shouldn’t walk before they run. Her advice? Try loads of things out during the earlier part of your career and make sure other people get to know the real you.
“Be broad and learn, and then figure out exactly what you like and what you don’t like,” she says. “There are certain things throughout my career that I’ve tried and didn’t like. So, volunteer for different assignments in the business and get to know what’s out there.”
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Stoddard says these experiences will give you a taste of the areas that are enjoyable. Most crucially of all, use these projects to make sure the people you work with get to know you personally. Make sure your managers understand your rounded experiences.
“We tend to get stereotyped by our job title, the work we do, or the project we just finished,” she says. “But there’s a lot within an individual that doesn’t come out in that title, such as our backgrounds and what we like to read or what we like to do. Those personal experiences make you a different person, too.”
Stoddard says individuals who market themselves and share their interests will be put forward for interesting initiatives: “Have people get to know you as an individual deeply, share your experiences, and talk about what excites you.”
2. Develop your expertise at every opportunity
Once you’ve found a specialism, Emma Frost, director of innovation at London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), says your future success is likely to be defined by delivering great results in similar or connected areas.
Frost started working in community development. Although she’s now a head of innovation, she says that engaging with local people and organisations remains her key passion – and the work she undertakes at LLDC is about delivering great results for the communities she serves.
Read more from this special report: Tech skills – Upgrade your job
Finding a purpose is likely to define your success, too: “Working out what fires you up is a very healthy exercise. Never step too far away from the thing that energises you,” she says.
However, don’t get stuck in a rut – once you’re motivated, make sure you keep testing yourself and developing your skill set. Just because you’ve developed an expertise doesn’t mean you’re the expert. Everyone can always learn more, she says.
“Every year, think about the thing you’re going to layer up in terms of new skills or new challenges. You need to challenge yourself proactively and think through, ‘What do I want to do? What do I want to learn next? How do I keep this fresh? How do I keep learning?’ So, adopting a constant learning culture and knowing how and when to push yourself outside your comfort zone is key.”
3. Get a reputation for delivering great results
“Be the person who makes stuff happen,” says Matthew Lawson, chief digital officer at Ribble Cycles, who believes senior managers respond well to individuals with a can-do attitude.
“Make it easy for those at the top. People like it when you deliver something – whether that’s a report, a technical innovation or a new idea. People want to pat you on the back for delivering things and making a difference.”
As you gain a reputation for delivering successful projects, your enthusiasm is likely to affect others: “Those people tend to rise to the top because they bring others along for the ride and champion people’s ideas. They celebrate the outputs rather than the inputs. That has been the backbone of every single role I’ve held.”
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Dawson thinks back to the early stage of his career. He took on 27 different roles while developing experience in web development and marketing at online retailer AO. While his job title didn’t change 27 times, he was helping to define and then run new activities within the business on an ongoing basis
“For example, I was one of the first people to provide a definition of conversion optimisation for the site. It hadn’t been a role before, but we needed to figure out how to rank higher on Google,” he says.
“So, within three months, I had read more on how to be good at SEO than I did during my entire degree. My experience suggests you need to just grab things and make it happen.”
4. Recognise success is dependent on the work of others
Delivering great results will show you’re capable of more senior roles. But as you start to receive credit from people at the top, don’t forget the other people who’ve helped you along the way.
Rather than basking in their success, Supernus Pharmaceuticals IT manager Alejandro Massuet says people who rise to the top remember that business is a team sport.
“I truly believe in being an advocate for teamwork,” he says. “So, I think when things are properly implemented, and there is success, it’s important I don’t take all the credit – instead, we take credit as a team. That’s my model.”
Massuet says people who get promoted make sure that the noise surrounding projects is minimised and that their team can focus on the core objectives that need to be achieved.
“I always try to connect all the things that need to have value and are aligned to our vision. I try to minimise things that are not valuable. I always try to get everybody involved in every project or initiative that I take on,” he says.
5. Listen to people and help them meet their objectives
As you start to take on more responsibility for projects, Eduardo Plastino, director of the Centre for the Future of Work at Cognizant, says the most successful leaders are defined by an ability to communicate and listen.
For professionals who want to climb the career ladder, his firm’s research suggests two leadership traits matter more than most: flexibility (42%) and honesty (39%).
Flexible leadership doesn’t mean switching course sharply, says Plastino. Instead, flexibility is about staying true to the company’s objectives and meeting them in a way that your team enjoys: “It means thinking about how the business’s goals can be met in a way that satisfies your people.”
Honesty, meanwhile, is about ensuring that everyone in the team is aware of what they’re supposed to achieve and how they’re going to get there. While some information is sensitive, Plastino says people who climb the ladder keep people informed about broader strategic goals.
“It’s about feeling the environment and challenging yourself on a regular basis: ‘Am I doing what I could do or what I should do? Am I listening to people? Do I understand what the people who report to me need to do their jobs, too?’ If you want to be successful, you have to listen – that’s one of the most important lessons.”
Read more from this special report: Tech skills – Upgrade your job