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Climbing the Corporate Ladder

Apr 21, 2024

Remember your first job? It might have been washing dishes somewhere, or collecting carts at the grocery store, or replacing tried-on items at the clothing store. Whatever the job, it was probably characterized by a low amount of responsibility.

If put your career progression on a chart, it might look something like this:

Then, you got a promotion. Maybe there were so many clothing items to be put away that the store hired someone else to help, and you got put in charge as a supervisor. If you did well there you might have been promoted again to shift lead, with even more responsibilities:

For some people, this pattern continues for a while. You perform well, you are given more responsibility, and (hopefully) more money. There might not be room for advancement at your current company, so when an opportunity presents itself elsewhere, you jump at it.

At some point though, you feel stuck. You feel passed over for promotions, or opportunities stop coming your way, or maybe you even tried to apply for a couple positions that would represent that promotion you are looking for and didn’t make the cut. Your career starts to feel like this:

If you can’t seem to make the next jump, you might wonder – what is it that makes the difference in how quickly somebody is promoted? It can be tempting to dismiss the promotion of others with statements like “She’s younger and better-looking than me, of course they promoted her!” or “He hangs out with the manager after work, that’s the only reason he got the job!”

When somebody is chosen for advancement, the people making that decision almost always genuinely believe that their choice was the one that had the greatest chance of making the company (and them) more successful. Nobody ever thinks “We sure had a good time hanging out after work – I think I’m gonna make that guy my assistant manager. He’s probably gonna suck at his job and make me look bad, but boy did we have a good time!”.

It’s certainly the case that sometimes people are passed over when a promotion is deserved – but in general our career advancement roughly follows our skill level.

We learn and improve in spurts based on our experiences, so sometimes we might be overdue for advancement and sometimes we might be promoted into something where we are expected to grow into it. The path might look like this:

As you go up the ladder, you will realize that the required skills change with each promotion. If you are a software developer who jumps to the management track, your ability to write good software is of decreasing importance as you advance. Management becomes the important skill, but even then the type of management needs to evolve. Mentoring and managing an engineer as a team lead is very different from managing a group of managers – and if you are running a division with hundreds of developers and managers managing managers, then the job will be even more different.

If you feel stuck, there’s a good chance that your skills look like this relative to your advancement:

Many people are happy where they are and don’t feel any desire to go any further. Perhaps the stress isn’t worth it. If so, a sincere congratulations is in order since it’s true that “The art of being happy is to be satisfied with what you have”.

If you feel deserving of more and want to work to achieve that though, it’s worth understanding how this leadership and management skillset is viewed.

Take a look at this chart. I’m breaking “skill” down into two areas, which I’m referring to as responsibility and communication. The higher you get up the corporate ladder, the more important these are. If somebody improves over time in both these areas, their growth might look something like this:

Here, responsibility is how well we understand and perform what is expected of us, and communication is how well we talk about it. It might feel like an over-simplification to break a leadership skillset down into just these two areas, but it almost always ends up being one of these two that keeps someone from advancing.

Take for example somebody who is good at communication, but lacking in responsibility. Their skill progression might look like this:

We’ve all seen bosses who are really good working with people, but maybe not so great at execution. You might wonder what they do all day besides “network” on the golf course. They have often been Peter-principled into their current role, and even though they could schmooze their way to where they are now they won’t be able to go further.

Responsibility means a lot of things, and any combination of them might be lacking. Some of these might include:

  • How well do you understand what you are supposed to do? A surprising number of leaders and managers just don’t really know exactly what they should be doing.
  • As you work your way up the chain, there are people under you who also need to know what they are supposed to do. Do they know their responsibilities?
  • Are you actually responsible and able to execute on what is expected of you? Can others trust you to do what is needed? Are your efforts moving the company forward? Are you guiding your team members or your organization in a way that moves the company forward?
  • Are you always busy, but not actually able to point to specifics of how you are moving the company forward? It’s incredibly common for people to be working, working, working, but not actually accomplishing anything very useful.

Ultimately responsibility comes down to knowing what you need to do to help the company be successful, and doing it.

Let’s look at a different case – someone in the opposite situation:

Somebody whose skillset looks like this might feel particularly frustrated. This represents the all-too-common case of “But I am doing everything I am supposed to, why doesn’t anybody recognize my efforts?” As often as not, the answer is “Because nobody actually knows!”.

Especially for somebody just starting their career, the role of different types of communication can be missed. Nobody will disagree that communication is important – but many people don’t realize just how many different types of communication are needed. Other people are busy, they have their own concerns, and sometimes they need to be spoon-fed information about what you are working on and what you are doing.

If you are executing perfectly but nobody knows it, you won’t be recognized for your efforts – and the company can’t take your efforts and successes into consideration while trying to move forward.

Common objections to this type of communication can be “Well, people should just see the results”, or “I’m not very good at tooting my own horn”. These might be valid objections, but the fact remains that those who assume that the results of their labors won’t be seen naturally and who are comfortable tooting their own horn will generally advance further up the corporate ladder.

There’s lots of types of communication needed from a leader:

  • Communicating your understanding of the expectations people have of you. Many people aren’t very good at communicating these, and closing the loop on your side is an important technique.
  • Talking about what you are working on, so it can be adjusted if needed. Few things are worse than getting to the end of a project that you thought you understood perfectly, just to realize the person on the other side of it wasn’t on the same page.
  • Showing what you have accomplished. Most of the time he things that you and your team are working on aren’t self-evident. It doesn’t need to be approached as self-promotion, it’s just good teamwork to let others around you know what has been done so that they can plan around it.
  • Downstream communication is just as important. Those working under you need to be able to understand as much of the big picture as necessary, and in this case more is often more.

Here’s an important fact that isn’t maybe intuitive to the parking lot cart-gather at the bottom of the corporate ladder: The higher up you go, the less coaching and teaching you will get. On your first promotion, you probably had people giving you detailed instructions on how to supervise your team. Clear up at the top though, pretty much nobody will tell you how to be CEO – you either know how to do the job, or you don’t.

To make that jump, or to operate as effectively as possible where you already are, the powers of observation are what will get you ahead. What sorts of behaviors does leadership reward? Who are your peers on the fast track, and what do they do differently?

There are books to read, seminars to go to, and mentors who will help you on your way. In the end though, your ability to understand and execute on your responsibilities and then communicate all around those responsibilities will be what defines how far up that ladder you go.

Happy climbing!