Modern Middle Manager
Primarily my musings on the practical application of technology and management principles at a financial services company.
How to Get Promoted...Here, Anyway

Monday, February 17, 2003  

I have several books on career advancement. I read periodicals, online webzines, et al, regarding career development. Yet the only advice I can give is anecdotal, with the added caveat that your mileage may vary.

I was first hired on in 1997 as a Systems Administrator, co-equal with another fellow. We worked a number of long hours on projects large and small. He was tight with some of the senior managers and I, of course, was a blank slate to them. My first goal, aside from executing at a high level, was to ingratiate myself with both my boss (the Chief Operating Officer) and the other senior managers. Some senior managers were influential, others were not. I targeted the heads of the business units (Wealth Management and Employee Benefits) and the CEO. My boss and I got along well -- he was very similar to other people I'd met and learned to manage in the past.

In 1998 this work paid off as both my co-worker and I were promoted to Assistant Vice President. It was then I realized our boss was deliberately putting us in competition with each other, something I still consider eminently unhealthy and wouldn't practice on my own staff. Also at that time I was made supervisor of two developers and my co-worker was allowed to hire an assistant systems administrator. We split our primary duties and continued to jockey for position. Over time I believe I began to win some of the popularity contests with influential members of senior management, but I was also pissing off some of the others because I was getting more closely identified with my boss (remember to understand the alliances within senior management!). I played "not to lose" rather than "to win" and probably lost some ground because of it.

My big break came in 2000. Although we continued to jockey for position and our wins and losses with senior management were roughly even, my co-worker had an unfortunate professional lapse. This took him permanently out of the running and established me as the department head with a new title -- Vice President. As I look back, I marvel at the speed with which the department was reorganized. In retrospect, I had probably won over my boss pretty completely for those three years but not influenced the other senior managers enough to lessen my co-worker's influence. His error destroyed his reputation with the others and my boss moved swiftly to have me installed as department head. Naturally the benefits I received made me exceedingly loyal to him.

In 2001 my boss was terminated and the CEO replaced. My reporting relationship was changed to a senior manager with whom I did not get along, to the point where I asked the CEO if I could report to him. That request was refused. I prepared to be terminated myself, and wonder how that image of my bare office in the first couple of weeks looked to my new boss. I still don't know if that was a good idea or not, although I believe he made extra effort to make sure I was comfortable in those first few weeks. It was a bit like detente. I was given my marching orders, however -- to make certain his projects always came first and that downtime for his systems was unacceptable. My goal was to execute.

After about a year I realized I probably would not be outsourced or replaced. Although still wary of the new boss (who was eventually promoted to the COO position), I continued to execute for him whether I agreed with the priority or not. In return, I continued to have a pretty free hand with my department. In the background, senior management was changing again. We gained, lost and gained again an Executive Vice President, retired the head of EB and Human Resources, terminated the head of Sales, added a controller and a general counsel. I worked to establish a relationship with the general counsel and I work with the controller often because of my budgeting requirements. We appear to get along amiably. The CEO seems to have a good impression of me even if he admits to not having (nor desiring) an understanding of technology or what my department does for the organization. The new HR director is a friend of mine. I'm getting along with just about every department head and both regional vice presidents.

Feeling like I'm more comfortable and secure in this environment, I propose a new title to my boss -- CTO. A year later, after I've been dropping some hints here and there about my desire for it, I find that I'm promoted. Ta-da.

How would I distill this into a recipe for promotion? Again, it's only my experience I'm describing here, but here's my list:

1. Execution and loyalty. If my boss hadn't put forth the proposal, no one else would have. Making him happy, he was willing to take the time to get my request presented in a way that made a positive outcome likely. I made him happy by achieving his goals.

2. Understand who makes the decision. The way this company works, the CEO is the only one making the decision. He apparently gave it a quick "yea." That wouldn't have happened if I hadn't demonstrated loyalty and effectiveness to the organization and promoted a positive reputation with the people who influence the CEO.

3. Understand who is influencing the decisionmaker(s). I try to accomplish that by always being available to senior managers, treating their issues with concern, meeting regularly with department heads and branch managers and when they ask me what they can do for me I tell them to put a good word in for me and my department with senior management. Positive remarks from the rank and file and department heads filter up in our company -- it's small enough to do so.

4. A little quid pro quo goes a long way. While I'll never be accused of out and out bribing anyone, I make sure that senior management has the best equipment, the nicest 17" LCD monitors, the PDA's they want but never use. Why? To make them feel special and recognize their position. Even in a small company there are several who want deference and respect. The little things make them feel that much better than the rest of us. It's a small price to pay to get what I want.

So that's my playbook. Execution, loyalty, networking and graft.

posted by Henry Jenkins | 2/17/2003 02:54:00 PM

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