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by R. Karl Hebenstreit | April 01, 2009


Ever have a boss whose rise to his or her current position of authority mystified you? Or been on an interview and discovered the person on the other end of the desk (the person in whom that corporation has entrusted the ability to make a fair and just hiring decision based upon the competencies needed to do the job) is a biased and unprofessional baboon? (I apologize in advance to all the primate lovers out there.)

A group of job seekers from various industries and myriad professions recently pondered this mystery during one of their weekly meetings with me. Their individual experiences and conclusions were surprisingly similar despite the disparity in their backgrounds. And the consensus was that, as with the job-search process, the promotion process is also heavily dependent on networking and personal relationships.

The Polyannas among us probably subscribe to the theory that if someone works hard, develops him- or herself appropriately for the next step, and bides his or her time until a higher-level position becomes available, then the best-skilled person for the job will be promoted into it. It is a very Disney ideal. If this were true, how do such losers without technical expertise or social skills (but with plenty of bad decision-making abilities) end up in such positions of power and authority and make our lives miserable?

The reality is that people are promoted to their highest level of incompetence. They get there through recognition of their hard work as individual contributors over the years (with the expectation that they have also accumulated the requisite social and management skills) and/or because of whom they know. Because it?s not just what you know; whom you know is sometimes even more important. A person?s network includes people in higher-level positions (either formal or informal mentors) who are advocates for his/her advancement. Sometimes, people are promoted to support positions of those mentors/advocates and inherit those support positions as their mentors move around. As long as the corporate results are met (or clever excuses are created for explaining or blaming why they were not), the prot?g?s will remain in place. And once they?re entrenched, upper management isn?t going to be too keen on admitting that it has made an embarrassing staffing error.

So the message to take away from this lesson in promotions is that you must position yourself to become promotion-worthy by:

-Honing your current skills and identifying future skills and competencies for success (including formal education and people management)

-Working on high-visibility assignments and not being afraid of tooting your own horn about your accomplishments

-Allying yourself with a higher-level, successful and well-regarded mentor

-Building and maintaining your network to take advantage of promotional opportunities.

And when you finally get your big break, do your best to make sure that you are a fair and just boss who balances technical knowledge with excellent people management skills. Be a role model so that other up-and-comers will have faith in the promotion system of your company. Be remembered as one of the rare good bosses that people have in their careers, rather than something less.


Filed Under: Salary & Benefits

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