How to Best Position Yourself for Executive Promotion

You feel like you’ve done everything to get that big promotion.  You’ve worked hard at developing yourself, you’ve taken on critical and challenging roles and done well.  You’ve built a solid network of supporters across different levels of the organization.  You have a few impressive accomplishments to hang your hat on.  You’ve been noticed.  Now what?  Sit around and wait, and hope for the best?  Is there anything more you can do personally to get yourself over the hump?

Let’s understand how the process typically works.  When it happens, who’s involved, how the final decisions are made, and what outside influences can impact it.

Step 1 – Express your ambition

To even be part of the executive promotion process and get the chance, you need to have been upfront with your ambition.  Don’t assume, just because you work hard and get good results, that your name will be entered into this process.  There are many people who have no desire for executive leadership.  If you don’t speak up, you might be unwittingly lumped into this category.  Talk to your manager occasionally about your goals so they fully understand.  Mention it during any skip-level one-on-one meetings you may have.  Make sure the HR partner in your organization has a feel for what you want career-wise.  You don’t necessarily want to make this a constant topic in all your discussions…it can get annoying and overbearing, and be counterproductive.  But you have to get the message out so that you are not ignored. 

Be on the lookout for any formal development opportunities that exist.  Like mentoring programs with more senior leaders.  Or the opportunity to be part of a leadership program that gives you some degree of extra visibility or notoriety.  It’s all about starting early, making yourself part of the conversation, and building your momentum and your brand.  

Step 2 – Enter the Funnel

In most companies of any size, there is a fairly set cycle for executive promotions.  Once or maybe twice per year, a group of new executives is ordained.  Very rarely does this happen sporadically or unexpectedly throughout the year.  The process of promotions usually starts months ahead of an actual decision and is most often facilitated by HR in large companies.  There are rollups of requests that come from every corner of the company.  The “top of the funnel” in marketing speak. Almost every organization will have someone they want to put forward, but the realistic candidates that go into the funnel will have already appeared on succession planning lists, or perhaps have participated in a structured leadership development program at some point.  Very rarely, if ever, does an unknown candidate just pop up out of the blue.  The person needs to have been vetted and verified in some way.  

As the candidates are identified and the process continues, every leader wants to get their candidate over the hump, and it takes work and commitment on their part.  There might be forms to fill out, support calls to be made, and even formal presentations to committees of peers.  Many candidates won’t make it out of these initial rounds.  Maybe the leader doesn’t have the confidence or capability to push it through.  Maybe the candidate has some sort of “stain” on an otherwise solid resume…a bad employee survey, or a recent miss of a performance target.  The most common roadblock at this point is other executives that are part of the process do not support the promotion.  

Picture this…your manager, who really likes you, is presenting to eight of their peers, all of whom also have an employee they are trying to get promoted.  Not everyone will succeed.  Because of numbers limits, it is a zero-sum game.  In that situation, it kills your momentum and candidacy if nobody else in the room speaks up on your behalf.  Or worse, if one or more people raise an objection.  At that point, you are sunk.  

The lesson here is, of course, you need your manager to advocate for you. And of course, the final decision maker needs to know you.  But you also have to have support from key players in adjacent organizations along the way who may have a say-so as to whether you make it out of the early rounds.  They don’t necessarily need to be your champion.  But they at least need to be neutral.  So nurture those relationships over time, in order to avoid getting hit with shrapnel at the last minute.

Step 3 – The Final Approval

Executive promotions are expensive.  Bigger salaries, bigger bonuses, more stock, and more perks ranging from first-class airfare to company cars to nicer offices.  So companies need to keep a tight reign, or else expenses can get out of control pretty quickly.  That is why the approval of executive promotion decisions is typically centralized, with a very senior leader having access to all of the requests across large swaths of the company, and having final authority over who makes it and when.  

Obviously, you need to make sure you know this key decision-maker, depending on the structure of your company.  Maybe it’s the CEO, maybe it’s the President of your division…or in a really large organization, perhaps a level lower.  Make sure that person knows you, long before the time comes for a potential promotion.  It doesn’t mean you need a deep relationship, but they need to know who you are and what you do.  Although the final approval will be somewhat dependent on the input they get from HR leaders, other executives, and their informal network…many times, if a choice needs to be made, they’ll go with familiarity…who they know.  It’s only human.  

The Waiting Game

Every company makes these executive promotion decisions slightly differently.  You might work for a company that has 1000 employees or 100,000 employees, but the basics are the same.  There will be some sort of structured promotion process.  It will involve your manager, the input and opinions of several colleagues, and a final decision-maker.  Understand when this happens in your company, how it happens, and who matters.  Also know that there are so many variables that can affect the outcome in the short term, some of which you simply can’t control.  Budget challenges, growth issues, pending acquisitions, efficiency projects…you name it.   For example, lots of companies actually employ an executive quota…an artificial limit as to how many executives are allowed at any given time.  It’s a blunt instrument and can be frustrating when you feel like you are deserving.  You’re basically the victim of a numbers game.  But it is also an effective way to manage costs.  If the business is on a solid growth trajectory and flush with cash, many times these controls can be loosened.  But if performance is less than expected and the company is missing financial targets, the clamps go on.  

Bottom line, you just have to do everything you can to put yourself in position for executive promotion and wait for the timing to be right.  Ninety-nine percent of the time if you deserve it, it will happen for you…just maybe not exactly on the timeline you want.  Don’t panic.  Be patient.  Keep doing the right things. And enjoy the journey.

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