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The Unwritten Rules: The Six Skills You Need to Get Promoted to the Executive Level

ISBN: 978-0-470-58578-8
256 pages
October 2010, Jossey-Bass
US $27.95 Add to Cart

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Business & Finance, Jossey-Bass


October 01, 2010

The Unwritten Rules: The Six Skills You Need to Get Promoted to the Executive Level

NEW YORK CITY (October 25, 2010) – Given current economic conditions, aspiring executives are vying to be first off the bench for any promotions.  However, it’s unlikely that the winners will be those who simply focus on being exemplary in their jobs.  Rather, it will be those managers who can tease out deeper feedback – and learn which of six unspoken “core selection factors” they need to demonstrate more robustly.

In The Unwritten Rules: The Six Skills You Need to Get Promoted to the Executive Level (Jossey-Bass, October 2010), succession planning and organizational development expert John Beeson, Principal of Beeson Consulting, delineates how savvy, aspiring executives can get their careers unstuck by decoding the underlying variables most companies use – whether articulated or not – to decide who does and doesn’t get promoted to the top. 

“Talented managers are stymied by the lack of clarity about the steps needed to advance in their careers.  The factors they believe will make the difference are often just ‘table stakes’ – minimum requirements to even be considered as a candidate for promotion.  At the same time, companies struggle with the finding the right talent to fill executive-level positions,” said Mr. Beeson.  “This disconnection creates a dangerous gap between high-performing managers who fail to fulfill their career potential and companies that face a shortfall of qualified candidates to advance to the executive ranks.  But smart, aspiring leaders can leapfrog to success by being systematic about learning and following the unwritten rules.”

Companies Fail to Provide the “Feedback That Really Counts”

“Even in companies that devote considerable time to succession planning and talent development, the messages to aspiring executives are often vague and contradictory.  Bosses often find it hard to articulate what holds back otherwise top-performing managers.  And in other cases, superiors have identified the issues that stand in the way of promotion, but they hesitate to provide direct feedback for fear of de-motivating a valued manager the company doesn’t want to lose,” Mr. Beeson said.

“Even more frustrating,” he added, “Are the instances when someone is passed over for an opportunity and his or her boss or HR manager provides overly diplomatic and useless feedback.  Broad comments about ‘leadership’ or ‘communication’ skills can mask very specific underlying concerns.  When leaders avoid giving direct feedback, aspiring managers are left at a severe disadvantage in terms of managing their careers and accomplishing their career goals.  Unfortunately this is a situation managers face in most organizations.”

Because of Feedback That Falls Short, Managers Mistake “Table Stakes” for Silver Bullets

Too many managers spend their career energy focusing just on the basics for advancement, and never get to the heart of what will really prompt decision makers to move them into more senior, powerful positions.  Managers just focus on (a) displaying “non-negotiable capabilities,” such as a strong, consistent track record of performance, strong work ethic, integrity, character and a drive to lead; and (b) avoiding the de-selection factors that can derail a career.  They include weak interpersonal skills, a “toxic” personality, failure to understand the true scope of the business and putting self-interests before the company.

“While paying attention to the non-negotiables and de-selection factors is important, they only get you to the starting line,” said Mr. Beeson.  “What really matters are the much deeper, more complex factors.  But most managers who are looking to move up don’t even consider these variables or even know they exist – in large part because feedback has fallen short.

But Smart Managers Learn How to Tease Out the Constructive Feedback That Will Help Get Them to the Executive Level

The onus is on aspiring executives to take the initiative and do the hard work to extract deeper feedback.   Only then can they know what skills and abilities they need to develop and demonstrate to decision-makers in order to change widely-held perceptions that can hold them back.  Serious aspirants need to understand:

  1. Who to Ask – While direct supervisors are a good place to start, managers should try to contact the highest-level executives who are knowledgeable about their work.  By clearly communicating the goals of these conversations – gaining additional insight into career development possibilities – managers can begin to piece together the commons threads that relate to the core capabilities.
  2. How to Ask – Managers need to watch for “code words” and phrases that can mask important issues, while asking probing questions that get behind the polite conversation.  For example, being told that they need to “become a more impactful team player” can indicate a need to improve their collaborative problem solving skills in interactions with peers in other parts of the company. 
  3. How to Respond - People tend to react to criticism immediately, and often defensively, but changing people’s deeply-held perceptions takes time and persistence.  Managers need to let the dust settle and objectively assess the feedback received while concentrating on the one or two issues that are the most critical to address.

Standout Managers Who Move Up Learn About the Six Core Selection Factors Behind C-Suite Placement Decisions

Those who go the extra mile for real feedback learn which of the six core selection factors they need to hone and demonstrate. All are important, but the process of teasing out feedback helps a manager identify those few skills where they need to devote their efforts in order to breed confidence on the part of those who make executive placement decisions for their organization.  “Then the hard part comes – figuring out how to develop, demonstrate or compensate for the lack of that skill,” said Mr. Beeson.

Factor 1:  Demonstrating Strategic Skills

“To get to the top, you need to convince superiors that you have ‘strategic gears’,” said Mr. Beeson.  “But some managers complain, and rightly so, that only high-level executives are called upon to create strategy in their organizations.  So how do managers display skills in this area if devising strategy is not expected of them? A further complication is that members of the senior executive team may define ‘strategy’ in different terms – to different executives it can mean corporate strategy, strategy for an operating group or strategy for a functional department like Finance or IT.”

“To cut through these dilemmas, mangers need to focus on the key questions in the minds of decision makers they need to answer in the affirmative,” said Mr. Beeson.  Regardless of how they define strategy, those who make promotional decisions to the executive level typically look for managers who can:

  • Establish and maintain a consistent set of priorities – as opposed to chasing the initiative of the day.
  • Think in a big picture, long-term way – as opposed to focusing exclusively on short-term results or a narrow slice of the business.
  • Anticipate and respond to marketplace trends that are critical to the company’s future success.
  • Generate or lead the creation of a new, winning strategy – as opposed to skillfully implementing a strategy developed by someone else.
  • Convey a strategic vision in a way that inspires and motivates the organization to act.

“Some portion of strategic thinking ability is innate,” added Mr. Beeson. “You can’t change that ‘hardwiring,’ but rather than lose sleep over your innate abilities, focus on those elements of strategic thinking you can control: educating yourself about strategy; taking steps to ‘feed’ your strategic intelligence; broadening your perspective on the business and the industry; and developing your ability to communicate a strategic vision in a compelling way.”

Factor 2: Building Strong Management Teams

Why is it that some managers with mediocre people skills get promoted while others who truly care about their people end up sitting on the sideline?  The managers who get promoted may not necessarily be kinder and gentler. They may fall short on certain aspects of people management. But these managers who move up focus on the one key “lever” that is critical to building a strong management team: surrounding themselves with talented staff members who, collectively, create a strong team.

“For executives who make decisions about promotions to the C-suite level, talent is king. They look for managers with a ‘nose for talent’ and the determination to build a strong team of highly-skilled staff,” said Mr. Beeson. Aspirants should know that decision makers look carefully at whether C-level candidates can:

  •  Identify the range of skills required within the team and attract people with that kind of talent.
  • Objectively evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of staff members and determine the assignments that allow people to perform and develop.
  • Create an adequate level clarity within the team about roles and responsibilities and an adequate level of team cohesion and morale.

“As you begin to take steps to build a strong management team, mangers need to ask one more important question,” said Mr. Beeson.  “Do your direct reports’ skills allow you to focus on the business’s most critical issues and play the value-added role you’ve envisioned for yourself?”

Factor 3: Managing Implementation

Those who make decisions about promotions to the C-suite level start by looking at a person’s track record for producing consistent results. Then, they look for evidence of whether this individual can:

  • Focus the attention of the organization on the timely implementation of strategic priorities and initiatives.
  • Take large goals and break them down into discrete action steps with clearly-defined accountabilities.
  • Put in place the roles, processes, and follow-up mechanisms that ensure timely execution.
  • Ensure the predictable implementation of major priorities and initiatives without undue personal involvement at too low a level of detail.

“Most successful managers first make their mark as doers who complete projects by being centrally involved in working with others,” said Mr. Beeson. “But to progress to the executive level, managers need to demonstrate their ability to build their team’s capacity for implementation and rely on others to handle many – but not all – of the specific details.

Factor 4: The Capacity for Innovation and Change

Managing innovation and change has always been an important executive responsibility. However, in recent years the pace of technological, competitive and marketplace change has increased the premium placed on executives who can lead innovation – while still producing consistent and predictable results.

To succeed at the C-suite level, an executive needs to demonstrate the ability to conceive and lead the implementation of quantum-leap change. As a result, aspiring managers need to show that they can:

  • Identify significant changes to existing ways of doing business in order to drive increased performance.
  • Take necessary business and organizational risks – as opposed to playing it safe and sticking with tried and true solutions.
  • Create an environment that fosters innovation and creative thinking throughout the organization.
  • Push the organization out of its comfort zone when required – even if that prompts resistance on the part of those wedded to the status quo.

“The personal creativity of successful senior leaders varies considerably as does how they go about introducing change within their organizations,” said Mr. Beeson. “Nevertheless, the ability to foster innovation and create a climate for change are common factors among those who advance to the C-suite.”

Factor 5: Getting Things Done Across Organizational Boundaries

“Many managers believe that an executive team should be characterized by ‘one for all and all for one.’ That’s a laudable goal but something rarely accomplished. Rather, leadership teams are usually characterized by some degree of internal tension arising from two main sources: the leaders’ personal ambitions and the competing objectives of different groups that, in most organizations, lead to friction between executives,” Mr. Beeson said.

“Whatever value companies place on collaboration, the ability to work productively with others across organizational lines—what I call lateral management—continues to grow in importance for a number of reasons: the popularity of matrix-type organization structures where people report to two or even more managers, the growing prevalence of joint ventures and business alliances, the proliferation of centralized groups that provide service to multiple parts of the organization, and the need to drive change quickly across the organization,” he added.

Accordingly, aspiring managers should:

  • Build positive working relationships with peers and co-workers and exercise the influence, persuasion and negotiation skills required to get things done across organization borders.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of how the organization works and how decisions are made in order to gain support for their positions.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of other groups’ goals and objectives and anticipate the impact that new strategies and initiatives will have on peers and their organizations.
  • Manage conflict by addressing rather than avoiding it; working with others to resolve it; and achieving, if at all possible, mutually acceptable solutions.

“The knowledge you display about how the organization works and your ability to get your plans and recommendations endorsed by senior management also contribute to your impact in the eyes of those who make executive placement decisions,” Mr. Beeson said.

Factor 6: Projecting Executive Presence

Of the six core selection factors, executive presence is the most intuitive and visceral. Often senior-level decision makers have difficulty pinning down exactly what executive presence is and claim that it’s mostly a gut feeling on their part.  At its core executive presence is displaying the self-confidence required to succeed at a higher level of leadership, specifically, the ability to:

  • Take control of difficult, even unpredictable situations.
  • Make tough decisions in a timely way.
  • Engage constructively with other talented and strong-willed members of the executive team.

“Although executive presence is tough to articulate, understanding how senior-level decision makers define executive presence, why it’s important and what you need to do to display it is critical,” Mr. Beeson said. “I’ve found that people with very different personalities and styles can project executive presence even though their personal ‘packages’—their dress, stature, and carriage—may be very different.”

“By being keenly attuned to the six core skills involved in executive-level selection decisions, managers can avoid falling into the common trap of believing that simply producing strong results in their current job guarantees advancement,” said Mr. Beeson.  “Managers may not be able to make the ideal job open up when they want it, but by understanding the unwritten rules, they can put themselves in a position to be a top candidate to advance when the next opportunity to move to the executive level becomes available,” said Mr. Beeson.