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Forever destined to be a Senior Manager: Why you won’t get promoted to VP

By Christina Haxton (1390 words)
Posted in Management on December 26, 2013

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You’ve worked hard to be a strong contender for the promotion to fill the position as the newest Director or VP in your company.   You’ve listened to upper management who has given you what seems to be good, well-meaning advice.  You may have also read the employee manual that defines all twenty seven leadership competencies identified by HR and expert consultants specifically to be considered to fill the leadership role.  You likely have the company’s mission and vision statement framed on your office wall, strategically placed right behind your desk so all who enter your office can’t help but know you live and breathe “The Code.”


Here’s the bad news:  If you only listen to the spoken (or written) rules and are unaware that it is the “Unspoken Rules” that determine what it really takes to get promoted in your company, you may be passed up (again) for the next opportunity to advance your career.


Fair? Maybe not.  Real?  Absolutely.

If you are reading this, I want you to know this was originally written from my simple perspective as an Executive & Leadership Coach and not as an expert in overall corporate succession planning or have I ever been able to sit through an entire episode of “The Office”.  However, I’d like to offer you my perspective as a coach hired by a CEO for an ‘up-and-coming manager’ to assist people to achieve (and keep) their next promotion by developing their higher-level interpersonal and communication skills.  


I heard the rules with my own ears, as did my client.  Yet, when I pressed the CEO on what those behaviors would look like or sound like to upper management, the answers felt too vague for my comfort.  My non-corporate-perspective (and my gut) told me the spoken rules weren’t 100% trustworthy. 


Here are a few of the spoken rules my coaching clients, and probably you have been led to believe that you, too, would be considered for the promotion to VP if only you achieve the following goals:

  • “Meet your numbers again this year …”

  • “Get another stellar performance review …”

  • “Successfully implement corporate initiatives …”

  • “The results of your 360 indicate people love working for you and with you…”

  • “Accept and successfully achieve all 21 stretch assignments…”

  • “Get just a little more seasoned as a leader this year …”

Look familiar?  Let’s take this a step farther.  Odds are you, too, will follow the spoken rules, check off all of the boxes and BAM!  You will be blindsided when the announcement is made and you have been passed up once again.  It’s salt in the wound if this is the second or even third time you’ve been passed up.  At this point you dust off your CV and update your LinkedIn profile to say “seeking opportunities” hoping someone high up in your company sees your status and feels guilty – or you don’t get let go.


“What am I doing wrong?”  you may wonder.  You may even ask around, only to receive vague responses:

  • “You don’t have as much experience with X, next year’s initiative is (the winner).” 

  • “You need more leadership presence in the board room.”

  • “You could use a little improvement with communication skills.”  

Were these your “real” challenges or were you simply unaware of the “Unspoken Rules” to get the promotion in your company?


The “Unspoken Rules” of Engagement for Promote-ability

As I suspected, as in all systems, whether it’s your family relationship system, or your organizational relationship system, the Unspoken Rules are the rules that truly matter.  Only they aren’t written in the company manual and their evidence can only be ferreted out by asking better questions or having a mentor who is truly an insider.  


Otherwise, IMHBHO (In My Humble But Honest Observation) here are 18 Unspoken Rules You Need to Follow to Get (and Keep) your next promotion.  If you are a rising star and seeking to achieve your next promotion, consider what has to happen for you to learn and consistently demonstrate the following skills so that they are second nature now: 


  1. Have stronger and more visible leadership and interpersonal skills

  2. Quickly resolve team conflict before word that it even exists gets to senior management

  3. Have clear expectations of your team and be sure they have the tools to do their job

  4. Challenge your team members and avoid being known as “too soft” or “easy”

  5. Mentor your team members to set and achieve their career goals

  6. Identify stretch goals with each team member and a clear plan of action and accountability for achieving goals

  7. Communicate with your team members frequently and MBWA (Manage By Walking Around)

  8. Have the courage to show people you really care

  9. Demonstrate skills of being a strategic thinker in Board Meetings

  10. Add value to your position and to the company with confidence, not arrogance

  11. Ask tough questions of peers and superiors with curiosity and respect for experience and position

  12. Collaborate with others to seek and find solutions 

  13. Be a problem-finder, not just a problem-solver.  Spot the potential problems your peers or superiors do not yet see

  14. Don’t hoard information

  15. Demonstrate effective interpersonal skills to manage and motivate different personalities and diverse work teams

  16. Take initiative to resolve inefficiencies before they become bigger problems

  17. Ask brief yet relevant questions in meetings, in email or in person to clarify upper management’s goals, challenges and needs and find solutions that are in alignment with those in mind

  18. Choose, groom and mentor your potential successors early in your career (or you might just be too irreplaceable to promote).


Here’s to Your Promote-ability!

Successfully climbing the corporate ladder, maintaining your new position with ease and confidence, and avoiding the painful fall down all found a terrific resource (written by a succession planning guru in this area). I now give this resource to all of my coaching clients whose goal is to achieve and keep a promotion.


In “The Unwritten Rules: The Six Skills You Need to get Promoted to the Executive Level” John Beeson describes the unwritten rules companies use to make decisions about who gets promoted and whose careers stall out.  Beeson describes the six "selection factors" and skill sets you must develop to be seen as promotable and to lead effectively at the executive level:

  • Demonstrating strategic skills

  • Building a strong management team

  • Managing implementation

  • Exhibiting a capacity for innovation and change

  • Working across organizational boundaries

  • Projecting executive presence  

Whether you follow the expert’s recommendations or my observations, the bottom line is your successful promotion can only be achieved when you have the interpersonal, communication and systems-thinking skills you need to achieve success.  Be aware of the “Spoken Rules,” yet be sure the “Unspoken Rules” are what you follow!


What is the most important Unspoken Rule you have discovered in your climb?



{#/pub/images/Christina_Haxton.jpg}Written by Christina Haxton, MA LMFT
Speaker, Author & Executive Coach, Sustainable Leadership, Inc. Co-author, The Character-Based Leader: Instigating a leadership revolution one person at a time.  Christina assists entrepreneurs, managers and executives how to quickly build trust with their team and feel happier, highly successful and satisfied in their leadership role. Her clients learn how to use  neuroscience of emotional intelligence to make powerful team connections to become successful leaders, to achieve extraordinary peace of mind, begin to really love what they do again and have fun in the process!


Do you have a question for Christina?  Please visit our Senior Manager Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert 


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Here are some related articles you may be interested in:

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Curiosity: Asking the Right Questions to Motivate, Manage & Lead



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