A mentor's sage advice on job promotions: Who is in the room when the decision is made?

Many of us can look back at our career and recall a pivotal person that pushed us, saw our potential or simply opened a door that changed our career and our lives.  I have been blessed with amazing mentors having learned key lessons, and now being a mentor, I've discovered the beauty of a mentoring relationship is that we equally learn from one another. 

Early in my career, after being passed up for several promotions, I admit to falling into the trap that all promotions must be political.  It is simply about who you know, not what you contribute.

Prior to the now common practice of job postings, I believed I was a candidate for several director roles that had become available.  I would spend time preparing for what I hoped would be an interview and ensuring my results and contributions were promotion worthy.  I felt I was ready for the next role, with high hopes of accelerating my career to make a bigger impact, develop upcoming leaders and to make more money.  Surely, they would notice!

However, each time the promotion went to someone that surprised me or was not even on my radar screen.  That was the first, and now obvious hint that I had no idea how the game was played. Instead, each time I didn't get the nod, I dug in and worked harder and longer, improving my results to the top performer in every category.  

Still no promotion.  On the seventh opportunity or opening, I was convinced that my time had arrived, as the saying goes, good things come to those that wait.  Entering work early one morning, my boss greeted me saying I have some good news!  Finally, this is it!  I'm going to get that promotion!

Instead, he said, there is someone here I want you to meet.  I need you to train him and when he is finished, he will be your new boss.  Heartbroken and devasted, I responded rather unprofessionally, saying, "Are you kidding me?  When is it going to be my turn?"

His response, "Are you kidding me?  There is not a person in this organization that thinks you want to be promoted.  Yes, I learned the hard way.  Keeping my head down, no drama, just hard work and strong results was never going to get me noticed.  

Lesson number one:  Be an advocate for yourself.  

Women are so good at standing up for others at the expense of not speaking up on their own behalf.  One must get comfortable being open about their career goals.  

A mentor shared an easy way to start the conversation.  On a one-to-one with your boss, have the courage to state that you would like to move up in the organization and the role you are seeking.  Follow that with the experience and results that make you a good candidate and include the couple of areas you are strengthening to make yourself the best candidate.  Now look for alignment.  Ask specifically if those are indeed the correct areas you should be focusing on and if not, please share what he/she believes are necessary to close the gap and move up.  Clarity and support from your boss are key.

Lesson two:  Learn financial skills.

Math matters.  No matter what you are trying to achieve, you must have insight into what it costs and the return on investment.  The level of confidence you will gain knowing you understand and can comment on financial decisions is simply powerful.  It is worth every bit of time you invest and it will open doors.  A mentor once shared that once you build these skills, you will be surprised that many who have a seat at the table have far less knowledge than you do.  

Lesson three: Use your network.

This takes me back to where we began, are promotions political?  Was there an informal network where I wasn't a member?  I often said I had no interest or desire to be involved in office politics, but what I should have said, was I didn't want to be part of the drama.  If I replace the word politics with professional relationships and networks, I absolutely needed to join.

Taking my own advice from lesson number one and being an advocate for myself, I went to see the CPO, the head of HR to apply for an executive role.  His response caught me off guard.  "Well, that's interesting, let's talk about this.  Obviously, not the enthusiasm I was expecting.  His first question was "who is in the room when the decision is made?"  I quickly replied, the seven men on the senior team.  

"Okay, good, and how many of them will support you as their candidate?"

In other words, did I have a sponsor or advocate in the room who would either put my name in as a candidate or would speak up for me if my name were mentioned.

Knowing my results and contributions, I quickly said all 7.

He followed with, let me ask you this.  "In the past year, how many times have you met with any of them to seek counsel on anything you are working on?"

Well, none to be exact, I was able to complete the work within our department.

"Hmmm, was he response, again, not encouraging.

"So, let's look at this another way.  How often have any of them sought your insights on anything they have been working on, which of course impacts your team in the field?"

Well, actually none, I said, and followed with some lousy excuses like I was rarely there as my work required extensive travel, but quickly realized that had nothing to do with the reality that I simply had no network, relationship or contact with any of the decision makers.  

So of course, when he said, "let me ask you the question again, how many of them will support you as the candidate?"  I immediately said none.  And I was right.  Once again, I had to remind myself that keeping your head down is not how the game is played.  

The following day, I began scheduling time with the 7 senior team members, with important content on topics they were charged with as well as potential enhancements to the business.  I cannot begin to tell you how much I learned and I believe they did as well.  My ability to influence the strategic direction of the organization went up significantly, and you guessed it, made me the obvious candidate and selection for the next promotion.  I had strong relationships and a network of decision makers.

The sage advice from a mentor who helped me see the process from an entirely different perspective, was simply invaluable.  My only wish is that I found him earlier in my career.  I needed that key advice and honest feedback.

If your career advancement game plan has any elements that resemble mine, hoping that one day you will be noticed, I would encourage you to rethink your strategy.

Find a strong mentor that will guide you.  It is easier than you think!  Check out the GLEAM Network at GLEAMNetwork.net to find a great match and get started.

Carin Stutz is President and CEO of Native Foods. Read more about Carin on LinkedIn.