How to Become a Promotable Professional

By: Jeffrey Cufaude

It's a challenging time to grow your career, but with the right approach, you can get ahead in today's workplace. Consider this advice from association leaders to help position yourself as a promotable professional.

Once upon a time, simply doing well in your current job got you noticed as a potentially desirable candidate for a promotion. Put inyour time, do good work, exceed expectations, and you'd likely be on your way to the C-suite.

Today? Not so much. Or perhaps more appropriately stated, not so little. As Ladd Smith, CAE, Ph.D., president of the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, Inc., notes, "Performance matters … as gauged by the association's management, the membership, and external stakeholders."

To be deemed a promotable professional, effectively executing your present position's responsibilities is a minimum expectation, not a differentiator. So what will make you stand out from your peers as worthy of additional responsibilities or more significant positions of leadership?

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In Good to Great, author Jim Collins offers a five-level hierarchy of executive capabilities (Click image on right to enlarge.). The pyramid shape illustrates the number of people likely to effectively perform the responsibilities corresponding to each of the five levels. In almost any organization, you'll find a large number of individuals who are highly capable in their respective positions, but a smaller number of people able to perform well as competent managers or effective leaders.

The qualities individuals must possess to be successful at each of Collins' levels parallel the key themes and insights that more than a dozen association professionals offered on what is required to be a promotable professional.

Succeed with the soft stuff that some find hard. You excel in your own functional responsibilities, but do you play well with others? You should respond with a resounding yes if you want to move from level one to level two, and that requires mastery of the soft skills. "By far, I think one of the most important qualities when deciding to promote someone relates to emotional intelligence," says Lola Pugliese, CAE, vice president, finance and member services, for the Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute.

Emotionally intelligent individuals possess strong self-awareness, are able to manage their own emotions and their reactions to others, demonstrate empathy and truly understand colleagues' perspectives, and handle difficult emotions and conflict with professionalism and maturity.

Leadership and career strategy coach Pegotty Cooper suggests this latter quality presents itself as being "willing to engage readily with others even when their opinions and viewpoints are radically different." Given that individuals who advance in an association are more likely to work with a broader range of internal and external stakeholders, the capacity to engage effectively with diverse viewpoints becomes critical.

Promotable professionals see others' perspectives and feedback not as hard and fast truths to either accept or reject, but as useful insights into how their efforts and styles are perceived. They incorporate this understanding and modulate how they do their work to more effectively interact alongside others different from them.

Joel Albizo, CAE, executive director of the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards, suggests this is essential: "To grow and be promoted one necessarily has to tackle and succeed at more complex and ambiguous challenges. This can make you uncomfortable, and there is a need to rely on external support."

Embrace and contribute to the bigger picture. It's one thing to perform the tasks of your position proficiently. But it's quite another thing to perform them in a manner that demonstrates an understanding of your organization's larger strategic direction. "I lean toward promoting staff who are focused on our mission and what's best for the organization, rather than employees who are more inwardly focused," says Stacy Brungardt, CAE, executive director of the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine.

Does Onward Always Mean Upward?

Historically, a promotion has almost always meant advancing to the next level in the organizational hierarchy. But with flatter organizational structures and individuals redefining what they see as a desirable career path, that may no longer be the case. For some, the career ladder is being replaced by a career lattice.

Cathy Benko, vice chairwoman and chief talent officer for Deloitte LLP, spoke about this model in the November 8, 2008, edition of The New York Times. Benko noted, "While a so-called plateau or lateral move, or a move downward, was once viewed as the end of the line, today's employees are more apt to reach a comfortable level of responsibility and compensation and stay there for a while to balance work and life demands. Later, many resume their upward climb—or not."

These lateral moves can still mean more responsibility, new opportunities, and even additional compensation. They may help you further establish your capacity and credibility for a significant step up the career ladder at a later time when you find that more desirable.

One useful lens is available at A simple interactive tool, based on the book Mass Career Customization (coauthored by Benko), allows you to chart the "sine wave" of your career's ups and downs.

But if your interests and talents are varied, how do you know whether or not the career you are contemplating is the right one for you? Jim Collins again might offer some insight. While the Hedgehog Concept in Good to Great is most often discussed in organizational terms, Collins suggests it also is relevant for individuals.

To identify your personal Hedgehog Concept, ask yourself:

1. What am I absolutely passionate about?
2. What will people pay me to do? What drives my economic engine?
3. What am I genetically encoded to do and could become best in class in doing?

The intersection of your response to these three questions may be the ideal career destination for you to pursue. The challenge Collins notes is that often we are well-compensated and praised for work that we are passionate about and that people will pay us to do. Those rewards sometimes prevent us from sufficiently exploring the critical third question: Is this what I could become best in class for doing?

Taking an interest in and making a contribution to this proverbial bigger picture is seen as a critical quality for individuals who wish to advance. And the big picture also includes the priorities of other departments and the needs of your colleagues. Promotable professionals read and learn everything about what other departments within their association do and never fail to offer help, according to Sherrie Cathcart, CAE, executive director, American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.

As professionals supervise others, the nature of their big picture changes as well. We've historically defined management as "doing things right" and leadership as "doing the right thing." While the distinction should not be taken to an extreme, it does reflect a fundamental shift in focus as one moves from level three to level four in the Collins framework. Individuals with management responsibilities are more inwardly focused, ensuring their team's projects and tasks are performed efficiently, on time, and in a way that's consistent with specified objectives. Their long-term thinking often involves projecting how current efforts will extend into the future.

Professionals charged primarily with leadership responsibilities are more externally connected, interacting with a broader and more diverse range of stakeholders from both inside and outside the profession or industry and scanning the larger environment for emerging trends and opportunities. Rather than seeing the future as a minor variation or logical extension of the present, they see it as an invention that may require fresh thinking and innovative solutions very different than current organizational norms. Where a manager might identify ways to improve current efforts, the leader identifies the next new thing that needs to be embraced.

In many organizations, particularly those with smaller staffs, the leader-manager distinctions aren't separated into two different levels in the hierarchy. People have to embrace both in a hybrid role. The ability to do just that makes you promotable, according to Elizabeth Langston, CAE, director of exam development for the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork: "I want someone who thinks of new ideas while paying attention to the little everyday things. Sometimes it is hard to see the forest through the trees, but it also is hard to see each tree in the forest."

Take initiative and demonstrate accountability. "Self-starter. Someone who identifies projects and programs that will benefit members that are consistent with our goals and objectives." That's what Mike Grubb, CAE, president and CEO of Southern Gas Association, seeks in a promotable professional. A quality frequently identified by other association leaders, demonstrating initiative can take many forms: offering to help colleagues when you haven't been asked to do so, seeking out new information for an existing effort, linking one of your projects to other departments' work, developing relationships that enable everyone to accomplish more, identifying ways to enhance operational efficiencies, and helping solve problems others are experiencing. The old adage is that opportunity knocks. Promotable professionals don't wait for that to happen; they actively seek ways to make a useful contribution.

In whatever work they do, these individuals demonstrate a high level of accountability, a critical quality in the eyes of Alberta Hultman, CAE, executive director and CEO of USFN—America's Mortgage Banking Attorneys: "Being responsible, dependable, and professional is not for sissies or dweebs. Being bright and creative is great, but it is critical that the CEO have people s/he can depend on to deliver. Those are the people who get promoted to higher positions."

Love to learn and take responsibility for doing so. The more you know, the greater the likelihood that you can be a reliable and consistent performer. Saying that professionals must be lifelong learners is almost a cliché, but that doesn't diminish the fact that it's the truth. Promotable professionals seek learning that will help them master their core responsibilities and pursue opportunities to acquire the new understanding and skills they may need in future positions.

"Whether it is reading books, attending classes, or pursuing a degree, it is so important to find ways to learn and experience new ways to grow and develop. But your professional growth must be intentional," says Donna Heavener, CAE, association executive with the Cobb Association of Realtors, in Cobb County, Georgia. "It took me a long time to realize how important this is."

In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell echoes the importance of disciplined intention to get better at what you do. He suggests that true superstars have intentionally practiced the fundamentals of their profession over and over again to achieve a high level of mastery and confidence. Doing so builds muscle memory you can almost reflexively recall and execute on demand. It is this exhaustive practice (Gladwell mentions the oft-cited "10,000 hours" rule) that converts a mere talent into a reliable strength.

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Know that it's not about you. When contemplating your own career aspirations and how you can achieve them, it's easy to get so self-obsessed that it becomes all about the positions you want and the recognition you seek. Turn too far inward and you may unintentionally impede the advancement you desire, particularly if you aspire to a CEO position.

Writing about Level 5 executives, Jim Collins offers an observation that may be equally true for professionals at any level of an organization who wish to advance: "Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves into the larger goal of building a great company. It's not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves."

While making your career intentions explicit can help support your desire to be promoted, perhaps the efforts most likely to gain your advancement are the ones that support and help advance others' efforts. Focus less on what's next for you and more on what's next and necessary for your organization—and how you can contribute to making it happen. When you promote opportunities and efforts that help achieve a greater good, the good that you will achieve personally and professionally will be greater. 

Perhaps best known for designing and facilitating ASAE & The Center's Future Leaders Conference from 1998-2007, Jeffrey Cufaude strives to advance the association community through his writing, speaking, and facilitating. Email: [email protected]

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