Moving up in your career can be more difficult the higher up the career ladder you rise. At lower levels, progression is almost a given with solid effort and time, but something changes at the higher levels.
*Originally published in December 2018. Updated for 2020.
This could be explained by a relatively smaller number of high-level positions, but those positions do exist for those that are ready to fill them. What is often difficult is to get yourself ready to make that move.
Get in the mindset
One of the hardest things about making the transition to the higher levels of an organisation can be letting go of the day job. You’re in the position of feeling able to apply for a higher-level role because you’ve done well in your current one, but now you need to put aside a lot of what you’ve learned and learn new skills. If you’re successful, you’ll be much less hands-on with the content of the job, and will instead focus on strategy and high-level decision making based on information brought to you by others. The key is to recognise this early on, so you are clear about where you’re going and what is going to be expected of you. Ask yourself: ‘What don’t I know that I don’t know?’ What does success look like at this higher level?
Timing is key
Experts suggest those thinking about making the move to a higher level should start planning and preparing six to 12 months in advance, whether they want to advance within their existing company or move to a new one. Use this time to close the gap between the responsibilities you have in your current role, and those that will be required of you at the higher level. Learn as much as you can about your organisation, its vision, its business model and its finances. Understand how decisions are made and establish alliances with key decision makers and their influencers. Keep an eye on trends in your industry, and consider investing in any relevant training and development courses to plug gaps in your knowledge or skills.
Make your intentions known
If you want to step up to the next rung on the ladder in your current organisation, make sure your bosses know that you are keen and that they should consider you for higher-level positions. Be careful not to be aggressive, or to put a time limit on your promotion, but make clear your loyalty to your company.
Look around you at those in the positions you aspire to. Usually, they are natural leaders, well-known and well-liked within the organisation. If you want to move up to their level, you will need to demonstrate the same attributes. Sign up to lead on a big project at work, and another in your community, so you become known for more than just doing the day job. If you want to move to a higher-level position at another company, consider writing a blog or getting an article published, and promoting it through LinkedIn and other channels as a great way to capture the attention of head-hunters.
Finding a mentor who can teach you more about the role you aspire to, introduce you to the right people and be a sounding board for your ideas is a good way to start getting yourself prepared for a higher-level role. In any new role, though, you’ll depend on those working at the levels below you to find the answers you are expected to provide, so don’t neglect your existing relationships in your quest for the top job. It’s also important to network with other people, both within your organisation and outside of it, to gain a wider perspective.
Master the art of delegation
Many middle managers neglect to trust their team, and end up doing much of their subordinates’ work themselves, or at the very least checking in more than is needed. This approach simply will not work at higher level, where you are required to lead complex projects spanning multiple groups and departments. Effective delegation is key, and the time to master this skill is now. Build a culture of trust and open feedback, and don’t be harsh when mistakes are made.
Answer the big question
Finally, if you want to make it into the major league, you’ll need to be able to answer the question that your peers will be silently asking themselves of you: “What does this person bring to our organisation that is new, useful and will contribute to our success?” Once you know that, you are ready to move up to the next level.