Being Obsessed About Your Next Promotion Sure Won't Get You There

By: Cindy Wahler

Clients often ask how to advance within an organization. They look around and try to figure out the magic formula.

There is a formula of sorts, although it sure isn't magic. Let me tell you about one of my clients. This client has been a senior manager for over 15 years. He has vested those 15 years in pursuit of a VP title with little success. He has a strong pedigree with a history of Ivy League schools, the ability to speak and conduct business in 5 languages and is a strong supporter of charitable causes.

He stays late at the office most nights, works weekends, and has forfeited vacation on more than one occasion. He has strong bench strength with the ability to churn out huge volumes of work. When "special projects" require resources he is often the chosen one.

A consistent track record of delivering with the willingness to go the extra mile has garnered this leader much respect. So you might ask why he hasn't been able to advance? He is regarded as one of the most trusted, reliable and dependable employees in the organisation. He believes he should be rewarded by being promoted to VP.

I will tell you this with certainty. Speak to any executive, read any interview with an executive, listen to executives who give motivational speeches, you will learn and hear a common theme. These talented leaders by and large did not ask for a promotion. They did not go to their supervisors requesting, "When will you make me a VP?" One of my executive clients said this. She stated, "I respect my employees who offer up on their own accord unsolicited ideas or solutions on how they can add value. Then they show it. It is not up to me as their boss to tell them how to advance or what they need to do in order to advance."

This executive was bang on. Asking for a promotion comes across as being obsessed with a senior title. The need to feel elevated or prestigious is all about you and little to do with the enterprise. Of course this rubs senior leaders the wrong way.

Accomplished senior leaders make a difference not by necessarily absorbing all the work or putting in excessive hours, but rather by stepping back and solving problems in unique ways. This also includes building teams that can carry out the new or innovative mission. Leading an organisation is also about getting employees to see they can do much more than the narrow scope of their role. Creating a groundswell of motivation and inspiration pushes an organisation to do great things and stay ahead of the curve.

As a leader ask yourself whether you do these things, and if you don't then I recommend you start to think less about becoming a VP and a lot more about how you can help position your organisation for greatness. Contributing in this way will certainly line you up for a well-deserved promotion.

Despite no magic formula here's the key to your advancement. If you are aspirational for the organisation and demonstrate a track record of wins you will be deserving of recognition and a promotion.

Ask your executive for frank advice regarding to what extent you are truly making a difference. If you are just keeping the lights on, you not only have more homework but a different kind of homework.

Aspirations for yourself must be embedded within the value set and goals of the overall enterprise.

If you can balance and integrate your ambition with your organisation's, you've got it made.

Cindy Wahler, Ph.D., C.Psych. is a leadership consultant specializing in executive coaching and talent management. She can be contacted at