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In your workplace there are people behind closed doors right now, looking for someone to promote or develop for a larger role. When your name comes up, you want one of them to say, "[Your name] is someone we're watching. We need a half dozen more like [your name]. [Your name] could be a leader in any organization—real CEO material."
An endorsement from the right person at the right time can float you to the top. On the other hand, it takes only one comment such as these to sink you: "She lies." "He doesn't listen." "She blames others." "He demeans his team." A lot of organizations have formal guidelines for promoting people. All organizations have informal methods for evaluating and advancing people. My conversations with top executives continually confirm that the informal trumps the formal nearly every time.
Regardless of the evaluation method your employer uses, you can increase your chances of rising to the very top by doing the following 10 things from the very beginning.
1. Engage yourself in the good kind of ambition. It's okay to be ambitious. Do it with integrity and optimism. You get only one reputation in life. Without a good one, the rest is insignificant. There is no win, no advantage, no victory worth even a blemish on your integrity.
2. Develop extraordinary competence in your specialty. You need substance. Produce outstanding results that add major value in one of the big areas of your business. Do it on time, under budget, and without a big hassle. You also need style. It shows executive immaturity to think that substance is sufficient. Exhibit a style in dealing with people that enables, helps, and guides them to achieve good results, whether they're part of your team or not.
3. Show self-confidence. No one is confident about everything. High-potential people are confident in at least one big thing and preferably more. With confidence, you make decisions sooner because achievement—not fear of failure—is the driving force behind your actions. Surround yourself with people who are better than you. Hire and develop the right people because you aren't jealous of their abilities. To acquire more confidence, do something every day that's scary for you.
4. Make a huge investment in yourself. You don't have a chance of being CEO without lots of information. Be a constant learner. A good thing to learn is global awareness. Ask for a foreign assignment if your company has them. Recruit a diverse team. Learn a second language. Watch Squawk Australia, Business Russia, and Bloomberg Asia (Bloomberg Asia is owned by the same company that owns Bloomberg BusinessWeek). Most cable or satellite feeds have these shows and many more.
5. Be an active communicator. Ask questions and volunteer information, then communicate some more. Get feedback. Miscommunication occurs when you assume you were heard and understood. Be aware of what you're saying—and what you say about yourself when you are or aren't talking. When you speak, go for the crispest, simplest, least-elegant language possible. If the other person doesn't understand you, it's your fault.
6. Choose your bosses carefully. Manage your own destiny. Try to get a good boss or get out from under a bad boss.Meanwhile, be willing to work for a boss you don't like and still make the boss look good and smart. Don't bounce around, but move every 2Â½ years to a broader role with more complex responsibilities.
7. Stand out, yet still fit in. To be promoted, you have to be visible to a wide range of people. It's very easy to become invisible. When that happens, headhunters don't call, bosses don't promote, and mentors don't respond. Don't be afraid to be out front. Things happen when you're visible. People seek you out because they've heard about you and your capabilities. Just be sure to bring others out front, too.
8. Be mentored and mentor others. Learn from those who have preceded you. No single mentor will fit all your needs or be available every time you need advice. Develop multiple mentoring friendships that fit certain times and situations. You want mentors who've seen more and done more and are more than a page ahead of you in the instruction manual. Regardless of where you are in your career, be a mentor to others. Do unto others as you are lucky enough to have done for you. One note, though: Mentoring is not a place for pitching your product or turning the conversation into a therapy session or a job interview.
9. Keep your home and personal life in check. Get lots done at work, then leave. You can have a sense of balance in your home and work life, regardless of your job title—if you want it. It's your choice. Think through what's important to you (e.g., family, exercise, church, community, politics, etc.) and give each of those areas some of your time every day.
10. Develop leadership abilities. Being promoted doesn't require an additional degree, moving to another company or city, losing weight, changing your hair color, or getting a face-lift. It does require specific concrete, creative, set-yourself-apart-from-the-pack action in effectively dealing with a diverse group of people. You'll get pulled up from above and pushed up from below when you: a) lead as others need, not as you need; b) campaign for others, not just yourself, and share credit; c) think "we," not "me;" d) focus on the business as a whole, not just your work; e) listen quick and long; f) make choices minute by minute that improve you, your team, and your company; g) admit mistakes and fix them, then keep going; h) spark ambitions in others who are under your direct control, along with those who aren't; and i) develop at least two to three people who can take your job.
Will doing all these things make you a CEO in a decade's time? Maybe. Maybe not. They will advance your career. They'll ensure your success as you build your role and your importance in the portion of your life devoted to work. Best of all, you'll have a sense of control over your career destiny—and control over yourself, which is something no one can ever take away from you.