When people seek coaching they (or their organisation) are very often concerned with getting on. How do they take the next step for promotion?

Well, to answer that question it would be good to know how managers actually go about making those decisions. In answering that I’d really like to thank whomever it was at IBM who, years ago, decided they wanted to know the same thing.

They wanted to know how managers make promotion decisions. Specifically how people come to their attention. Those are the questions that IBM had in mind when they carried out research into what differentiated people such that they get noticed. Being noticed meant being promoted, seconded to another unit, or a valuable sideways move. The results were enlightening. There were three key criteria that made a difference.

The first is Technical Competency to perform the ‘task’, i.e. how good are you at performing the technical aspects of your role?

The second is Behavioural Style, particularly communication – How do you come over as you perform your role. How clear and articulate are you? How well do you establish rapport and influence?

The third is Visibility and Reputation – Do the people who can influence your career progress know who you are and what you’ve been achieving? What do they think of you and how do they talk about you?

Firstly, take a guess at what the percentage split is in terms of importance across these three? 

  • Technical Competency 10%
  • Behavioural Style 30%
  • Visibility and Reputation 60%

With Visibility and Reputation being so high it’s no surprise that many engagements have this as a focus area. In order to consider you for promotion, people have to know, or at least remember, that you’re there. Ideally, you also want them to be up to date with your experience. If the last time you worked with them was three years ago, it’s of three years ago that they remember, not of now with your increased capabilities.

Once they know you’re there, then reputation is critical. People only promote people they can trust. It’s their own reputation and success they’re risking after all.

Here’s one exercise on that you may find useful.

Where does your reputation exist and where is it created? It exists in the minds of your stakeholders and it is created or adapted in one of two ways; the first is their direct experience of you; the second is in the conversations they have with others about you.

I find it useful to imagine a ‘water-cooler’ conversation where two senior stakeholders are talking and one wants to get an opinion from the other in regard to filling a position or completing a succession plan. They you “What do you think of Harry?”

When people talk about other people, they tend to use sentences with a ‘but’ in the middle when giving the headline. ‘But’ is an interesting word in that it negates the words that come before it. For example, “I don’t want to offend you but….” We know what’s coming next and “I don’t want to offend you” isn’t what’s important!

It’s the same with reputations, people tend to use ‘but’ in their descriptions and people remember the thing that comes after the ‘but’.

“He says all the right things and is quite polished but I’m not sure he can really be relied on to deliver.” – This leaves us with a negative impression.

“She might not seem overly confident in meetings but she always delivers and is a good strategic thinker” This leaves us with a positive impression:

I’ve found it useful to ask clients what they think their reputation is and to put this into this ‘water-cooler’ language structure. The negative that comes after the ‘but’ tells us what needs to be worked on for progress to be made. We are assuming here that the current reputation is not ideal.

Most people have a reasonable idea of what others think of them and can articulate this sort of statement. What are two senior stakeholders likely to say about you with a ‘but’ in the middle?

“[Your name] is __________________________ but__________________________”

You have also articulated what you think your public reputation to be and are likely to have identified a key thing for you to change in order to make progress. You can also check how accurate this is with people that you trust.

If you really struggle to articulate what it is that others think of you then that is useful data to have. You’re now aware of something key that you don’t know and can now do something about it. That could be a formal 360° feedback process or it could just be a matter of asking people what your reputation is in the organisation.

Once you are aware of what your reputation is, then it’s time to decide what it is that you want your reputation to be. This is a matter of changing the ‘but’ to ‘and’ with a more positive and desirable ending to the sentence:

“[Your name] is __________________________ AND __________________________”

So a short example of this might be:

FROM: “Alison can really deliver but she struggles to do this without putting a lot of noses out of joint”

TO: “Alison can really deliver and she now brings all of her stakeholders with her.”

What we’re after here is a change in perception within your stakeholder community and of course, this should reflect reality. Either your current reputation doesn’t reflect reality because stakeholders haven’t had visibility of your capabilities, or your reputation is valid and there is work to be done beyond increasing your visibility. For most people, there is a mix of both – developing capabilities to support the desired reputation and bringing stakeholders and network up to speed with your existing capabilities and successes.

You should now have an idea of your current and desired reputation, or a plan to capture feedback so that you can determine your current reputation and what changes need to be made for you to make further career progression. Once this is captured it’s time to focus on ensuring the right level of Visibility…..

My mission as a coach is to help leaders and leadership teams be the best they can be, so they, in turn, make the biggest positive difference for themselves, for their people and for society.