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How To Position Yourself To Climb The Ladder At Work

Merely getting your foot in the door won’t guarantee you the path you wanted.

How To Position Yourself To Climb The Ladder At Work
[Photo: Flickr user Sigfrid Lundberg ]

I can’t count the number of people who have told me they took a job with a company thinking, “Once I get in, I can work my way around to getting the position of responsibility and authority that I really want.” But despite performing very well, many have been sorely disappointed.

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The fact is, the position they took “just to get a foot in the door” was not on a trajectory to a higher-profile revenue-generating role (often referred to as a line position).

All companies have a path that leads to the most senior-level positions in the organization. The path can be formal (e.g., all the leaders of a particular auto company come from the finance department, or every C‑suite-level officer in a certain consumer products company has had responsibility for brand management of a revitalized brand). Or the path can be informal, where it is generally understood that people who rise to the top in an organization have had a particular experience set (for example, at least one international assignment).

Not understanding an organization’s precedents may leave you frustrated when you try to make a move. Assuming that you have the ability to do the job, your disappointment will only be a function of the organization’s inability “to see” someone in your position in the job you want because this kind of transfer hasn’t taken place in the past.

Where You Enter Influences Where You End Up

Before you join an organization, it’s important to study the environment and the people who work in it. Learn how the senior people have been chosen for their positions. These days it is easy to obtain this information by going to the company’s Web site and looking at the bios of the senior leadership team, or by doing an Internet search on specific individuals to learn more about their backgrounds.

Did everyone with a senior role “grow up” in the company, meaning that they started in an entry-level position and moved up over ten to fifteen years working there? Or does the company have a history of hiring people–their senior executives in particular–from the outside?

Is there precedent for someone in operations moving to a line or revenue-producing assignment or from the line moving to back-office operations? Have people who worked in the treasurer’s office or in accounts payable moved over to managing a consumer brand? Is there evidence that someone in an administrative position moved to a project management team where there is revenue or profit responsibility, or to a staff position working directly for the CEO, CFO, or COO? Has a certified nursing assistant been promoted to a nursing position after they finished their collegiate nursing requirements or were all the nurses recruited as nurses into the hospital versus internal promotions?

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If it’s important to you to earn an integral position, higher pay, or more authority in an organization, understanding what has happened in the past (your company’s precedent) will help you determine what opportunities will be available. If your organization does not have a history of moving professionals from one area of the company to another, then your educational credentials and intellectual or experiential capability won’t matter. Getting the opportunity to pursue the position you want simply won’t happen because the organization has no precedent for the move.

The best time to assess what paths to upward mobility are in line with the position you want is when you are interviewing to join the company. If you didn’t do this before accepting a company’s offer, then you should try to find out how people move within the company as soon as possible after joining, or most certainly before you decide to move within the company.

If you are interviewing with someone who is senior to you, when you get to the chance to ask questions, inquire about their path up through the company. The following questions will help give you the insight you need to determine how the company promotes people:

  • Does the company have a history of promoting from within the ranks?
  • Have many senior executives come from outside the company?
  • What is the precedent for people outside the department joining the team?
  • When people in this department change roles, do they take other roles within the department or do they move around the company?
  • I am trying to understand how people grow and move within the company. Can you give me a few examples?

For example, you may in the process of asking these questions learn that people generally do not go from one part of the company to another, or that there is no history of people moving from administrative roles to revenue-producing roles. Or perhaps all of the organization’s senior people have had previous revenue-producing roles. Then, if you want to move into a senior position, you should seriously consider whether you want to accept an offer in a non-revenue-generating role.


Precedent gives you clear information about what the company values the most. In the previous example, I am not saying that non-revenue-generating roles aren’t valued, but rather that a particular organization might view revenue-producing roles as important prerequisites to senior positions. In that scenario, your inability to move to a more senior position has nothing to do with your ability, but it does have everything to do with the company’s precedents. In the previous example, it is clear that all the senior positions have been filled with people who had revenue-generating roles. While there are exceptions to every rule, you should not accept the job thinking that YOU are going to be the exception.

Adapted from Strategize to Win by Carla Harris. Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Carla Harris, 2014.

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Carla A. Harris is the author of Strategize to Win and managing director and senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley. Harris was also recently named chair of the Executive Leadership Council.

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