You can only hear the same story so many times before you realize that a major mindset shift is in order: A qualified, motivated, professional woman works harder than anyone on her team, understands the business inside and out, and dedicates herself completely to her company for years. Just when she thinks her time has come for a big promotion, she learns that a less-qualified, less-experienced person (let’s be honest, probably a man) has snagged one instead.
Bonnie Marcus, founder and president of Women’s Success Coaching and author of The Politics of Promotion: How High-Achieving Women Get Ahead And Stay Ahead, knows that story from personal experience. When she began dissecting and giving speeches about “the anatomy of a blindside,” women would continuously approach her afterward with the exact same story of confusion and betrayal. She knew she had a message that women needed to hear.
“Primarily the women who come to me are in male-dominated industries, where there are a lot of barriers to success,” Marcus says. “And these women are very talented, very competent, have all the technical expertise, but can’t figure out how to kind of crack the code to get ahead. They don’t understand why they’re being passed over.”
What happened? they ask. In short, politics.
If that word made you cringe or grimace, you’re certainly not alone. But that negative reaction toward the phrase “office politics” is just one of the things you’ll need to change if you want to make sure that story doesn’t become your own. As Bonnie explains, office politics is not about gossip or backstabbing. It’s about strategic relationship building.
“It is a change in mindset, a reframing,” Marcus says. “If you only see office politics in terms of manipulation, as underhanded or dirty, of course you’re going to avoid it. And there is that, I’m not saying there isn’t. But you still need to understand what is going on around you–the good, bad, and the ugly. You need to understand where to build allies, who can be your champions, who to avoid, that kind of thing.
You need to understand what it really takes to get ahead where you are, and to build the necessary relationships to do that. Your mindset needs to change so that you can see the value of building relationships not at the expense of others, but in a way that gives you more credibility and visibility and adds value to the business.”
The question people always ask about promotions is, “What’s the right time to ask for one?” This is also part of the mental shift Marcus calls for–and her approach almost eliminates that dilemma entirely.
“You shouldn’t think of it as a one-time ask. It’s a bit of a journey,” Marcus says. “First, you should always have a conversation with your boss about what your career goals are. And she should understand and actually give input on where she sees your best career path, so that there’s an understanding that this a goal that might be achievable. Then you would need to say, ‘Okay, I’m at point A and I want to get to point B. What do I need to do to get there? What more experience do I need, and then where can I get it? What skills do I need, and are there resources to learn them?’”
If you have that conversation early on, both you and your boss will understand what’s required of you to get to the next level. Once you accomplish those things–experience, skill-building, etc.–you’ll both know it’s time to discuss that promotion. Throughout the process, Marcus says, you should always keep your boss informed about how you’re progressing and what your accomplishments have been thus far.
For millennials who are above entry-level and are looking to move into a leadership role, this new mindset is particularly important. Marcus says that the best thing you can do at this point is sit down and get specific about your goals.
“Begin to think strategically about your career,” she says. “Again, that’s a mindset shift. But really think about where you want to go. Even if it’s a short-term plan, put a plan in place to get there. I think that often, real career planning doesn’t come until later. People reach a certain point and then they think, ‘Wait, what am I doing with my career?’ but it will definitely benefit millennials early on in their careers to have goals and a strategy, even though they can certainly change. The goal doesn’t need to be, “I’m going to run XYZ company in 10 years,” but whatever it is you should have a plan to move forward.
“And second, you need to build a network around that goal. Network very strategically–who do you know and who do you need to know? Be mindful of connecting with people who are willing and able to speak for you and who understand your value proposition. And of course you need to understand your value proposition. That’s probably the most important part of positioning oneself for a promotion.”
This article originally appeared on Levo League and is reprinted with permission.