How to Claim Your Spot in the Exec Suite

Jan 24, 2019

By AMA Staff

You’re working hard and going the extra mile for your organization. So why haven’t you moved to upper management? John Beeson has some advice to help you turn that situation around, with strategies that will allow you to aggressively pursue a senior management position. Beeson, the author of The Unwritten Rules; The Six Skills You Need to Get Promoted to the Executive Level (Jossey-Bass, 2010), is a principal of Beeson Consulting, Inc., a management consulting firm. He has written numerous articles on succession planning and talent development, and they have appeared in the Harvard Business Review, Across the Board, and Business Horizons.

Beeson recently visited AMA to participate in an “Edgewise” podcast. This article is adapted from that interview.

AMA: What factors can hold a manager back, keeping him or her from being promoted?
John Beeson:  Over the years I have worked with numerous aspiring executives, managers who would like to get to the C-suite level, and I have seen many of them operate under two misconceptions that really hold them back. One is the belief that strong results in your current job are going to get you promoted. In reality, having a consistent record of results gets you in the game and gets you considered as a candidate, but rarely is it the differentiator when people make promotional decisions.

The second misconception is that people assume that their manager is going to give them the feedback they need to advance in the course of their annual performance review.  This perception is flawed for several reasons. If you think about it, a performance review by definition focuses on improving the manager’s performance in his/her current job.  It is not future-oriented. Moreover, your boss may not know what senior people in your organization are looking for when they fill executive level jobs.  And, very often, he or she doesn’t know how you are seen by those senior level decision-makers. So you are unlikely to get what I call the feedback that really counts—how senior executives in your company see you in terms of the selection factors that they are going to use to make promotional decisions. That is why I believe the individual has to take control, has got to initiate the conversations that will yield that kind of feedback.

AMA: What prompted you to write The Unwritten Rules?
Beeson: The book is the result of two observations that I have made over the years that to me represent a serious disconnect in most of the organizations that I work with. First, virtually every company I work with bemoans the dearth of leadership talent. I think this is a phenomenon that is poised to get worse as the economy strengthens and as executive positions start to open up again.

In contrast, I see many talented, hardworking managers who are in the dark about what they need to do to advance in their career. I wrote the book to equip aspiring executives to take greater control of their careers, to position themselves to be first off the bench.  I believe that as the economy strengthens Baby Boomer executives will want to retire and recoup what they have lost over the couple of years. There are going to be many open positions, and I believe that managers can take steps now to position themselves for those promotional opportunities.

The six skills that I highlight in The Unwritten Rules, relate to five fundamental tasks of executive leadership, plus one factor, executive presence, that I have learned is really an important preview of coming attractions—your ability to succeed at the executive level.

The first skill that I highlight is strategic thinking. I started with that, because if you think about it, the ability to establish a sense of direction for a group and get people to follow that, is, in a sense, the bedrock of leadership, and has been since time immemorial. 

I also stress the importance of building a strong management team, because I find that the success of the executive is largely dependent upon his or her ability to surround him or herself with talent. Because if you are going to free up the time for strategic thinking, if you are going to free up the time to work with peers across the organization, you have to feel confident in your team, that they are getting the wash out the door. In some cases, a strong team will also allow you to compensate for certain areas which don’t play to your strengths.

AMA: What if your position doesn’t allow you to set strategic direction?
Beeson: I think the starting point is to understand what senior executives are looking for in the strategy area. On one hand they are looking for the manager’s ability to establish a consistent set of priorities, as opposed to chasing the priority du jour as some leaders do. Clearly, they are looking for people who can think big picture and think in a long-term way, as opposed to exclusively focusing on short-term results. Beyond that, though, they are looking for leaders who have that rare ability to anticipate marketplace trends, see where the market is going, and through that anticipation to generate the strategic insight that can lead the organization. They are looking for the person who has the ability to take that strategic insight and then turn it into a vision, and then communicate that to people in the organization in a way that inspires them and motivates the organization to act.

If you are in a very operational job your mandate is to executive your boss’s strategy. So you may need to move into a new assignment which allows you to demonstrate your strategic abilities to senior management. However, I would recommend you start by asking, “Are there opportunities in my current job to demonstrate my strategic ability?” An example would be going to your boss and saying, “Hey, we haven’t updated our strategy within the department. Could I lead an initiative with my peers that would allow me to do that?”

AMA: The second item on your list is building a strong management team. How can an aspiring executive build a strong team?
Beeson: A good starting point is thinking through how they need to spend their time What are the issues where they need to focus to have the greatest value? That is an important starting point, because based on that, you can begin to evaluate the needs within your team. A strong team is one that not only performs well and helps you accomplish your objectives, but also allows you as a leader to focus on those activities where you can add value.

What I have observed is that leaders who are successful in building a strong team from a talent point of view are like coaches of a sports team. They want their team to win this year, that is, to accomplish their goals, but they also want the team to get stronger year over year. So they must have a plan to upgrade their team; they must constantly look for talent and anticipate openings.

AMA: We’ve discussed the first two leadership skills you outline in your book.  Factors three, four, and five are:  managing implementation, the capacity for innovation and change, and working across organizational boundaries. Let’s jump ahead to the sixth area, which you call “Executive Presence.”
Beeson: In my definition, executive presence is being able to show the people you work with that you can succeed at the executive level—that you can take control of difficult, even unpredictable situations and that you are willing to step up and make tough decisions in a timely way as a member of the executive team. Executive presence is what I call the preview of coming attractions—you project that you have the ability to do the things required to play at the executive level.

A lot of people think that when I mention executive presence I’m talking about your dress, your suit, your haircut—and that may be part of it.  But the common denominator is self-confidence and the ability to projecting that. It is interesting to see how that gets projected in different corporate cultures. Sometimes it is the ability to make a presentation, because for most managers, that is pretty anxiety provoking. So the ability to stand up in front of a group, especially a senior management group, and articulate your points succinctly with poise, without getting cowed, that connotes executive presence.  But again, what you need to do is to breathe that confidence, showing that you have what it takes to be successful working with other executives.

Final thoughts
One point I would like to emphasize is the notion of making the unwritten rules explicit. So many companies talk about the 35 to 40 must-haves for a successful executive. That tends not to be the case in reality. So, I would encourage companies to get around the table and determine the few actual must-have factors that we need to succeed at an executive level. Make sure your up-and-coming future leaders get the feedback that really counts. Because from my experience, if companies do that, they will find that their investment in executive development is much more efficient and effective. And it allows their future leaders to really take control of their careers.

About the Author(s)

AMA Staff American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.