The first 5 to 7 years of your career are critical to establishing yourself as a leader and progressing to more senior roles. Innovator and futurist Anand Tamboli outlines what to prioritize during these years to grab those big promotions. And how to go about it.
During my days at LG Electronics, January was the month of promotions. The office filled with whispers of who would be next to advance. We all had our theories. We were also almost always wrong.
I remember one particular afternoon, when a colleague of mine, Arun, was passed up for a promotion, leaving the entire office confused. He was an excellent engineer with strong leadership skills — someone we would have bet money on. We all thought he deserved it.
“Arun has so many years of experience,” I said to my manager, Mr. Kim. “He’s great at what he does. Why didn’t he get the promotion?”
“Arun is an excellent engineer, no doubt,” Mr. Kim said. “But he isn’t ready to be a manager yet.” Seeing my surprised expression, he added, “Arun needs to develop stronger relationships with people across the organization. That kind of collaboration is key for the manager role.”
The words stuck with me.
After three and a half years at LG, I moved on to HSBC as a project manager. I worked relentlessly to ensure I fulfilled the needs of the job and was intentional about building strong connections with people across the organization. When performance reviews rolled around, I was confident about my chances for advancement. But, again, I was surprised by my manager’s response.
“Look,” my boss, Peter, said, “I’m not questioning your skillset. But to be considered seriously for a more senior role, you need to gain the support of more people in the company — influential people who can speak to your work and advocate for you when you’re not in the room. My voice alone isn’t enough. You need a network of champions!”
Something clicked. There it was — the secret ingredient so many of us are missing when we lose out on opportunities. Most of us spend our time learning a craft, networking with our peers, and avoiding big mistakes. This is useful in the earliest days of our careers, but as we grow, so does the criterion for advancement. The higher we climb, the more we need people in senior roles to back us. In a perfect world, talent and leadership competency alone would be enough. But unfortunately, that’s not always how it works, and until things change, this knowledge is power.
Over the years, I’ve developed a tool to help people at all levels take advantage of this information: a career progression ladder outlining what you should prioritize in the first five to seven years of your career to fast track your advancement.
During your first year in the workforce, what you know is the most important. In the earliest days of a new job, you spend much of your time developing the competencies and base-level knowledge essential to succeeding in your role. Those skills often determine your eligibility for advancement.
A few years in, when you’ve gained expertise in your function or domain, who you know becomes just as important as your skill set — especially if you wish to move up into a management role. This stage is all about expanding your professional network. Your relationships with people at different levels and on different teams throughout your company will help you understand how the organization functions at large, how the various departments work together, and how the goals of the team you seek to lead fit into the bigger picture.
The tipping point comes after you’ve gained some experience as a people manager and are well-rounded in your subject matter or field. At this point, you may feel that you’re ready to lead a larger team or take on a senior-level role. This is where who knows you matters.
But you cannot begin finding your champions — influential people who will rally for you and put their trust in you — when you need them. Your champions are either the decision-makers themselves (the people who decide who gets promoted) or powerful people who the decision-makers will listen to.
This is perhaps the most challenging stage of your career: when you’re moving from being a new leader to a slightly more seasoned leader. Connecting with influential people throughout your organization presents unique challenges that are harder to navigate than what was required of you in the years prior. So, how exactly do you go about it?
In my experience, you need to focus on three things: Positioning, publishing, and collaborating.
To build trust and reliability with influential people, you need to establish yourself as someone who is dependable. This means that all your actions, behaviors, and words need to be consistent and predictable. You need to make an intentional effort to “position” yourself the way you want others to see you as a person and professional.
For example, let’s take a closer look at the case of Arun, my colleague at LG Electronics. Our manager, Mr. Kim, didn’t perceive him as a leader. He was unsure whether Arun had the collaboration skills required to be a great people manager. Why? Because Mr. Kim couldn’t predict how Arun would respond to challenging situations, teach his direct reports new skills, or work with colleagues across departments to accomplish goals.
Arun was consistent in demonstrating his technical abilities, but he never exemplified his leadership chops. He spoke often about the nitty-gritty steps required to successfully complete his projects and spoke little about the ways he was working with his team members to solve problems or provide them with guidance.
Likewise, when I went out for a promotion, my manager couldn’t predict if I would align with other senior leaders in the company. At the time, I had made little effort to connect with and understand the work happening in other departments and how that work connected back to my own role. Had I done so publicly, had I gained the trust of those other leaders, and discussed my learnings with Peter, he may have perceived me as leadership material.
Other people don’t know what’s going on in your head: your thoughts, ideas, opinions, passions, and visions for the future. If you want these things to be known, you need to make them visible. You need to publish.
To start, do a self-audit. Ask yourself: “Am I voicing my views aloud and enough? Do I speak up when it matters? What can I create to make myself and my presence known?”
There are several ways to go about this. You can write and share your ideas on social media platforms like LinkedIn or Twitter, author articles and pitch them to media outlets, or even create videos to post on TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube. In this context, “publishing” can also mean using your voice to share ideas. This could involve signing up for public speaking engagements or simply raising your hand more in meetings. Choose whatever works for you, your level of comfortability, and your intended audience.
As an example, let’s assume that your team has spearheaded a project you’re especially proud of. Consider posting your thoughts about the work on a platform like LinkedIn or authoring a short thought piece about the impact you made and why it’s important. While this may seem unrelated to your actual job, sharing your published work is a great way to draw the attention of power players within your organization. It shows that you’re passionate and has the potential to strengthen your authority on the topic at hand, positively influencing how others perceive you. Thought leaders in various industries take this approach to get to their ideas out into the world and establish themselves as changemakers in their fields.
Networking is great for making new connections, but collaborating with people across your organization is a better way to build meaningful and long-lasting relationships. When people with different expertise come together to achieve a common goal, learning opportunities flourish. Each person is given a chance to contribute their unique skill set and perspective, and through this teamwork, bonds are built. When we teach other people, or vice versa, growth takes place — and we remember the people who help us grow because we see their value.
As a rising leader, you should attempt to collaborate with your senior colleagues whenever the chance arises. If you can show them your value, they will continue to support you in future endeavors and may even become your champions or ambassadors down the line.
The hard part is seeking out these collaboration opportunities. It can be daunting task if you work at an organization in which cross-functional teamwork is not super accessible or common. If this is the case, reach out to your manager and ask for their help. You could say, “I’m interested in learning more about the work that takes place in X department. I noticed they have a project coming up — would it be okay if I shadowed a few of their meetings? I wonder if my perspective would be valuable. Since our teams are working towards a common goal, I could share what we’ve learned through our own work.”
In all cases, think about what you can uniquely offer through a collaboration. For instance, as a Gen Zer, could your perspective be interesting to the marketing team on their new campaign? As a tech guru, could your experience analyzing data be valuable to the content team? What can you offer the leaders in other departments to help them reach the goals?
. . .
Now let’s go back to my story. When Peter told me to double down, I did exactly that. I became clearer about my positioning, elevated my voice and ideas through publication, and sought out more ways to collaborate with leaders throughout the company. With my fierce efforts (and some luck), I secured the promotion. I still remember and follow Peter’s advice today. I hope it will help you on your journey, too.
This article was originally published in Harvard Business Review.
Anand is an award-winning author, innovator, filmmaker, and futurist. He helps people to leverage emerging technologies, adapt, and develop an innovative mindset.
Being a polymath, Anand can often shed new light on a topic, which people feel has been “done to death.” The fact that Anand has a degree in engineering and business and having worked in a wide range of industries, countries, and cultures gives him a deeper understanding of the impacts of technology.
Anand see things with uniquely different lenses and knows how to work through them. As an executive coach for millennials and gen-Zs, Anand often works with entrepreneurs, helping tuen their ideas and strategies a reality. He coaches them to become more visible and make them stand out in a noisy and saturated market.
Over the past 22 years, Anand has extensively worked with several Fortune 500 companies, nearly 500+ small business owners, and entrepreneurs worldwide as a speaker, advisor, or consultant. He was an innovation mentor for prestigious institutions such as Venture Cafe Sydney, CSIRO (Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization), and UNSW (University of New South Wales).
Anand previously volunteered as Hon. Treasurer of CSI (Computer Society of India) and as an active member of ACS (Australian Computer Society) for a few years. He is currently part of executive team of Akashwani Radio, a multicultural radio in Sydney.
In 2023, LeadersHum included him in the Powerlist of 200 leadership experts. Anand was nominated by IoT Hub Australia for the “IoT Pioneer” award in 2019. And in the same year the Consensus Group Australia honored him with the “Best Author of the Year” award.
Anand holds an MBA in International Business and is a Chartered Engineer. He has also studied Electrical, Electronics, and Power Systems Engineering and is a self-taught Computer Engineer.View Profile
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