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How to Pivot Your Work Reputation to Secure That Overdue Promotion

Professional woman sitting at desk in front of large window

Sometimes the only one holding you back, is yourself

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we honor the women who overcame, who rose up, fought hard and showed resilience.

We recognize the women who raised us, supported us, mentored and hired us.

We can’t forget the women who did all this when the odds were not in their favor, even if they are not commemorated or recognized in history books.

There are other women we rarely hear about: the women who pushed through when their reputation and value were questioned or challenged.

These women exist in all corners of our business and world, and while they might not have changed the course of history, they took control over their own narrative and told their story the way it should be told.

Here is one of their stories.

I first met Amanda when she came to me after a third attempt at a promotion within her company. She’d been with the organization since interning there as a grad student, hiring on immediately after graduation.

Fifteen years later, her career had stagnated, and she wasn’t sure what the problem was. She worked hard, supported her colleagues, volunteered for company-sponsored programs, and always displayed a cheerful and bubbly personality. Yet, each time a promotion opportunity surfaced, Amanda was told “not this time” and passed over.

We started our work with an assessment around what she believed she was communicating with her behavior, messaging and relationships. We matched those answers up against how she ideally wanted to be perceived by her peers and company leadership.

Then, we sent out a survey to key stakeholders in her company and community, gauging their perception on how Amanda presented herself and what they believed she was passionate about and valued for. The answers were surprising!

Amanda saw herself as nurturing, kind and helpful. She was always the first one to volunteer for an important project or company initiative, so she expected to hear that she was valued for her collaborative style. Never one to hog the spotlight, she often deferred to others to share their ideas and suggestions before offering her endorsement. Finally, Amanda believed it was her easy-going and approachable nature that made her a trusted confidante for many of the administrators at the company. They often came to her with concerns and gripes, and Amanda relished the idea she could counsel them back into positive feelings about their work and colleagues.

The feedback she received was quite different from what she expected. The qualities, traits and behaviors Amanda displayed, which she believed endeared her to her peers and company leadership, were actually seen as negatives to her reputation.

Where Amanda saw herself as nurturing and kind, the feedback indicated she was overly helpful, often taking on tasks that were low priority to the company and delaying work that was more important.

Where she saw her volunteerism and collaborative style as plusses, her surveys noted that she rarely took the initiative to work collaboratively and by delegating these roles to others, she kept herself out of leadership conversations.

Where Amanda believed her ability to console and advise her colleagues was a benefit, company leaders questioned her loyalty to the company by gossiping and spending too much time with “lower-ranked” team members.

The qualities Amanda saw as positives were viewed by her company as negatives. This presented a challenge.

I presented Amanda with three legitimate choices:

  1. She could quit her job and find employment where those qualities would be directly valued and appreciated.

  2. She could change her behaviour and work to fit the mold of who they wanted her to be, regardless of how she felt.

  3. She could ask for clarification on the feedback and seek to modify her behaviour and approach to be more in line with company goals, yet still remain authentic to her personality and personal goals.

As you might have guessed, my guidance was towards number three: By seeking to better understand the company’s goals, clarify the behavior that had been viewed so negatively, and understand her own personal career objectives, we could map out a strategy to close the gap between how she wanted to be perceived and how she was being received and put her on a leadership track.

First, Amanda needed clarification on her behaviors. Taking an inquisitive and non-defensive approach, she interviewed her colleagues and supervisors. She asked open-ended questions and encouraged them to expand on the survey responses she’d received. Without pointing to who said what, she indicated that she’d received some input which surprised her and wanted to learn more. The respondents trusted her and shared their thoughts.

With this information in hand, Amanda and I looked at the feedback and asked which of the comments, suggestions and responses would move her closer to her desired reputation: the way she wanted to be known and seen in the company. With that clarity, we could design action steps to move her closer in that direction.

Next, Amanda began to watch her behavior and how she acted at work. She lessened the frequency of her interactions with the administrative staff (and their complaints) and instead scheduled time after work to gather and chat with them.

She resisted volunteering for certain tasks (i.e., picking up the birthday card and circulating it around the office for a colleague’s birthday or ordering the catering items for a holiday luncheon) and instead forced herself to contribute her ideas and thoughts during team meetings. In the past, she’d let others speak first and then agree with their ideas, never getting credit for the original suggestion. Now, she raised her hand first, offered up a thought, and was praised for her contribution.

Finally, the most significant move Amanda made was beginning to act like she was in the promotion without actually being promoted.

I asked her, “What would a senior director be doing in their job right now?” She replied, “Well, since budgets are due soon, I’m sure they’d be looking at ways to grow existing programs that bring the company money, shrink the ones that aren’t working, and find other ways of adding to the bottom line.” And that’s what she did.

On her own time, Amanda proactively researched current projects and found clever and creative ways to improve project flow, reduce costs and save the company money. When she presented these ideas to her boss, his response was, “Who asked you to do this?” When she explained that she knew it would be helpful to him as he prepared the annual budgets, he was stunned.

By taking these steps, Amanda showed that she could take a hard look at herself and modify aspects of her behavior that weren’t working for her or the company. She demonstrated a level of honesty and humility that leaders are capable of showing.

Next, she looked at relationships in the company and moved ones that weren’t a priority to her own time, not company time.

Finally, she acted as if she was already a leader, and by doing this showed that she was ready to move up.

Six months went by before another opportunity for promotion arose. She actually hadn’t heard that the company would be interviewing possible candidates. Instead, it was Amanda’s boss who approached her with the opportunity and said, “I think it’s time.”

Rather than pester the human resources team and nudge her way into interview after interview, Amanda’s promotion was fast-tracked by the long list of glowing endorsements she received from her peers and senior management.

Key takeaways

Amanda would tell you she learned the hard way that just because you see the world a certain way, it doesn’t make it true.

Prior to this experience, she thought nothing was wrong with how she was acting at work. She believed everyone thought like her and would appreciate how helpful and kind she was.

She realized that while it was appreciated that she was supportive and caring, her peers and boss needed to see her act more like a leader.

Taking in the feedback with an open-mind, acting on the advice without becoming defensive, and offering proactive ideas and cost-saving measures were leadership qualities her company valued, making it easy to see her in a leadership role when the time came.

While Amanda’s story didn’t make headlines or dramatically change the world, she represents a group of professionals often held back as much by their own thinking than anything.

Her reluctance to push herself out into the light, ahead of others, tempered her ability to grow her career and amplify her contribution.

When she gained the insight, confidence and tenacity to push through, however, she learned that she could remain true to her values and goals and show others the leader she was capable of being.