Over the years I’ve received a number of letters from readers asking a similar career question. Following is essentially a consolidated version of those letters and my answer—responding to the question: “How can I get into management?”
I’ve been with the same company for seven years now, and even though I’d like to get into management, I’ve never been considered for it. Honestly, after seven years I think I know more about this company’s operations than many of our managers do, and I feel I’m good with people, and I’m smart and motivated. I don’t understand why I never seem to get management consideration, and I’m getting pretty frustrated. Do you have any suggestions?
I understand your frustration, as it can be all too easy for organizations to slot people into certain roles and just continue to view them that way, regardless of ability and potential. (Newton’s first law: “Objects at rest tend to stay at rest”… unfortunately applies to some companies too.)
So let’s address the easiest possibilities first. If your company has a management training program (I assume they probably don’t), try to get into that… or apply for any internal management roles for which you feel you’re well-qualified. Naturally, we’ll assume you’re doing excellent work in your current role (“table stakes,” as the saying goes), and are well regarded by your current management. But if none of these more direct avenues are leading you down the road you want to go, let’s look at some other ways you can raise your visibility to get on a management track.
Make your aspirations known. In a diplomatic, not frustrated, way. Sounds pretty basic, but if this is just something you’re stewing about inside, it’s possible it may not be completely clear to those outside. Always best to come from a perspective of “How can my abilities help this organization?” Rather than “Why don’t these fools recognize my talent?”
So, to whom can you make your aspirations known?
Get to know your Human Resources department (well). Find and develop a contact there whom you know and trust. I know HR is often the butt of Hollywood jokes (e.g. Toby Flenderson on "The Office"), but they’re generally wired in to management-related opportunities and training, and they should know what’s going on around the organization. In my career HR contacts were extremely helpful to me, both in initially finding my way around the company, and later, when I was in management, in serving as a sounding board to help me resolve difficult employee issues. Sure, some HR specialists are more helpful and insightful than others. Up to you to make some contacts and use your good judgment to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Find a mentor. Preferably the mentor is someone experienced in management who knows the organization well and is universally respected. A good mentor is a great source of business knowledge and experienced-based common sense. So how do you get one? If there’s someone you have in mind (say a senior manager you highly respect), approach him or her, letting your direct manager know what you plan to do… or, depending on the nature of the relationships, your manager may make the initial introduction for you. And if you’re not sure whom to go to, that’s where the aforementioned HR contacts are valuable. Helping to establish mentor relationships is a common HR function.
Volunteer for assignments outside your normal organizational orbit. These can be projects to work on, committees to serve on, etc. Not only does this tangibly demonstrate initiative, it also gives you an opportunity to showcase your talents to a broader audience. It exposes you, in a productive light, to other decision makers in management circles.
Take a management course or three. Again, this shows interest and initiative. If you already have, for example, an undergraduate degree in management, then take some MBA courses. That’s what I did many years ago; though I’d studied psychology as an undergrad, I started taking MBA courses at night shortly after I joined the corporate world. It showed people I was seriously interested in management, which I was. My employer ended up paying for most of my MBA, and I was always deeply appreciative (still am, to this day). You’ll never go wrong gaining additional business knowledge, and it sends a solid message to your own management.
If all else fails, heed the words of Kenny Rogers. It’s possible your best efforts still won’t get you where you want to go. In that case, if you’re continually frustrated and your organization persists in seeing you in a way you don’t want to be seen (see Newton’s first law, above) then it’s time listen to the classic lyrics of Kenny Rogers’ song, “The Gambler.”
You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em / Know when to fold ‘em / Know when to walk away / And know when to run.
In other words, know when it’s time to look elsewhere for that move into management. Far better to take positive action than to be resentful for years. I wish you the best of luck.
Management questions and comments are always welcome…
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This article first appeared at Forbes.com.