The Elements of Success as you Climb the Hierarchy

I got interested in how to clarify the elements of success as you climb the hierarchy when Lauren Leader-Chivee, author of Crossing the Thinnest Line: How Embracing Diversity from the Office to the Oscars Makes America Stronger, brought up the topic on my podcast show (episode 23 at I realized that tips on how to make what it takes to be successful more explicit as you move up the hierarchy could help close the gender leadership gap (

As you move up the hierarchy in an organization, your contribution to the organization is also expected to increase. The only way to increase your contribution is to learn new knowledge that can be applied to generate value for the organization or apply existing knowledge in a new way to generate value. If it were just about knowledge generation and contribution, then advancement would be straight-forward. But advancement is not just about knowledge generation and contribution.

As you move up the hierarchy, there are fewer opportunities for advancement available. This means there is more competition for promotions. Also, the higher up the hierarchy, the more leadership is comparing apples versus oranges in terms of contribution because the more different the functions are for the leadership candidates. So promotions can’t be based on contribution alone, they also must be based on non-quantifiable considerations. Likability inevitable factors in to promotions which puts people who look different and have different beliefs than the boss at a disadvantage. We naturally like people who are like us. Selling yourself and what you are capable of and how you will make the boss look good can help compensate for these types of differences. On the other hand, baggage that is found out could hold you back. When I say baggage I mean unhappy people who felt you treated them badly in order to get ahead. So avoiding baggage is also a good thing to do.

When you are new to an organization, you have no baggage and people will generally give you the benefit of the doubt when it comes to imperfect interactions with them. However, as you progress in the organization and put your time in, people expect you to behave professionally and at a level of interpersonal competence that reflects your years of experience. Therefore, it is important to seek opportunities to develop your interpersonal skills.

To help with the likability piece, I personally was advised to not talk about religion or politics at work. While these topics can work for you in building a closer bond with someone, they can just as easily work against you especially these days. These days there is such division along political and religious lines that if you are on the wrong side of the line when it comes to the decision-maker for your raises and promotions, then it may do you serious harm. I tell coworkers that I choose not to talk about religion or politics at work. There is nothing wrong with deciding to keep your political and religious beliefs private in the workplace. There are plenty of other non-divisive topics to choose from to build bonds and trust with coworkers without having to talk about religion or politics.

In addition, to build trust with coworkers, check out Stephen M.R. Covey’s trust framework based on both character and competence in his book Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything. There is plenty to work on in Covey’s proven model for trust as a constructive way to build trust with co-workers. Don’t succumb to the games that some coworkers try to play.

If you have that likability factor with the leadership in your organization because you look like them, then you should think about honing your creativity skills to compete with the rising “minority majority.” Minorities, or people who look different than the leadership, have the advantage of bringing a different perspective which can lead to new thinking and innovation that brings new value to the organization. Honing your creativity skills can help you compensate for this minority advantage.

If you look different and are different from the leadership team, then it is helpful to have a mentor who can help you navigate what feels like foreign territory to you. The mentor should look like the leadership, not like you, in order to do this. Just remember that you have to find your own way to deal with the foreign territory. The role of the mentor should be to describe the customs and behaviors typical in this foreign territory: help you understand how new people are treated; help you understand how people who are different are likely to be treated; and help you understand how decision are made. Make it safe and comfortable for the mentor to speak directly with you. Express your gratitude and keep them informed on how things are going for you and how you used their input to help you succeed. There are so many ways you can unknowingly derail your career that everyone should have a mentor for surviving the management and leadership jungle in organizations.

Success as you move up the organization is defined by the hiring manager. If your philosophy of leadership and of business strategy is different than those of the hiring manager, then you will have a hard time looking successful in their eyes. You need to learn how your boss defines success in order to be viewed as successful by them. This may be a troubling concept in terms of delivering new value to the organization by thinking differently. Just remember that creativity loves constraints. Dr. Keith Sawyer sites examples of how narrowing your focus can increase creativity in his book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. So use the boss’ definition of success as a constraint to fuel your creative thinking about your job and about increasing the value you can bring to the organization.

Whether you look like the leadership or not, the first step in being promote-able is seeking to understand how the promotion decision-makers define success. The next step is building trust with key decision-makers and coworkers to be able to increase your contribution. The final piece is thinking in new ways to be able to find new knowledge or apply existing knowledge in new ways that generates new value for the organization. Use your ability to think differently, to be creative, and to collaborate to find new ways to contribute to the organization.