Career Development—How to Position Yourself for a Promotion

Transcript

NARRATOR

The future of project management is changing fast. On Projectified™ with PMI, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s really ahead for the profession—and your career.

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STEPHEN W. MAYE

Hello. I’m Stephen Maye, and this is Projectified™ with PMI. I’m here with my co-host, Tegan Jones, and today we’re talking about what it takes to get promoted.

Some people think that if you just put in the time and do a good job that you’ll end up getting ahead. But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, the difference in getting promoted—or not—is doing a better job marketing yourself to the relevant leaders. You’ve got to make your interest known, volunteer for assignments that position you well, understand what defines promotable qualities in your environment, and simply ask for what you want.

TEGAN JONES

And you really do have to be proactive, because in some organizations, opportunities to get promoted are pretty few and far between. I recently saw an article from Gartner that explained that, after the 2008 financial crisis, many organizations downsized by removing positions in middle management. And that’s had some downstream effects. The average employee today, for instance, stays in the same role 50 percent longer than they did before 2008. And, so, that means that missing an opportunity for a promotion today can have a major long-term impact on your career.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

So how do you make sure that you have the best shot at scoring the promotion the next time a leadership position opens up? You have to proactively throw your name in the ring and confidently communicate the value you bring to the organization—but doing that without seeming pushy or entitled. And it can be a tough line to walk, but there are ways to effectively highlight your skills and your ability to get things done without making what might seem like self-serving demands.

TEGAN JONES

Right. It’s really about increasing your visibility in the organization. So rather than just showing up and saying, “I’m ready to be a leader,” you know, you have to demonstrate that you already have that skill set. You know, like you said, Stephen, you have to volunteer to take the lead on tasks or projects where the team seems to need a little extra help. And sometimes that means doing more work without getting an immediate reward—but that’s how you show your supervisors that you’re a team player who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get things done.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

And that’s really what they’re looking for in future leaders. That’s something I recently discussed with Diane Hatton, the director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory Nuclear and Particle Physics Directorate Office of Project Planning and Oversight—accelerator projects in New York. Diane has had an incredible career. She actually started at the lab almost 40 years ago as a secretary—similar to what we would refer to as an administrative assistant today. And she had a lot to say about how project professionals can take big leaps no matter where they’re starting from. And we’ll hear from her a little later in the episode.

TEGAN JONES

We’ll also hear from Amber Simonsen, who is the director of guest product development and delivery for Alaska Airlines in Seattle. Amber has a really cool story, because she actually convinced her company that it needed to create portfolio management positions—and then, of course, she was the first in line to get one of those new roles.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

I love it, and that is certainly one way to do it.

TEGAN JONES

Yeah, I guess sometimes you just have to create your own career path.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

Absolutely, and I can’t wait to hear how she did it. But first, we’re going to hear from Moira Alexander. She’s the founder of PMWorld 360 Magazine, based in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. She’s going to outline a few specific steps she says people should take if they want to get picked for that next big promotion. Let’s go to her now.

[MUSICAL TRANSITION]

MOIRA ALEXANDER

So, if you are looking for a promotion, I’d recommend four steps, and they involve getting clarity around your role, looking for ways to improve what you do and how you do it, supporting your teammates and making sure that you take the time to actually approach your manager about a promotion.

So, if you’re not sure about something, it’s always a good idea to, you know, meet with your manager, ask questions and get some clarification so that you know what direction to take things. The second thing is always look for things that you can do better. Always look for ways to improve what you do and provide the best performance. So don’t just do what’s in your job description. Do things that you think add value if that’s what’s going to help you stand out.

And remember to support your teammates. A lot of times we get caught up in our roles, and we don’t really factor in that sometimes helping your teammates do their job better in turn helps you do your job better.

Recognize that your manager isn’t a mind reader, so don’t be afraid to approach your manager about your desire to take on more responsibilities or take on a larger role. But the key thing is, you’ve got to get your things in order before you can say to your manager, “Hey, I’m ready for that promotion now.” So make sure you’re at your peak performance before you do that.

You have to understand what your highest level of skills are and your abilities, where you stand out. Also know how and where you’re able to apply your skills in your role. The reality is you know this better than anybody, so you’re that person to assess. The next thing to do is take the time to closely go over your past performance reviews and any feedback that you receive from co-workers even.

There’s likely some overlap between what you know about yourself and the feedback that you’ve received. Really analyze what’s being said, as well as what is not being said. So that gives you a clue into what you need to improve. And take the time to do a log, like whether handwritten or you’ve got a digital log of all the tasks and projects that you’ve worked on and where you think you’ve done exceptionally well, and then combine some of that with past performance reviews and feedback and put together a really comprehensive checklist of where you excel.

Be prepared to establish a really clear and direct link between your accomplishments and skills and knowledge and the actual promotion that you’re seeking. So that means you need to white-board or map out those skills in relation to that role.

And come prepared to discuss your strengths as well as how you resolve your weaknesses, because we all have them, and they don’t need to remain weaknesses. It’s just a matter of determining what you are prepared to do to learn and grow so that those weaknesses are no longer weaknesses.

My advice would be become the type of employee or project manager or leader that you would want to hire and remain in a constant state of improvement, because realistically you are your most valuable work in progress.

[MUSICAL TRANSITION]

TEGAN JONES

I like that point that Moira made about supporting your teammates. You know, it’s one thing to do your job really well, but if you don’t see how your role fits into the bigger picture, you’re going to miss opportunities to provide extra value to the project or to the organization.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

When someone is able to understand the context, identify and define a problem, and change the way they are working to make things go smoothly, it’s a huge help to the team and really a service to the organization at large. And leaders are ultimately looking to promote people who will make their lives easier while actually getting things done.

TEGAN JONES

Right. And if you think on a big enough scale about ways to improve the organization, you might even inspire your boss to create a new job just for you. That’s what happened to Amber Simonsen, who is the director of guest product development and delivery for Alaska Airlines in Seattle. Understanding different project management best practices helped Amber make the case for a new leadership role—which she was obviously the first in line for.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

You know, Tegan, people talk about this idea a lot, but you rarely meet someone who has successfully done it. So I’m looking forward to hearing more about this. Let’s go to our contributing editor Hannah Schmidt, who has the full story.

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CNBC NEWS CLIP

Virgin America has a huge presence both at SFO and LAX, so together when you combine the strength of Alaska with Virgin, we will have great strength up and down the West Coast. In fact, we’ll have the largest market share of any airline serving the West Coast.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

That’s Brad Tilden, president and CEO of Alaska Airlines. He’s talking to CNBC about Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America in 2016. Alaska bought its rival for about 4 billion U.S. dollars, making it the fifth largest airline in the United States.

The merger offered a big opportunity for Alaska to expand its market share—but it also came with a pipeline of large, complex projects. About a year in, project manager Amber Simonsen saw an opportunity to help the company manage its growing portfolio—and potentially boost her career.

AMBER SIMONSEN

I had been doing some research on PMI.org and was really looking into the competency levels.

When I was reading about the portfolio role, it really seemed to be a good fit for the business problem and also a role I’d really like to fill. So, I put together just a really quick one-page synopsis of what the role looked like and what the benefits would be and had the meeting with my managing director, outlined those business needs, the duties, the benefits to the business, and I felt like I wanted to be in that role. The next thing you know, our boss sat us down and said there were three of us that were promoted into portfolio manager positions.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

Making a strong business case helped Amber convince the company to create these new positions. But she says it was her reputation that helped her land the promotion.

AMBER SIMONSEN

I had had a track record of delivering projects and programs that were very important to the organization, and I think it’s that track record that speaks most of all, as well as those people skills. We have a saying within the enterprise PMO at Alaska that it’s not about what your manager thinks, it’s about what everybody else thinks if you’re going up for a promotion. And are you known as a leader? Are you known as a performer? And is that the right role, and no one would question whether you were the right person for that role, which I really think is good. It’s all about reputation.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

But even if you have a strong track record, that might not be obvious to the leaders making the final call. So, you need to be ready to highlight the results you’ve delivered.

AMBER SIMONSEN

As you set up a project, you always look to set up success criteria, and for me it’s really about looking back at that success criteria and pointing to what we were trying to achieve.

At Alaska, we often go through an exercise where we identify aspirational objectives at the beginning of projects, and we look back at those to really see are we not only just delivering on the scope, schedule and budget, but are we really delivering on what the executives and the sponsor were looking to achieve as a result of the project. And I think that’s when you’re able to look back at how a project performed and say, ”Not only did we nail the basics and have those hard skills of project management, but we also delivered the value that was intended by that project coming to life.”

HANNAH SCHMIDT

And it’s just as powerful to show where things went wrong—as long as you can share what you learned and how you plan to get things back on track.

AMBER SIMONSEN

As you work with your team to solve problems, I think it’s easy to hide behind those problems and only share the good news. When there is an issue or a significant risk that we need to talk about at a leadership level, I feel like it’s my job to bring that up even if I don’t have the perfect solution but I just have a plan on how to work through it. And that’s been really helpful, and I think those leaders that I’m working with really appreciate being brought into the loop earlier versus being told everything is fine.

So, the advice that I give project managers is really about demonstrating both skills and results. If you are known as a performer, I think that’s a really big thing. And if you are not known, I think it’s about getting into the organization, working with folks and asking for feedback of both your sponsors, your other team members, and I think being open to that feedback can really help shape you into the leader that you want to be.

[MUSICAL TRANSITION]

STEPHEN W. MAYE

It’s clear that a lot of the advice Amber shared came from her personal experience. She saw firsthand the value of taking initiative, communicating business results and simply being transparent—and then was able to translate that into a great promotion.

TEGAN JONES

I also liked what she said about admitting where your skills may be lacking.

You know, no one is perfect, and I think that leaders appreciate when someone can communicate where they still need to improve—rather than just glossing over their flaws to make themselves look better. You know, I think it shows a certain level of maturity.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

Absolutely, and I think that demonstration of maturity begins to build trust in the people around you. It also helps you figure out where it makes the most sense to invest in professional development. That’s something I touched on that with our next guest, Diane Hatton. She’s the director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory Nuclear and Particle Physics Directorate Office of Project Planning and Oversight—accelerator projects in New York. Diane discussed how identifying and developing key skill sets was an essential factor that helped her make big strides in her career.

TEGAN JONES

You know, I actually got the chance to meet Diane a few years ago when Brookhaven won PMI’s Project of the Year Award in 2016, and she struck me as such an impressive woman, so I’m really glad you got the chance to pick her brain about how she’s been so successful. Let’s go to that conversation now.

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STEPHEN W. MAYE

Diane, I’ve really been looking forward to talking to you. I appreciate you being here. Tell me about your career path at Brookhaven National Lab. What roles have you played, where did you start, how have you moved up the ladder? Tell me the story.

DIANE HATTON

So I’ve spent just about my entire career at Brookhaven, about 37 years, and I’ve had the fortune to be able to move around in various different roles and to various different departments. So I started right out of a community college as what was then phrased as a secretary, and I worked in the procurement division. I had a few jobs in the administrative-type area, but I was lucky enough to work for a person who saw some potential in the work that I did and asked me if I would be interested in joining one of the financial groups, and that really kind of started my track. I was lucky enough to be able to get in early in project management and had the chance to work on the 912-million-dollar National Synchrotron Light Source II construction project. I spent 10 years doing that as the division director for project support. And that project was very successful, and it ended up winning the Project Management Institute Project of the Year in 2016. After that project was finished, I spent two years in the director’s office working as the head of planning, performance and quality management. That was a very different opportunity for me, something not at all necessarily in my area of expertise, but I took a chance with that and ended up learning so much. Kind of a senior-level management position at the lab and got to really understand what it means to run a national laboratory. And now I am helping one of the directorates at the laboratory get ready for new large projects.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

That is fantastic. How much of those opportunities for advancement were based on training and education? I’m sure there were other training opportunities inside the lab, I would imagine. So how much of that played a part versus just doing great work and achieving things on the job? What was the connection between the learning side and the performance side?

DIANE HATTON

If a person is interested in taking on a role, what I will always recommend to people is look at what the job descriptions look like for that role that you see yourself in 10 years from now or five years from now. And all the roles that I was interested in, education was important. So using the lab’s tuition refund program, I got a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree so that that would not be an issue. And I tried to do that early in my career. The other thing that I found that played a really important role was sitting on committees, leading groups, volunteering when there was a need for something that had to be improved. So putting yourself out there and volunteering to make things better, I think that really makes a difference.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

So in this case, you refer to volunteering less about philanthropy and more about raising your hand and saying. “I’ll take that, like I’ll lead that, I’ll get that done.”

DIANE HATTON

Exactly. Here’s an issue. We’re sitting around a table. We’re talking about it. I raise my hand and say, “Why don’t I put together a plan for how we can solve that?” Go back, put together a plan, and then before you know it you’re leading a group who’s trying to execute that. So you have to be willing to put in a little extra to make it happen.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

So if someone wants to make the case for a promotion, what are some of the key pieces of information that they should bring to the table? How do you define that process or that framework? Has that become clear for you, or is it something that you do somewhat intuitively?

DIANE HATTON

So I think when you are looking to make a move or a step up to a different role, you need to really understand what the criteria are for that. And I often recommend to people, talk to your supervisor. What are the things that you need to do in order to get that role or to get this promotion in my current role. So have an understanding with your supervisor so they know that you’re interested, and so that you know what the criteria are.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

Now when it comes time to actually make that case, do you advocate for the pitch? How do you advise others when they’re really wanting that next promotion and they’ve done their homework and now it’s time to either wait and see if it plays out or to go after it very actively?

DIANE HATTON

So I had a conversation with one of my colleagues recently, and they said that they were interested in a new role. They applied for it, and a superstar got it; they didn’t get it. And I said to that person, all right, what are the traits of a superstar? And we wrote down the list of all the traits of what we thought a superstar was, and we tried to identify how this person could become a superstar. And when you start going down the list, you have to start asking yourself serious questions, like am I willing to stay late, am I willing to travel a lot, am I willing to go above and beyond? So it’s important to make sure you understand why people get roles that you think you deserve and what you need to do to get it. Sometimes you may end up finding out that the role you thought you wanted is not really the right role for you. But you have to be realistic about that.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

Yeah, yeah. So as we talk about people taking the reins and doing what they can do to build their own careers, to set themselves up for promotions, I think about this challenge between the tendency to make a case for why I deserve it versus perhaps making a case that’s more from the perspective of the hiring manager or from the organization. And I would love to hear your thinking on that as someone who has been promoted many times, who has promoted people, who advises people who are interested in getting promoted. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. How do you balance that? How do you advise people? What do you see as being effective?

DIANE HATTON

So there’s two ways that I see people in my organization moving up. One of them is that a job becomes available and it’s open for people to apply. In that case, you have to sell yourself. You have to put together a fantastic résumé. You have to be able to make a great presentation about yourself. You have to do sales. Another way people get promoted is they get promoted within their own job or promoted to a new twist on the job. And I think there are different approaches there. That second instance is not so much a sales pitch, but more your history, your work at your organization, your work ethic, all the little pieces that you do every day build to make the case about why you deserve that. The best situation ever is that you don’t need to go out and apply for jobs; jobs are just being offered to you or suggested to you. So there’s two ways to go. One’s a sales pitch and one is you do the right thing every day, you get recognized, and you get pulled along.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

Yeah, one of the things that I wanted to get from you, I wanted to put a little pressure on you, require you to force rank, and say what is the single most important piece of advice that you offer the people that you mentor?

DIANE HATTON

I guess the most important piece of advice is that you need to figure out what you want from your job. You need to research what it’s going to take to get there. And then you have to execute the plan. And there are a lot of people who struggle with, I don’t really like this role, or I wish I was doing something different, or I’m kind of getting bored with what I’m doing. And people really have to step back and think what is it that I need to do and how am I going to get there, because you are responsible for your destiny. And if you need to make a change, you need to be willing to do what it takes to make that change.

STEPHEN W. MAYE

Figure out what you want, research what it takes to get there, execute the plan because you are responsible. It’s all up to you. And with that, Diane Hatton, director of the Nuclear and Particle Physics Directorate Office of Project Planning and Oversight for Accelerator Projects at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, has the last word. Diane, it has been a pleasure, and so glad I’ve had an opportunity to meet you, so thank you for being on the show.

DIANE HATTON

Thank you so much.

NARRATOR

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