My promotion started with a fortune cookie. I was having lunch with a friend at a Thai restaurant on the University of Kentucky campus when I cracked open the crispy cookie that arrived with our bill. Enshrined within was a message that would soon change my life:
“Don't be afraid to take a chance when the opportunity of a lifetime appears.”
Good advice, as these things go, but especially poignant to me given that my boss had just announced her retirement days before. My department would soon be leaderless, and there wasn't a plan in place for her successor. My mind had been racing for the past few days with thoughts of how our department would change under new leadership. I had a good thing going here and a strong relationship with my retiring supervisor. I had worked hard to develop that relationship.
Now I was going to have to start over with a new director. How would things change? What new policies would be enacted? Would we get along?
I’ll admit the thought had crossed my mind that I could apply for the opening. In fact, when I joined the university a few years ago, I knew the position of information technology director would eventually be vacant. I knew I’d have a chance at promotion if all went smoothly. But I assumed that change was at least five years into the future. Plenty of time to learn on the job and be mentored by the current supervisor before I would have to prove I deserved the increased responsibility that would come with the directorship.
I'm not a particularly superstitious person, however, I can appreciate a serendipitous circumstance when I see one. So when I cracked that fortune cookie and read its cryptic aphorism, I embraced the idea that it might act as a catalyst for the decision I had to make.
After lunch, I walked back to my office with the tiny slip of paper in my pocket. I closed my office door and placed the fortune on the desk in front of me: “Don't be afraid to take a chance when the opportunity of a lifetime appears.”
I took a deep breath and contacted the dean to inform her of my interest in the open directorship.
It's been six months since I split open that fateful cookie. The dean accepted my offer to lead the department in the absence of a director until a replacement could be hired. The open position was eventually posted, a hiring committee was formed, and the search began.
Meanwhile, I helped lead the technology team and kept an eye on the departmental budget. It took three months to hire a new director, and let me say those three months were a trial by fire for me. I learned on the job at a rate I've never experienced before, resolving problems as they popped up. (What on earth did we ever do before Google?)
I took my turn with the hiring committee and made my case. When the dust settled, I was offered the job. By then I knew I could handle the work, and I was excited to continue the projects we had begun during my stint as interim director.
That tiny rectangle of fortuitous paper still sits on my desk to this day, reminding me not to be afraid of taking chances when they come along.
All this is to say: We are capable of more than we think. I had many reservations and fears about my ability to do the work that this new position would demand. They've all proven to be baseless. I also worried that I might embarrass myself applying for a job which seemed out of my reach. That, too, was an irrational fear.
Maybe you are facing a similar decision, or will soon face one. What are the best ways to prepare yourself so you are ready to strike when the opportunity comes along? How can you position yourself for success and career advancement?
I certainly can't pretend to have all the answers. Clearly I'm pretty new to this myself. But I'll share my experiences in hope they can serve as encouragement for your own journey.
- Form good relationships and help people. One of the most overlooked elements of career success is the value of being a good person and helping others. It's easy to get caught up in the mindset that anything we give to someone else is something we won't have for ourselves. That kind of stinginess may serve us well in the short term but, over time, it takes a toll on our reputation. People catch on. They might not even say anything directly, but when a position opens, your name will be wiped off the table before you even apply. One thing I've learned: Most people actually want success for those they like and respect. When you work hard and treat people well, they look for ways to return the generosity. They want you to succeed. On the other hand, those who are selfish and unwilling to help others usually don't garner any favors from supervisors and colleagues.
- Take the initiative and seize opportunities. I remember a time when I was guilty of assuming the boss knew I was the logical candidate for a promotion. I sat quietly and waited to be called into the office and awarded the job. Didn't happen. A coworker expressed interest and got the promotion instead. Supervisors aren't mind readers — they don't know what you want unless you tell them. Make your wishes known. And don't waste time when an opportunity presents itself. If you want the promotion, have a candid conversation with the hiring manager and explain your intentions and your qualifications.
- Gather your evidence. Plan that conversation in advance, so you're ready to make your case on the spot. Why are you the best person for the promotion? While planning your conversation with the hiring manager, take time to jot down your accomplishments in your current role. It's good to have tangible proof of your successes. A friend of mine calls this her “Go me” list, and keeps track of anything worth mentioning in a job interview or a performance evaluation. Not only does this help justify your value to the organization, but it also reminds you that you deserve it.
- Be confident and believe in yourself. Speaking of reminding you that you deserve it, know your value. I struggled with this one during my recent promotion process. I kept running through all the reasons I may not be qualified for the job — all the ways I might fail. I had to recognize that if I don't believe in myself, no one else will.
What are some of your career-advancement experiences? What advice would you give to those seeking a promotion? Share your thoughts in the comments below.