The Key to Getting Promoted

A few years ago I facilitated a one-week leadership seminar for a very senior group of Federal managers.  This is a group who is on the cusp of promotion to the Senior Executive Service (SES).  Members of the SES serve in the key positions just below the top Presidential appointees. SES members are the major link between these appointees and the rest of the Federal work force. They operate and oversee nearly every government activity in approximately 75 Federal agencies.


One of the highlights of the week was on Thursday where several current and retired SESs talked to the group about their career path, what they did to attain promotion, and passed along advice on career planning.  I was curious (although I’m not in the Federal service) about their career paths as well, wondering what it took to promote in the system.  What I heard was a little surprising.


When asked when they made the decision to go on a track for SES, each speaker told the group they never did.  They simply worked hard to achieve the mission of the Agency and take care of the people, and the big promotion was a by-product.


This was interesting to me since most folks in at least the private sector have to claw their way to the top, leveraging relationships, sometimes employing Machiavellian tactics, and in many cases stepping on top of others to make progress.  I was under the assumption this was the same in this case (and maybe in some instances it is) but either way, I was pleasantly surprised!

It made me think about the right attitude to have if you’re on a career track for high level promotion.  The attitude should be one of service.  The harder we work for ourselves, the more challenging leading an organization becomes.  It’s a very unselfish role to be successful at the top.


In some parts of the world, monkeys are trapped in a very unique way.  A glass jar of marbles is placed on the ground and monkeys, who are naturally curious, stick their hands into the jar to get the colorful little prizes.  Once they get a handful, they try to pull their hand out of the jar, but their fist blocks the exit.  Unwilling to let go of the marbles, the monkeys are easy prey for the trappers who snatch them up in a burlap bag.


If you’re trying to get to the top at the expense of others and your organization, you’re really no different.  The harder you reach for something, the more you have to lose.  Are you focusing on the right things?


This week, take a look at your career goals.  Are you doing the best you can for your organization as well as yourself?  Remember, one you get that big promotion, you’ll have to lead people.  Will there be anyone left to lead if you’re promoted through a path of destruction?  Just a little food for thought this week.