Are you "too good" to move ahead?

Have you ever been passed up for a promotion? Executive leadership coach John M. McKee says that it may have more to do with perceptions than reality.

“I was broadsided! I need some help to figure out where I go from here.”

The caller was a guy who’d just been passed over for a promotion. He said that, seemingly out of the blue, a new individual was hired into the company to be his department head. Right up until that announcement, he'd been certain that he was going to replace his boss, who had been promoted.

It wasn’t just his opinion, he said. “It was obvious to everyone” that he was going to be promoted. By way of background, he told me that he’d gone through the usual discussions with the individuals involved in the decision, including the CIO and a couple of people who were peers to the role his boss had held. He felt he’d done well and made a solid case for being promoted.

But then…

The HR head called to say they would also be interviewing some outside candidates. She said he shouldn’t be concerned because everyone felt he had the technical skills to do the job. He relaxed and waited. Then, two months later they hired an individual from another industry to be his boss.

“I’m still shell-shocked.”

So he came to me. I suggested he talk to the new boss as soon as possible.

My client asked him what happened. The new boss was forthcoming, said that although the hiring team agreed my client had the requisite skill set, they also thought he needed a little “seasoning” before the next step up the ladder. He couldn’t provide a lot of detail beyond that bare-bones answer. I added some meat to the skeleton:

This issue’s pretty common with experts in many fields. Many run in to it without knowing.

In many cases, people who move ahead quickly in the early levels of senior management get stalled. Usually what gets them promoted earlier is their technical expertise and/or understanding that's beyond the grasp of others. They’re recognized for having insight or skills that warrant promotion and recognition from lower levels.

But if you want ongoing career advancement, you need to adapt. Move away from being considered the expert. You want to be seen as one who’s able to help others become experts as well. 

If you don’t, you’ll get pigeonholed. The company bosses may get concerned about taking you out of such an important role with no one else able to fill it afterward. You’ll be held back because you’re too good at what you do.

If you think you may be in this situation, here are four tips to help you get back onto the promotional ladder:

1. Start developing your replacement. Make a point of showcasing him/her whenever you can. Let everyone see that you can move up with little disruption. And this also shows that you're good at developing others to move up as well. Bosses like that in an executive.

2. Change your communication style and method. What works for the specialists may confuse the rest of the organization. Worse: company leaders may not even understand your point. If your comments seem too technical, eyes will glaze over. You don’t want to be “the geek” -– you want to be the one who “gets it."

3. KISS still applies. The “keep it simple stupid” approach, in speaking or email, ensures that you aren’t regarded as a show-off. Help those in other departments or specialties to see what the point is by using general examples and everyday language that they can relate to.

4. Vision is still good. The ones who move up the ladder most quickly are those who are seen as having vision and are able to get others enthusiastic about projects. In almost every department and every organization, there are those who seem to have a perspective that goes beyond the immediate and day-to-day hassles. The decision makers see that.

Here’s to your future!