Many people at the bottom of the org chart look up at the executives and VPs amazed at everything they know and their steady climb up the corporate ladder.
But if you ask, those people at the top of the organization will tell you that their climb up wasn’t steady at all, and they gained all of that knowledge slowly over time.
Research shows that CEOs often worked in 3 to 4 key functional areas before their promotions to the C-Suite. Those key areas often include finance, operations, marketing, engineering, or running a key business unit (i.e. a unit that generates a lot of revenue).
One of my mentors told me about how he couldn’t get promoted any further as a VP of Operations. Then he switched over to a marketing role, did excellent work in his new role, and got the promotion he wanted after a few more years. He ended up being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company later in his career.
As many executives will tell you, their careers were not straight promotions up the org chart. They often worked as an Analyst in Department A, then got promoted to Manager in Department A, then moved to be a Manager in Department B, then got promoted to be a Director overseeing Departments A and B, and so on.
How can this knowledge benefit your career?
Perhaps to get that next promotion, you need to move laterally at your company before you get promoted up.
As you go up the corporate ladder, your knowledge must get broader and more strategic.
The typical career path usually goes as follows: Someone enters the company as an entry level employee, say as an Analyst. She does her job well and get promoted to Senior Analyst. After two or three more years, she continues to do her job well and then get promoted to Manager who oversees the Analysts and Senior Analysts she used to work with.
This is where a lot of people will get stuck. Up until this point, the knowledge you gained within your own department was enough to help you do your job: You were either doing what you did as an Analyst or managing people doing that job.
But at some point, the next level up will require you to work with people who have done things that you never have. That next level has people working on separate functions of the business reporting to you, and the person who gets the promotion to that position will need a solid understanding of those functions.
This would be the case for you if you look at all of the people reporting to your boss and you don’t have the skills of all of those people reporting to your boss. Then you might need to move laterally into one of those other departments and gain some of that knowledge before you will get promoted up.
How do you move laterally to a new position and develop those skills? The best way is usually through your own company.
Remember all of the cross functional projects you worked on during your tenure at the company. Think about if any of the people who led those projects lead teams in another department. If so, you can reach out to them and ask about your interest in working on more projects in that department. These people are already familiar with your work, and if you did a good job, they would love to have you on their team.
Another great way to learn about internal positions is to talk to HR. Human resources focuses on helping employees stay in the company and grow professionally so it makes sense that they’d rather have a current employee move within the company instead of go to a competitor.
If you are interested in staying within the company but going to a different functional area, you should talk to an HR representative. When internal jobs open up, HR will often search to fill the job internally before going external, and if an HR representative knows about your work and which departments you want to go to, he can alert you to the internal positions.
As a final way to learn about jobs in other departments, go to company wide events such as corporate trainings. When you attend, talk to new people and learn about their work. If that interests you, keep in touch with that person and try to work on some projects with them. It doesn’t even have to be a project related to your job. It could be something like helping to plan the company holiday party with that person or joining a company sponsored activity like the company’s running club. Then show them that you do great work.
Go out to events, meet new people in the company, and demonstrate your strong work ethic. If you do so, people who lead teams in other departments would love to hire you when they have a job opening.
If you feel stuck at your current job, you might want to move to a different department in your current company so you can learn more about different functional areas. As you gain more knowledge of the company as a whole, you’ll be more likely to get that next promotion up the corporate ladder.