Category Archives: Unwritten Rules

So, You Want To Get Promoted. What Are You Doing About It?

People Who Do Their Job Don’t Get Promoted

performance level conceptual meter

Doing your job is not enough.  You were hired to do your job.  The fact that you do it–even that you do it well–is not enough to make you stand out.  If you don’t stand out, you don’t get promoted. This is a very important concept to “get.”  What are you doing to stand out?  When people across the organization (not just your unit) think of you, do they think you stand out?  Do they think of you as a “go-to” person who “gets it done?”  Do people outside your unit even think of you at all?

There are different cultural expectations within organizations.  “Follow the rules.” “Be a team player.” “Make your boss succeed.” “Get results.” What are the expectations in your organization?  Are you meeting them?  Are you exceeding them?  To get promoted, you must exceed them.  I actually don’t know an organization that doesn’t expect people–leaders–to get results.  Do you get results?  I’m not asking if you try hard.  Or if you work hard.  Or if you do what you are asked.  Do you get results?  Consistently?

Two Sides To Getting Promoted

There are two sides to getting promoted.  First, the need for someone to be in the position has to exist.  Second, you have to be obviously the best choice to fill the position. The first isn’t under your control (although you should always be hyper-aware of these opportunities).  The second is under your control.

  • Sometimes you can see opportunities coming.  Your boss is going to retire.  There is a major reorganization happening soon.  Someone is leaving. The company is growing.
  • Sometimes you know what you want the next step to be.  You may want to go to the next level in your organization. Or you may want to hop to another organization with a new kind of position.

You should have A PLAN for whatever opportunity you see and want.  What skills do you need to acquire.  Are you being obvious in getting those skills?  Are you seeking experiences that will grow those skills?  Do others in the organization know that you’re growing the skills?  It’s always important to remember that people don’t necessarily know that you are growing.  Sorry.  It isn’t obvious unless people are paying close attention.  You need to make it obvious.  How will you stand out so that people will immediately think of you when the opportunity opens?

Stand Out.

I used to sit in on conversations considering people to fill critical positions.  It was unusual when everyone in the group all knew the same people.  Most candidates had one advocate and maybe one other who had an opinion and the rest didn’t know the person.  So . . . the candidate that everyone knew really stood out, especially if all the opinions were glowing.  When you think about the potential next positions for you in your organization, think about who would participate in the decision.  Do they know you?  Do they think highly of you?  What can you do about that?One to Watch Marked Person in Organizational Chart

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Filed under Bosses, Brand Yourself, Career Development, Career Goals, Executive Development, Get Promoted, Uncategorized, Unwritten Rules

Look At Your Organization Through New Eyes. Every Day.


Get Out Your ‘Spidey-Sense’

Remember when you were new in your organization? Remember the things you noticed? Remember the things you thought? You noticed what worked and what didn’t seem to be working. You notice who had the power. You noticed who seemed to be moving up (and you probably had a clue as to why). You noticed who annoyed you and who you liked.

Then you settled in. And you started to forget. You got used to things. You became friends with people. Your own prejudices and stereotypes kicked in and overrode your initial impressions. And you went on autopilot.

So you are missing a lot of what is going on in the organization. You are missing the nuances and the undercurrents that can help prepare you for what is going on. Your “Spidey-sense” needs to be turned on at all times.

Here are some times to make sure you’ve got your NEW EYES open:

  • Every time a new executive joins the organization. What ripples are caused when new people join the organization? We tend to assume that they will adjust to the organization (and to an extent they will), but the organization will change around them too. Think of new people as boulders in the white water. The water speed and directions/currents will change when the boulders are moved.
  • Every time the organization is impacted in the market. If you’re not watching the “market” that includes your company, you’re driving down the street toward a dam that has opened up across the street. You will be overtaken by circumstances beyond your control. And you won’t be ready.
  • Every time a new project starts or stops. People are impacted when projects start or stop. Opportunities open up. Companies downsize. This does not necessarily apply only to the people on the project. Sometimes those people are rewarded for the effort they have put into the success of the project—by being moved into your job or into your boss’ job.
  • Every time cost cutting starts. When organizations are cutting costs, they re-look at EVERYTHING. They will at some point look at what value you are adding to the organization. Don’t assume that it is obvious. Use New Eyes to see what they see. In fact, do it before the cost cutting starts. Make sure you’re adding value and that the powers that be know that you are adding value. Don’t assume that it is obvious.
  • Every time the organization gets stretched or starts to grow. Opportunities abound during stretch and growth times. Use NEW EYES to see where the opportunity is. Figure out how to be the one who others think of for those opportunities. Don’t just sit in your day job and let the growth happen around you—be ready and be available for it.
  • When you get a new boss. This is possibly the most important time to be looking through your NEW EYES. Your boss doesn’t know what has gone before. S/he only knows what exists when s/he gets there. If there are problems in the organization, then it is likely that you are perceived (by someone who has just arrived) as part of that problem. Look for ways that you can help your new boss immediately. Look for what your boss wants to accomplish and figure out how to help him/her do it. QUICKLY.
  • When you get new co-workers. Much the same things apply to new colleagues as new bosses. It is a great opportunity to see the organization through new perspectives. What is right and what is wrong about your organization. What can YOU do to help change things that need to be changed? How can you help your new colleagues be successful?
  • When someone important gets fired. In fact when anyone gets fired. Firings should be wake-up calls for everyone. Why did s/he get fired? Did s/he run afoul of someone? Did s/he break a rule? An unwritten rule? Fail to get results? Look at yourself. With NEW EYES.

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Filed under Bosses, Career Development, Personal Change, Unwritten Rules

Do You Really Need A Mentor?

Do You Need A Mentor?

It’s common to hear that you need a mentor for career success.  Is that still true?  Yes. You need a mentor.  You need several.  Over the course of your career you need people who help you along the way.

  • Mentors are experienced and trusted advisers.
  • Mentors can explain things in a short conversation that would take weeks, months, or even years for you to figure out on your own.
  • Mentors can tell you things about yourself in a way that you can actually hear it.
  • Mentors can easily open doors that you might otherwise stand on the outside looking in–forever.
  • Mentors can teach you skills that you never knew you could develop.
  • Mentors can help you see the world from another (or lots of other) perspective.
  • Mentors can help raise your performance bar.
  • Mentors can help you come up with new solutions to problems that have you stuck.
  • Mentors can speed up your progress and development by sharing their experience (and saving you from having to go through the same experiences–especially the bad ones).
  • Mentors can help build your network.
  • Mentors can help you understand the unwritten rules of an organization.

YES.  You Need a Mentor.

So, yes, you need a mentor.  You need different mentors for different times in your career. You need mentors to help you with different developmental issues.  For example, when you are graduating from college, you need someone to guide you from the college experience to the work experience.  What should you expect?  How should you act?  What is important?  Of course lots of people make this transition without a mentor (although parents frequently fill this role), but people who have mentors who specifically focus on this conversation avoid common pitfalls.

When you start to get serious about having a career instead of a job, a mentor can help you begin to navigate organizational politics and understand what organizations look for in “high potentials.”  Young people who are a part of Executive Leadership Programs get a lot of this kind of mentoring and it makes a difference!  Which job should you go after next?  What should you focus on in the interview?  What should you highlight in your performance assessment?  What should you add to your resume draft?

When you decide to change organizations, which ones should you target?  Who does your mentor know in the new organization?  Which organization is likely to be the best path to your career goal?

When you’re trying to solve a difficult organizational problem–supply chain streamlining, new branding, cost reductions, new market target–a mentor with specific knowledge of that problem is a short cut to understanding the boundaries of the problem and where to find the kind of expertise that you need.

Just Do It.  Ask.

Mentors can perform many roles in your career success.  The key is to step out there and get one (and then another and another).  Mentoring is about relationships.  Ask someone.  Who do you ask?  Ask someone who knows what you need to know.  Ask someone who can introduce you to people or experiences that take you to a new level.  Chances are that anyone you ask would be flattered to be asked to be a mentor.  S/he may or may not be able to say yes, but it is likely that they would enjoy being asked.  If they say yes, know what it is that you’d like to get from them.  Tell them.  It’s ok.  That is what mentoring is about.  Straight talk.  Being clear.

If s/he says s/he can’t do it, then tell them why you thought they would be a good mentor and ask if they can suggest someone else.  Ask if they will provide an introduction or if you can use their name to approach the other person.  You wouldn’t think twice about going to a doctor who specializes in something you need.  Don’t think twice about seeking a mentor in the same way.

Remember, though, mentoring is about relationships.  What can you give back to your mentor?  Mentoring relationships are two-way relationships.  Mentors feel good when their mentees make progress.  They like it when they can introduce their mentee to a new experience, person or organization. There are lots of things that you can teach someone who might be your mentor.  Be sure to do it if it is appropriate.  Be open to the ways you can help/teach/entertain your mentor.


Filed under Career Development, Career Goals, Executive Development, Hi Po, Mentor, Networking, Unwritten Rules

What The Heck Are Unwritten Rules?

Four Problems

There are four problems to being able to understand the unwritten rules in your organizations.  The first is that you believe you know the rules (these are your beliefs about how organizations are supposed to work) and that creates a blind spot for the unwritten (unspoken/invisible) rules that you don’t know.  The second problem is that the unwritten rules keep changing.  As new leaders come in, as the organization gets purchased or reorganized, the unwritten rules can change.  The third problem is that the “unwritten rules” aren’t the same from organization to organization.  So, when you change organizations (even subunits within your current organization), you need to reassess what the unwritten rules are.  The fourth is probably the biggest problem.  It is that the unwritten rules are communicated through informal networks, and if you’re not a member, it is hard for you to find out about them.  They aren’t necessarily talked about, but people who are new learn to emulate the rules from the people in their networks.

Unwritten Rules in Organizations

What Are the Unwritten Rules?

The unwritten rules are the “way things work” in the organization.  People who know these rules aren’t necessarily able to articulate them, because it is likely that they “picked” them up without someone clearly telling them.  These are things like how you’re supposed to dress, how you’re supposed to interact with others, how late you’re supposed to work, how and with whom you go to lunch, and a whole host of other things.  You are evaluated by the organization by how well you follow these rules, even though no one has ever told you what they are.

The Research

Catalyst is an organization founded in 1962 to provide research and support for the inclusion of women in business.  They do significant research on many work related topics.  They have researched unwritten rules in organizations and the impact that they have  on career success. In research done in 2008, The Unwritten Rules, What You Don’t Know Can Hurt Your Career, they identified common areas of unwritten rules that exist  in many organizations:

  • Communication and Feedback–speaking up/being assertive/challenging (or in some organizations-not challenging)
  • Performance and Results —exceeding performance agreement is expected
  • Career Planning –you’re expected to have a plan and you’re expected to push for it
  • Seeking Visibility — sometimes this is an expectation, not considered “brown-nosing”
  • Building Relationships –joining and building networks, establishing trade routes of informal relationships
  • Increasing Face Time –just because you do a good job it isn’t enough, you need to build the relationship, and be present
  • Working Long Hours
  • Clearly Communicating a Willingness to Work Many Hours

Unwritten Rules for Promotion

Looking at “unwritten rules” associated with getting promoted, they identified:

  • Network and build relationships within and outside the organization
  • Find ways to become visible
  • Play politics and lobby for yourself and your work
  • Be a team player, work well with others
  • Communicate effectively and ask for lots of feedback
  • “Fit in” with the organizational culture
  • Perform well, produce results
  • Be knowledgeable, competent
  • Find a mentor, coach, sponsor
  • Be energetic, work a lot
  • Work long hours
  • Be strategic, savvy
  • Develop a good career plan
  • Be communal

How Do You Figure Out the Unwritten Rules?

In 2010, Catalyst followed up with a second study, The Unwritten Rules, Why Doing a Good Job Might Not Be Enough, asking how respondents had learned the unwritten rules.  The top responses were:

  • Learned through observation
  • Learned through trial and error
  • Learned through mentoring and feedback
  • Learned through previous work experience

So, What Does This All Mean?

Get a Mentor.

Just because you don’t know them, it doesn’t mean there aren’t unwritten rules.  The research shows that one of the best ways to learn them is to have a mentor who can help you.    How?  Find someone in your organization who you think knows what’s going on and ask him/her if s/he will be willing to be your mentor.  Most people would be flattered by the request.  Don’t get hurt feelings if the answer is no, go find someone else.  Have a couple of conversations–over coffee is good–to see if the chemistry is right.  Ask him/her about his/her career/success/path/learnings.  People are almost always willing to talk about this.  Listen to the stories looking for evidence of the unwritten rules.  It’s ok to ask about the unwritten rules, but I wouldn’t do it in the first conversation.


Start watching people closely.  Especially the powerful and successful ones.  Pretend you’re in a foreign country trying to figure out what’s going on.  What do they do?  How do they do it?  How do the bosses react?  Do you have the same reactions?  If not, how are yours different?  What are you missing?  What values seem to be at play?  Practice a little with your own behaviors.  Flex your style a little.  What reactions do you get?

Ask for Feedback

Ask people about how they think you fit in.  Ask them about your behaviors against what they perceive as the unwritten rules.  (It is highly likely that a peer would welcome this conversation because he would be interested in the same feedback.)  Take the lists of “unwritten” rules above and ask for feedback.  How did the responses fit with what you think?


Did you cringe at anything above?  At the rules as listed?  At the thought of asking someone to be a mentor?  At the thought of asking for feedback?  At the thought that there are mysterious unwritten rules?  If so, then chances are you need to think about it some more.  That’s ok.  Go ask some people you trust.  See what they think.


Filed under Career Development, Career Goals, Communication, Executive Development, Success, Unwritten Rules