Movin' On Up: How to Advance to the Next Level

Published: Sep 19, 2016 By

You’ve landed your first job after high school or college, and now you’ve got your eye on the next rung on the ladder. That rung is within reach but you’ll need to, ahem, step up your game.

Of course, the basics still apply:

Be on time

Don’t watch the clock. Don’t try to sneak out early. Don’t ask for time off and then call out if you don’t get it. Your bosses will make the connection.

Do your job

Even if your tasks seem mundane or beneath you, complete them accurately and on time. That’s how you show you’re ready for the next level.

If you don’t understand something, ask questions

Remember to listen to the answers—write them down if needed—so you can apply those answers and won’t need to ask the same questions again.

No matter where you work, put your mobile phone away during working hours unless it’s a company call

Spotted while researching this piece: a ditch digger with a shovel in one hand, a mobile phone in the other hand and a cigarette in his mouth. Productive? Not so much.

Dress appropriately for your company.

Cover up tattoos and take out piercings, especially if your boss doesn’t have any.

To move up, you have to move beyond the basics:

“You’re taught how to do the job, but nobody tells you about politics,” says K.J. Boyer Proctor, who has worked as a consultant and team leader with government contractors and Fortune 100 companies.

Be careful whom you befriend

“Nobody has talked to you about that person who has been at the company 10 years or more and is never going to move up and is going to sabotage you for wanting to move up,” Proctor says. Being seen as too chummy with that stagnant coworker could hurt you. That coworker could even be actively working against you.

Find a mentor

Once you know who the good role models are, find one to be your mentor. That person can be a valuable resource through several ladder rungs.

Be careful what you say. Better to have a BFF outside the office

“Don’t tell all your business to your coworkers,” Proctor says. “You never know who is going to get promoted—who is going to be your next boss. You’ve spilled your guts about your boyfriend, your wild partying on Friday nights, getting drunk. Now that person is your assistant manager. Six months down the road when the manager asks the assistant manager ‘Who do we make the line manager,' it won’t be you. Don’t tell your life story to everyone you work with because it can come back and bite you.”

Be careful what you say, part two

As society becomes increasingly polarized along political and religious lines and the presidential election looms, now is a good time to remember to keep strong beliefs to yourself at work. No matter how logical your political or religious position is to you, don’t assume your boss and others above you share that position. No matter what you think of Clinton, Trump, third party candidates and those that missed getting on the ballot, talking about those beliefs at work likely won’t advance your career. 

Be careful what you reveal on social media too

“The real you is going to be on social media,” Proctor says.

Yeah, filters are your friend, but once your words are out there, you’ve lost control of them. Just because your boss isn’t on SnapChat, Instagram and Twitter doesn’t mean someone in the company won’t find your latest post. If that post is deemed inappropriate for an employee at your company, you may miss out on a promotion, face discipline or even get fired.

The company cookout or Christmas party is not the time to let your hair down. Even though you’re off the clock, you’re still at risk. Drink too much, say or do the wrong thing and your career at your company could be toast.

“I’m not telling people not to enjoy themselves or not to be engaging, but I am saying not to be standing on the lampshade,” Proctor says. “Your bosses are watching. Part of the company get-together is a way management uses to filter people.”

Watch what’s not getting done and do it

That’s how one young man in Proctor’s family moved up in his first job at a fast food restaurant. “He knew every so many hours that the floor had to be mopped and the grease had to be changed,” Proctor says. “Instead of waiting for the assistant manager or manager to ask him if he’d done it or tell him to do it, he just did it.”

Don’t work through lunch

Won’t that make you look dedicated? Actually, it may backfire.

“It makes it appear to your manager that you can’t get your job done,” Proctor says. “If you need to come in 30 minute early to get your job done, do it. If you need to stay 30 minutes late to file your papers, do it. But don’t work through lunch unless they ask you to.”

Plus, you need the break. “You need to be able to get away and decompress,” Proctor says.

Set boundaries with your boss

Even as you’re trying hard to please your boss, you have to set limits. You might phrase it as asking for guidance. Proctor once worked for a boss who would give her five things to get done by 2 p.m. and then bring in another emergency task he also needed done right away.

“Instead of getting my stomach in knots, I’d say, ‘This is what you’ve assigned me already. Tell me what you need me to take off so I can get this done,’” she says.

This writer once worked at a company where every day the boss gave her 30 minutes worth of tasks to do five minutes before her shift ended with the wink-wink-nudge-nudge expectation that she’d work off the clock.

The first time or two, you probably just do the tasks—but clock out when you’re finished, Proctor says. After that? “After about the second time, I’d start thinking ‘What’s going on here?’” Proctor says. “In a nice way I would have said, ‘Excuse me, am I so good that you think I can get this done so quickly? In a way it’s flattering. But it seems we’re getting in this pattern of assignments late in the day. Is this a rite of passage?’”

Let your boss know you have commitments after work hours—although you don’t have to specify that’s it’s picking up your child from daycare, walking your dog, a class at the gym or a hot date. One bus driver simply says, "I have another obligation," when asked to do something that conflicts with her personal schedule. Enough said.

Finally, if it looks like you can’t move up, ask for a lateral move

One woman Proctor knew was at GS14, nearly to the top rung of the government pay scale. But for a variety of reasons, she was stuck. When she finally stepped sideways into another department, she won a promotion to GS15 and then to the step beyond—SES.

“She went to another agency and flew right to the top,” Proctor says.

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