How to get to the top

A series of ladders painted white with one red ladder in the middle which is taller than the others with an arrow up, to depict career progression and getting to the top


Getting to the top seat is the output of two mutually reinforcing factors: getting results in the right roles and getting noticed for those results. This is true for any coveted position. We live in a crowded world. There are likely five other qualified people standing next to you for any prized job opportunity. It’s not enough to perform well. You have to stand out.

Here are three ways to cultivate visibility with the right people.

1. Pick your boss.

No one has more control over your visibility and success in an organisation than your boss. Not all bosses are easy to engage with, but there are two things you must learn: how to hold your own — even engage in conflict — without your boss feeling attacked. And how to distinguish yourself in the organisation without leaving your boss feeling upstaged. To the extent you can, pick the right boss. When that’s not an option, make sure that every suggestion you make mirrors the language of the organisation’s goals and, better yet, your boss’s goals too. You can make your boss your collaborator.

2. Build your tribe.

Everyone needs sponsors – individuals, often people more senior than your own boss or residing in other parts of the organisation, who have the influence and the access to open doors and introduce you to valuable opportunities. But not everyone can access a sponsor with equal dexterity. Sponsors often throw their weight behind the people they see as “one of us”. What does all this mean for anyone looking to break into an opportunity where they find themselves in the minority? Nataly Kogan, CEO of the wellness company Happier, attributes a fair part of her success to creating sponsorship on her own terms. Nataly arrived in the United States from Russia at age 14. With barely any English, she got through high school thanks to an adroit ability to read people and her environment quickly and to find points of connection. Later in her career, as the only female managing director at the New York-based venture capitalist firm Hudson Ventures, Nataly realised she could cut through with humour to build bridges with her sports-talking colleagues. Rather than passively waiting for your luck, you can proactively create sponsors.

3. Build a bonfire.

You might be doing great work, setting a million little fires in different places. But who cares? To build your reputation, what you need to do is build a really large fire that can be seen from space. The key is to decide where to invest your time and energy to build a critical mass of relationships that help you stand out. A great way to gain exposure well above your pay grade is to take on a staff role with a senior person several levels above you. Even if you are in a smaller company that might not have “staff roles”, volunteering for important cross- functional projects outside the boundaries of your job can increase your exposure.

You have much more oxygen to feed the flame when you’re working at an intersection where you can add the most value and contribute what the organisation values most. If you give a heroic effort to some IT project in the basement – or 20 IT projects in the basement – in an organisation that lives and dies on sales, no one’s going to care. If you find yourself in an also-ran function within an organisation, you’ve got to take the risk to make a lateral move to broaden horizons or you may even need to leave the company for one where your expertise will be more central to the company’s priorities.

*Elena Botelho and Kim Powell are authors of The CEO Next Door, published by Virgin Books, out now, price £14.99.

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