What it takes to get promoted


The mere mention of a title like “what it takes to get promoted” is bound to release some sarcasm in more than a few people.

Sadly, phrases like, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” and “they promote everyone who’s inept so they don’t have to fire 'em' are common. Even sadder, in some cases, these clichés are true. But overall, a few key skills seem to be universal for what companies look for when choosing someone for promotion.

According to an employer survey conducted last quarter by Job Service in Idaho, interpersonal skills and thinking were the top skills sought by employers when considering someone for promotion. This aligns with a survey conducted a few years back by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), wherein a variety of interpersonal skills filled the 'most sought after' slots.

Here’s the NACE Top Ten list of what employers are looking for:

  1. Communication Skills
  2. Motivation / Initiative
  3. Teamwork Skills
  4. Leadership Skills
  5. Academic Achievement
  6. Interpersonal Skills
  7. Flexibility / Adaptability
  8. Technical Skills
  9. Honesty / Integrity
  10. Work-Ethic and Problem-Solving Skills

What we have are two different organizations, one surveying regionally and one nationally, and both coming up with the same answers for what make someone promote-able.

The Idaho Works survey created by Job Service in Idaho says it succinctly: Interpersonal Skills and Thinking. Let’s consider these one at a time:

Interpersonal Skills:
If an employee cannot communicate well, cannot get along well with others, and cannot be flexible and adaptable with varying personalities, then serving in a manager or leadership role will prove difficult. The higher up one goes on a corporate ladder, the more he or she needs to be able to gather, process, and disseminate information in a variety of settings. Someone with limited ability in these skills will not lubricate the gears that make an organization’s wheels turn.

As I say often in my workshops, “everyone has thoughts – but not everyone thinks.” Those that think are those that take initiative to do so. It means looking at today’s situation with tomorrow’s eyes. It means considering past trends and predicting future ones. Thinking doesn’t just happen – thoughts just happen. Thinking requires applying ourselves to solving problems. It’s not physical work, but it’s work nonetheless.

Educational guru Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who researched and promoted the concept of multiple intelligences, says that true intelligence is “the ability to solve problems and fashion products.” And what company wouldn’t want to promote someone who solves problems for them?

As an employer, as well as someone who has interviewed several thousand people for various companies over the past fifteen years, I can tell you that one of the key skills I look for when hiring for or promoting to higher-level positions is the capability to solve problems. Even in my own company, those who take or make recommendations for action when they see a problem are those that get promoted – usually over someone else who may have more seniority but does not show as much initiative.

If you’re wondering why it is you’re not getting promoted, it’s probably because your superiors do not see these skills in you. But before you get defensive on me, let me state that it’s not that these skills are not present – it’s just that your superiors are not seeing them.

This is why the analytical and amiable styles can get passed over for promotion while the outgoing expressives and drivers make rate on a regular basis. The extraverted styles stand out! Introverted styles need to let their bosses know about how they take initiative and exercise interpersonal skills.

But regardless of your temperament (introvert or extravert), if you’re looking for a promotion, sharpen your interpersonal and thinking skills. These are learnable skills, but not ones that many employers provide training for, so you’ll have to take the initiative on your own.

But then, that’s what it’s all about anyway.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.

Older Comments

I am writing from Australia, the land of the long lunch if you are in management. I was a nurse, have also done accounting and Office Management. Husband was dying of cancer and just needed a job to pay the bills. Found nurses giving drugs without orders, theft etc. 2 years of harassment then they investigated. I was transferred to audit. Found the auditor spent his time smoking - no real audits done for years. If he had done audits, they would have exposed his 'mates' for their mismanagement. He took the easy way out. Everyone kept their mouths shut and self-promotion followed. I got angry and rang the Premiers office. They investigated and all hell broke loose. When evil people do evil things - in 'Health', good people and(patients) suffer. And suffer a lot. You make 'management' sound like a game sometimes. Bad managers kill people - patients and staff. They can destroy families, cripple communities, cost a fortune before they are found out. In Australia, they are promoted. That is why our government health is in a shambles. I have a lovely letter from the premier thanking me for shooting myself in the foot. It's a great life. I feel that references are a big problem. In Australia you get 'referees' to help get you a job. Years ago, they used to contact the past employer and find out how you performed. No-body but a fool would believe you or your friends - but here they do. So promotion is a game of friendship here - not skill, etc. It is like the monkey - the higher up the pole he goes, the more you see of his real worth. I enjoy your pages.

Catheryn Clifton Australia

I think one of the key things to getting promoted is making yourself known. You have to do some internal PR to show you are there.

Ben Seattle

Dan, I am driving myself silly trying to find something that is being bandied around in the educational arena. It is 'the top 13 Fortune 500 skills' and since I see you appear to have knowledge of what F500 is looking for can you help me document those? I have spend several hours here looking via the free Internet and also through my databases but I am not able to find this from anyone who might actually know. If you can help I would be very grateful.

Rebecca Monroe, Indiana