A strategy for climbing the organizational ladder.

Author:Muczyk, Jan P.


While there are numerous articles and books on the topic of "leadership," both academic and practitioner oriented addressing the relationship of the leader vis-a-vis the subordinates (Muczyk & Adler, 2002), there is a relative dearth of literature regarding the relationship of the leader with respect to his/her superiors. Of course, it is the superiors who decide which person is promoted, and there are many organizational members who desire promotions and would appreciate practical advice on the subject of climbing the organizational ladder--a common definition of organizational success. It is true that the interaction of the leader with subordinates is a partial determinant of promotability, but many other factors also come into play.

Organizations do not advance their personnel randomly, and luck cannot be counted on. Practically every organization has an identifiable filter through which persons who wish to attain promotions must pass. While each organization's filter is different in terms of its specific components and the weights placed on each component, it is still possible to identify and discuss the panoply of the most common factors that are frequently part of the filters that most organizations employ. Superiors when considering promotability of subordinates examine managerial attributes of the candidates, where leadership is just one of ten managerial roles, although arguably the most important one (Mintzberg, 1973). Yet, there is a void in the literature pertaining to how individuals can better prepare themselves for promotion. The principal purpose of this effort is to put all the factors related to promotability into perspective so that individuals seeking advancement have a viable strategy for climbing the organizational ladder. Individuals seeking promotion need to remember that in well-run organizations the person who is promoted is at best a little better than the candidates who are passed over. Therefore, every edge helps.

The secondary purpose of this effort is to provide organizations with the elements to construct their own filter which at the same time has the potential to capture the value system of the organization in question by placing different weights on the components of the filter or omitting certain components entirely.


While educational avenues to the top of an organization other than the Master in Business Administration (MBA) are available (e.g., Jack Welch of GE--PhD in Chemical Engineering and Andrew Grove of Intel--PhD in Chemical Engineering, Leonard Bosack of Cisco - M.S. Computer Science, Ed Whitacre of AT&T and GM--B.S. Industrial Engineering, and some notable leaders never completed college, Bill Gates of Microsoft and Michael Dell of Dell), the typical qualifying credential is an MBA from a leading business school. That is not to suggest that all MBAs from elite schools turn out to be a success--to wit, Rick Wagoner of GM - MBA Harvard and his successor, Fritz Henderson--MBA Harvard, led GM into bankruptcy which resulted in the U.S. government bailout.

Entrepreneurs, CEOs of high tech companies, and executives of small enterprises are less likely to possess traditional academic credentials than leaders of large corporations. One thing is for certain, if one desires to climb the managerial ladder in a large organization, whether in the for profit sector, a government organization, a not-for-profit enterprise, or the military, formal education is paramount. Good examples are Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense - PhD in Russian and Soviet History from Georgetown University and General David Petraeus, former Director of the CIA - PhD in International Relations from Princeton. Over eighty percent of U.S. Air Force majors and above have master degrees for example.

Obviously, when leading specialized organizations the situation is different. Accounting organizations are led by accountants, engineering organizations by engineers, law firms by lawyers, etc. For example, T. Boone Pickens who became a billionaire through oil and natural gas exploration is a geologist. Most Air Force generals are pilots. Generally speaking, however, CEOs come through finance, operations, and marketing (Stuart, 2005). Frequently, high potential employees are rotated through the salient functional disciplines that give them valued experience as well as opportunities to succeed. Both the individual and his/her organization need to ensure that high potential employees continue building their value to the organization through mentoring, career planning, job rotation, training, and education. Progressive organizations place a premium on developing subordinates. Some even consider you indispensable in your present position until one or more of your subordinates can do your job as well or better than you.

Are managers born or made? The answer is both. Some attributes such as intelligence, absence of dysfunctional neuroses, an agreeable personality, and the occasional charisma are genetically determined. The rest are developed through education, training, role modeling and experience (See Table 1). We need to keep in mind Muczyk & Adler's (2002, p. 5) observation that: "Many outstanding leaders get along quite well without charisma by focusing on the fundamentals of management."


Integrity as the sine qua non of organizational success

In organizations it is imperative that people trust you so much so that even one lie can jeopardize a person's career. Ditto for a serious ethical lapse. While ambition is not held against a person, it needs to be fettered by a properly working moral compass. Create rules that are legal as well as ethical, and enforce those rules diligently. This is the best way to inculcate an ethical culture. Ignoring these rules or making exceptions creates a slippery slope to serious consequences. Typically, the more ingrained is an ethical culture, the less time, effort, and money need to be devoted to the organization's formal control system. A good example is offered by the Siam Cement Group where long-term, socially responsible principles are incorporated in all aspects of the corporation's decision-making processes (Kantabutra & Avery, 2011).

Although easier said than done, practice a variant of the golden rule, i.e., treat everyone with courtesy, dignity, and respect. Also, avoid pretensions. Learn people's names as this practice leads them to conclude that you care about them as individuals. As John McCain discusses, integrity and honesty are character traits that make a person remarkable (McCain & Salter, 1999).

Recognize publicly but criticize privately, and avoid making criticism personal. That is, focus on the inappropriate act, not the person. This method of administering criticism creates less resentment and fewer enemies than alternative methods. While it would be nice, being loved is not important, but being respected is critical to effective leadership (Crocker III, 1999). George Washington's adherence to this dictum served him well as a planter, politician, and military leader (Chernow, 2010).

Personality matters

General George Marshal, while Army chief of staff, beginning with 1939, transformed the U.S. Army by relieving wholesale the peacetime officer corps (Ricks, 2012, p. 33). While Marshall valued a number of attributes, close to the top was a willingness to cooperate. Simply failing to show a spirit of cooperation was reason enough to remove a senior officer (Ricks, 2012, p. 37). Cooperation proved invaluable during WWII, which an "allied" effort required; but interservice cooperation was equally essential. In other words, victory is a function of teamwork so far as Generals Marshall and Eisenhower were concerned, thus, their preference for subordinates with a cooperative propensity and personality. One can easily make the case that organizational success is dependent on cooperation as well. However, no single personality profile is appropriate for all positions; therefore it is...

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