Ask Annie

What it really takes to get that next promotion

September 28, 2012: 11:27 AM ET

The traits that got you to middle management may not help you scale the corporate heights. Here's a look at what might get you there.corporate-promotion

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: A friend of mine sent me your column about getting promoted from the individual "star" level into management, but I already made that jump a few years ago at a different company. In fact, I'm starting to regret having left there because, ever since I signed on with my current employer, my career seems to have stalled out. My performance reviews have been great, my department has had several big successes, and I think I'm ready for the next level. My boss, however, disagrees. His main criticism is that I'm "too detail-oriented."

So I have two questions. First, is there really such a thing as being too detail-oriented, or could that be a smokescreen for something else he doesn't want to tell me? And second, I've been extremely attentive to detail all my life -- which usually has been an advantage -- so do I have to change my personality to get promoted? (Is that even possible?) --Stuck in Neutral

Dear Stuck: No doubt you aren't the only one wondering. Getting promoted is tougher than it used to be, for a couple of reasons. First, "the global recession has been a factor," notes Stu Crandell, a senior vice president at Minneapolis-based leadership development and coaching firm PDI Ninth House. "Organizations let so many people go that lots of positions got consolidated, so there are fewer management jobs to move into."

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Even before that, he adds, companies had been running leaner and cutting out layers of management jobs. "So often, instead of an upward move, we're seeing people move sideways in companies, to get broader experience and visibility, or sometimes even taking a step down in rank in order to prepare to move up later," Crandell says. "It's become more of a zigzag path, rather than straight up. This is hard for 'A students' to accept."

Then there's the notoriously lofty failure rate of people promoted into bigger jobs, which according to some studies runs as high as 40%. "Companies are being extremely cautious about moving people from one level to the next higher one," Crandell observes, and no wonder: "We've heard plenty of horror stories about managers who got promoted and then flamed out -- and executives themselves often tell us how much harder it is to adjust to a bigger job than they thought it would be."

With all that in mind, a team of researchers at PDI Ninth House set out to analyze exactly what leads to a successful upward move. Mining information from the firm's database of 37,000 individual executive assessments, the researchers wrote two reports -- one about the specific kinds of experience that prepare people to rise through five levels of management (from midlevel team leader to CEO), and the other examining the personality traits that help or hinder performance at each level.

"Of course, there are some variations from one corporate culture to another," Crandell acknowledges. "But some traits, like high levels of energy and the ability to think strategically, are common to every company as people take on more responsibility. They're constants."

In your case, it seems that extreme attention to detail may indeed be holding you back. As the study, which was titled "Personality and the Leadership Pipeline," puts it, "Leaving the details to direct reports, leaders focus on more integrative and holistic issues." In other words, you may need to learn to let go of the small stuff and focus more on the big picture.

Says Crandell, "If you're too deep in the weeds with the day-to-day minutiae as a senior manager, you'll micromanage the people below you. That's likely to alienate them, and it probably means you're not thinking strategically enough."

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Luckily, he adds, "You don't have to change your personality. You just have to alter your behavior at work. Once you leave the office, you can be as controlling and detail-oriented as you want -- but while you're there, you can learn to consciously delegate the details to others, and keep track of their activities without doing everything yourself."

While you're working on that -- and making sure your boss knows you're doing it -- Crandell suggests looking around for ways to build up critical leadership skills, like negotiating with key stakeholders, overseeing a risky new product launch or production technique, or helping to fine-tune long-term strategy. "Seek out highly visible assignments that will give you new kinds of experience," he says. "For example, volunteering for crossfunctional projects that aren't part of your current job will make you stand out and give you a wider perspective."

One further tip for anyone hoping to move up: Don't be irreplaceable. "Our coaches often hear senior executives say, 'We can't promote So-and-So, there's no backup,' " Crandell notes. "You have to be outstanding at your job, but try to train and coach high-potential people under you, so there will be someone who can step into your job if you get a bigger one."

Even if you do everything right, given the constraints imposed by leaner organizations these days, moving from middle management into a senior position usually takes patience and persistence. "There are no guarantees," says Crandell. "But you can put yourself in a better position to be noticed and considered when promotion decisions are being made." Good luck.

Talkback: If you've been promoted lately, what do you think got you the bigger job? If you have promoted someone else, what convinced you that he or she was ready to move up? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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