Breaking the Glass Ceiling
Reaching for the Top With Everyday Tools
Do you feel that you've gone as far as you can with your current employer? Despite knowing that you have much more potential, is there a limit for "people like you" in your organization?
If so, you've hit what's known as the "glass ceiling." This is the point at which you can clearly see the next level of promotion – yet, despite your best effort, an invisible barrier seems to stop you from proceeding.
Traditionally, the glass ceiling was a concept applied to women and some minorities. It was very hard, if not impossible, for them to reach upper management positions. No matter how qualified or experienced, they simply were not given opportunities to further advance their careers.
Today, there are many more women and minorities in powerful positions. However, the glass ceiling is still very real. And it's not always limited to gender or race.
Have you been pushed up against a glass ceiling? This can happen for many different reasons. Are you too much the champion of change? Do you have difficulty communicating your ideas? Are you quieter and less outgoing than the people who get promotions?
Whatever the reason, you have a choice. You can accept your situation and be happy with looking up and not being able to touch what you see, or you can smash the glass with purpose and determination.
If you do, indeed, want to break through that glass, here are some steps to take.
Identify the Key Competencies within Your Organization
Key competencies are the common skills and attributes of the people in your company's upper levels. These skills are often tied closely to the organization's culture and vision.
Companies that value innovation and strive to be leaders will probably promote individuals who are outgoing, risk takers, and not afraid to "tell it like it is." However, if you work for a conservative company (such as a publicly owned utility) chances are that top management are analytical thinkers, with a reputation for avoiding risk and making careful decisions.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What are the values of your organization?
- What behaviors does your company value and reward?
- What type of person is promoted?
Understand what sets your company and its leaders apart. This is the first step toward discovering how to position yourself for a top leadership role.
Two universal competencies for top management are effective leadership and effective communication. Each of these is complex.
- Read everything you can about leadership styles, skills, and attributes. Mind Tools has an excellent collection of articles on Leadership Skills. You may also want to consider taking the Mind Tools How to Lead course.
- Communication skills will help you, regardless of the level you want to reach in your career. Start with the introduction to communication skills, and learn to use as many of these tools as possible.
Set Objectives to Align Your Competencies with Top Management
Once you know your target, set goals to get there. You're responsible for determining your own career direction. Be proactive and go after what you want, because it probably won't be handed to you.
Do the following:
- Let your boss know that you want to work toward a higher-level position.
- Ask your boss what skill areas you need to develop.
- Work together with your boss to set goals and objectives, then monitor and measure your performance.
Remember to concentrate on areas of your performance that you can improve. Don't set a goal to achieve a certain position by a certain time. This can be discouraging if it doesn't happen. For example, set a goal to consistently demonstrate assertive and clear communication. If you achieve that goal, no matter what job title you have, you've succeeded! See Personal Goal Setting for more ideas on how to define motivating goals.
Build Your Network
You should also build relationships with other people in your organization. You never know who may be in a position to help you or provide you with valuable information.
It's important to network in all areas and levels of your company. Many people tend to think it's best to make friends at the top. However, to be effective and actually make it to the top, you'll need the support of colleagues at other levels as well.
Try these tips:
- Reach out to new people on a regular basis.
- Get involved with cross-functional teams.
- Expand your professional network outside of your organization. If you can't break the glass ceiling in your company, you may have to look elsewhere for opportunities.
Read more about Professional Networking .
Use the climate in your organization to your advantage. While "politicking" is often seen as negative, you can help your career by understanding and using the political networks in your company. See Dealing with Office Politics .
Find a Mentor
Having a mentor is a powerful way to break through the glass ceiling. The barriers that you face have likely been there for a long time. Past practices, biases and stereotypes, and old ideas are often long established at the top of many organizations.
Is upper management reluctant to work with certain types of individuals? Do they exclude certain people from important communications? A mentor can help you learn how to get connected to the information and people who can help you. A mentor can also be a great source of ideas for your professional development and growth.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Is there someone in upper management you can approach to help you?
- Will your boss be able to provide mentoring support?
- Are there people with strong political power who can offer you assistance?
Read Finding a Mentor for details on what to look for in a mentor and ideas on how to find one.
Build Your Reputation
Ultimately, the way to get ahead is to get noticed. You want people to see your competence, leadership abilities, communication skills, technical knowledge, and any other competencies that are typical of people at the top.
Develop your skills and network with people so that your name becomes associated with top management potential. To do this, you need to build a reputation as the kind of person who fits the description of top management. Visibility is very important. Remember, while you can see up, those at the top can see down. Make sure that what they see is you!
Follow these guidelines:
- Seek high-profile projects.
- Speak up and contribute in meetings.
- Share ideas with peers as well as people in higher positions.
- Identify places where your reputation is not what you want it to be, and develop plans to change them.
For more tips on building the right kind of reputation, see What's Your Reputation?
Know Your Rights
Finally, watch for discriminatory behavior. Sometimes biases and stereotyping can cross the line into discrimination. It's unfortunate for both you and your organization when situations like this occur.
Don't just accept frustration and failure. Know that you're doing everything right, and arm yourself with a good understanding of your rights regarding official company policies and local laws.
The Mind Tools article on Avoiding Discrimination shows you how to protect yourself if you face this regrettable situation.
To get ahead and reach the leadership level you want, you need to champion and market yourself. That means proactively managing every step of your career. If you can't seem to break through a glass ceiling, you might have to work harder than others.
We can't all be exactly the type of upper management person our company wants. What we can do is develop the skills that the company values. Arm yourself with a development plan as well as the help of your boss, a strong network, and, hopefully, a mentor. You can then build and showcase the skills that will help you climb the corporate ladder. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone, and you may find new zones of opportunity.
Apply This to Your Life
If you're frustrated with your career advancement, consider the following:
- Do you have a career plan in place? If you don't, now is the time to make one!
- Does your boss, or anyone in your organization, know what your goals are? Unless people know what you want, they may keep you in the same position and assume you're happy there.
- Do you feel alone and unsupported in your career goals? If so, who can help you change that? We all need to make our own success, but most people don't succeed all on their own. Ask for support and assistance – this is a sign of strength, not weakness.
- What areas for skill development have been pointed out to you in the past? Are you making improvements?
- Are you facing a glass ceiling? Recognizing that the ceiling exists is the first step. The ceiling won't be removed unless you do something about it. Apply some of the ideas in this article, and monitor your progress.
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