Years ago, when I taught undergraduate business courses at a local university, periodically I’d run into students who were on the “paper chase”—chasing a degree in pursuit of a promotion. Someone in their organization had insisted that they needed a degree in order to be promoted. So these students returned to school secure in the knowledge that if they returned to the workplace with a degree in hand, then their promotion would be assured. Unfortunately, many of these students also saw the pursuit of a degree as being more important than the pursuit of knowledge and looked to shortcut that process as much as possible. The typical result was time and money spent getting a degree and a new reason why that student was ineligible for promotion. Why? In our litigious workplace, managers rarely give candid reasons why an individual is not promoted; instead, they tend to focus on easily measurable factors such as years of experience or applicable educational credentials. Often, the individual simply lacks the skills to perform at a higher level. So, how do you ensure you become promotable?

First, consider that few companies actually have formal companywide executive development programs. There may be pockets of succession planning or training available, but in today’s world of frequent job changes, companies invest less in personnel development and more often prefer to hire someone who has the needed skills for the job already. In most cases, you are responsible for planning your own career development; however, realizing that you are responsible for your own success will separate you from the much larger pack of people who think they deserve a promotion, but do nothing to make themselves promotable. Here are seven career planning steps that can help you stand out as someone ready to rise to the next level:

  1. Define a career roadmap
  2. Focus on making your boss’ life easier
  3. Volunteer for difficult assignments
  4. Find a mentor
  5. Use volunteer activities to increase your expertise
  6. Commit to continuous learning
  7. Track your results

Define a Career Roadmap

The first step to become a viable candidate for promotion is to develop an understanding of the career path (or paths) available and the skill sets required for each position along that career path. Most companies have detailed job descriptions that define the skills and education required for each position. It is perfectly acceptable to ask for career guidance advice from your boss during your performance review (assuming it is a good review). Discussing your long-term goals with the Human Resources department may also be acceptable as long you don’t allude to making a job change behind your boss’ back. You may also want to look to professional associations or industry magazines for information on higher-level positions. For example, one of my professional associations developed a roadmap that mapped skills to positions in that career field and presented it at a career planning session at their annual conference. Many industry publications in fields such as purchasing or engineering publish salary survey data for positions in the industries they cover.

Focus on Making Your Boss’ Life Easier

This is a double-edged sword because an employee who makes his or her boss look good can sometimes become the person the boss is unwilling to lose. On the other hand, good managers recognize that their job is to grow their people. Being known for taking initiative is a great way to stand out.

Volunteer for Difficult Assignments

Volunteering for difficult assignments can increase your visibility across the organization and give you a well-documented record of accomplishing objectives. It is a good way to counter any risk of becoming the person the boss will never promote because it makes you the person other departments most want to steal. Nevertheless, if you have a good boss, stay loyal. Becoming known as an opportunist who is anxious to move up the ladder quickly is not a good way to build long-term relationships because other managers will soon recognize you will leave them high and dry just as quickly.

Find a Mentor

A mentor can help give career guidance advice and can be especially important if you’re unable to discuss advancement with your boss or Human Resources department. Some companies have formal mentoring programs that match employees with mentors. Take advantage of such programs if they are offered. However, be careful what you discuss with anyone you consider a mentor. Avoid gossiping, maligning your boss, or criticizing other departments. In some cases, your conversations with a mentor may be discussed at higher levels of the organization as part of evaluating your competency for promotion. In other cases, you may find office politics includes people who seem to be helpful while gathering “dirt” they can use to their advantage. Avoid having negative conversations with co-workers and colleagues.

Use Volunteer Activities to Increase Your Expertise

How can you gain management experience if you are not a manager? One way is to volunteer to manage projects or departments in volunteer organizations. Quantify your results and you have additional experience that you can add to your resume. This is also a safe way to eliminate a learning curve. The mistakes you make in the first projects you manage will not be included in your work performance review.

Commit to Continuous Learning

There is nothing wrong with choosing to pursue a degree or taking courses to increase your formal knowledge of a specific process or management discipline. The key to achieving maximum benefit is to realize that the piece of paper that says you’ve completed the work doesn’t matter. What matters is how you apply what you’ve learned on the job. Focus your learning activities on the skills you’d like to master in order to work at the next level, and you’ll find obtaining a promotion is pretty easy. There are many training resources available. Take advantage of relevant training offered by your employer. Consult free or low-cost online resources like www.coursera.org. Consider short courses or evening courses at your local community college or university. In addition, look at training and educational resources offered through professional associations. The Certified Manager certification offered through the Institute of Certified Professional Managers is one good example.

Track Your Results

Your resume should be a living document filled with quantitative results from key, successful projects. Keep it up-to-date. If your boss is open to it, provide him or her with a list of key accomplishments you’ve completed over the prior year right before review time. In short, don’t brag, but do make sure the people who can influence your success are aware of your track record.

Taking a focused approach to career advancement will pay dividends. If opportunities are limited at your current employer, the work you’ve completed will help increase your competitiveness in the job market at large. More importantly, the relationships you build tackling challenging assignments, making your boss look good, and participating in professional associations will likely open doors to you for years to come.