Success Factors

By Donna Owens Oct 1, 2008
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When Jenny Xia packed up and traveled from her home in Dallas to China in July 2007, it wasn’t for a vacation or to go sightseeing. The account supervisor with global public relations leader Weber Shandwick was working for six months as part of Weber’s Global Exchange program in Beijing. When the company sent out a query asking employees to apply, Xia jumped at the chance to experience China and familiarize herself with international operations.

“It was the perfect match of my interests and the company’s interests in Asia,” says Xia, who brushed up on her Mandarin to speak and work more effectively with her new, mostly Chinese colleagues.

Today, Xia has established ties and developed a deeper understanding of the global market. She describes herself as a “resource expert” capable of serving as a liaison between the company’s U.S. and China offices.

It was “invaluable for my professional and personal growth,” says Xia, adding that she now considers herself a better candidate for promotions.

Indeed, getting to the next level in business often means having the right experiences. Yet many workers don’t know what experiences will best prepare them for upward mobility, experts say.

No one has the perfect resume, but people who have experiences that are “accelerators” of potential will be more likely to succeed, says Stuart Crandell, Ph.D., vice president of Personnel Decisions International (PDI), a Minneapolis-based leadership consulting firm with more than 30 offices worldwide.

Developmental Learning

PDI partners with some of the world’s leading organizations and helps them make effective talent decisions, using field-tested strategies and tools so clients can better identify, develop and deploy leaders.

To that end, the company recently released a study outlining the types of experiences that are most valuable in predicting success at various levels of leadership—from beginning to mid-level to executive.

“It’s like a road map,” says Crandell, noting that the data can be used as a source for gaining insight into talent management and leadership development.

PDI researchers examined data from nearly 4,600 employees in a range of positions and organizations who went through the firm’s one- to two-day assessment process over the course of several years. Respondents reported on different types of leadership experiences and the frequency of those experiences. Analysis of the research reveals that specific developmental experiences best prepare leaders at different levels.

Upward Mobility

So what experiences were predictive in the careers of people who moved up organizational hierarchies?

According to PDI’s data, first-level leaders are more likely to achieve success if they have already had cross-functional experiences. Examples include:

  • Standardizing processes and procedures within and across organizational units.
  • Improving the quality of products or services.
  • Redesigning or re-engineering a major operating procedure or process.
  • Handling projects requiring direct participation of parties within and outside the organization.
  • Managing projects and teams that include participants from a number of units or functions throughout the organization. For midlevel leaders, prior challenging experiences that contribute to success include:
  • Being involved in turning around a struggling organizational unit.
  • Playing a part in the negotiation of a labor agreement.
  • Helping an employee overcome performance difficulties.
  • Developing a team.
  • Managing an organizational unit where a high level of distrust exists between managers and direct reports.
  • Phasing out a major function or unit within the organization.

At the director or executive level, previous experiences that affect success include:

  • Making a highly visible, risky decision where failure would have significant consequences, such as large financial losses.
  • Resolving a crisis situation.
  • Restructuring business investments.
  • Starting a new department, division or function.
  • Taking over an organizational unit where corruption existed.

Crandell adds that em¬ployees tend to grow more from their experiences when the organization has an explicit focus on learning.

Resources such as coaches and development programs can facilitate learning, encourage leaders to seek feedback and to reflect, and foster success in developing leaders to their highest potential, researchers found.

Mere exposure to the right experiences will not guarantee development or upward mobility. Necessary experiences for promotions vary by leadership level because business challenges vary at each level.

Experts agree that individuals who will become good leaders share common characteristics. These include:

  • Relating well to people.
  • Taking charge in situations.
  • Being results-oriented.
  • Being open to feedback.

People don’t have to like you, but they must respect you as credible and someone who follows through on commitments, says Crandell.

Richard Kilburg, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, stresses that not everyone seeking a promotion has to go about it in the traditional manner. In fact, creative thinking can help.

“It’s not always a vertical move,” he says. “Sometimes horizontal moves can advance your career. You may need to take another job at a parallel position within an organization, or leave, to be eligible for the job you really want. It’s important to know what you want and have a career strategy.”

The author is a freelance writer in Baltimore

Terms of Use: © 2008 Society for Human Resource Management. Members of SHRM are authorized to distribute copies, excerpts or e-mails of this information for educational purposes internally within their organizations. No other republication or external use is allowed without permission of SHRM. The information is not intended to serve as a substitute for legal advice.

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