The strategy worked for Jordan Brannon, until recently a sales rep at Coalition Technologies, a Web design and marketing agency in Los Angeles. In addition to developing new markets and consulting on products and services, Brannon saw a need for a set of standards that would help the sales team—for re-designing sales proposals, rewriting agreements, and documenting the sales process. He went to work creating them. After a few months watching Brannon's above-and-beyond performance, recalls the company founder and CEO Joel Gross, he realized he had found the executive to head up sales.
If you don't see ways to hone your executive chops on the job, look for opportunities off the clock. "We like employees who show initiative by taking leadership positions in organizations like the United Way or Boys' and Girls' clubs or through public speaking," says DiBenedetto.
Get training. Take advantage of leadership development seminars and workshops, including any training offered by your company. Tribridge launched Tribridge Academy two years ago to nurture leaders from within. It's worthwhile to work toward additional certifications and perhaps to get an MBA or other advanced professional degree. "The validation can make all the difference," says John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas.
Having a few initials after your name could also provide better job security. In 2009, when joblessness peaked, the unemployment rate for workers with a master's degree was just 4 percent, compared to 5.5 percent among those with bachelor's degrees (and 9.8 percent among those with some college but no degree).
Zigzag your way upward. People used to reach the top by working in one company, says Challenger, but today they do so "by deftly moving from company to company."
The secret is to be "deeply engaged in their networks in their field." He advises staying involved in professional and alumni organizations, and joining the programs committee at your firm to bring in experts who can speak on cutting-edge topics in your industry. You'll have a way to make unforced connections with industry influencers while expanding your network exponentially. McGowan advises using LinkedIn groups to pose questions and start a discussion.
Angela Raub's 20-year career is a testament to the power of zigzagging. "I call myself a professional mutt," quips Raub, now vice president of business development for Hotel Equities, Inc. in Atlanta. She's made mostly lateral and diagonally upward moves, from director of business development and client relations in telecommunications to director of corporate relations in higher education to vice president of business development in the hospitality industry.
The career tactic paid off when Raub was laid off from a position heading corporate relations at a business school in 2009. She aggressively tapped into her connections and landed three primo job offers in just three months—two as directors and one as vice president of business development at a non-profit.
The strategy also works within organizations. The model of linear, vertical promotions that take you up like an elevator is fading. To advance, executive-worthy employees need to develop an understanding of the whole company by working in different departments. "You can't be siloed in one area," DiBenedetto says.
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Find a mentor. Seeking out a mentor, inside or outside of your company, is more important than ever, experts say. Having one "is a huge competitive advantage," says Thanasoulis-Cerrachio. "It gives you a perspective you wouldn't ordinarily have."
Mentors may also make you privy to otherwise private information, such as an upcoming job vacancy or new initiative where you can make a mark. And the higher your mentor is, the better. A 2010 study from Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to helping women advance in business, showed that men and women with senior-level mentors advanced further and earned more than those with less senior mentors.