The Six-Year Itch

Want to reach the top at work? Now's the time to aim for it.
Money magazine, December 2006

Do you want to be a career middle manager? If you've been in the same position for about six years, you could be labeled as one. Most middle managers spend that long in the same position before being promoted to senior management, says a recent survey by Management Recruiters


International, and if you don't make the jump at that point your prospects take a nosedive. If you're approaching the six-year mark, start plotting your ascent. These strategies can help.

Too many employees overlook a crucial rule: Make your boss's priorities your own. Not only is coattail-riding a time-tested way to the top, but your boss's concerns probably reflect those of the company's upper echelon. Don't give your loyalty lightly, though, warns Kenneth Siegel, Ph.D., president of the organizational psychology consultancy Impact Group Inc. If your boss is stuck in a groove -- or worse, if they aren't inclined to pull you up behind them -- "try not to be under that person for long if you're aspirational," Siegel says.


In every company there are a few people who facilitate others' careers. "I was in one organization where, if you wanted to get promoted, you needed to have lunch with Bill. It was common knowledge [that] he had a lot of power and had the capacity to put in a good word for you," says Kathleen Reardon, Ph.D., author of "It's All Politics: Winning in a World Where Hard Work and Talent Aren't Enough." To figure out who Bill is, she says, observe your organization. Whose divisions fare best at budgeting time? Whom do your boss, your mentor and your peers talk about? That's Bill. Get on his radar by proposing a project he'll care about, getting on the same committee or researching an area he champions. Ultimately, Reardon says, all it takes to get on a power broker's good side is some minor contact -- like, say, lunch.


One of John Wayne's maxims was, "talk low, talk slow, and don't talk too much." While chatterboxes often appear mired in details, terse types seem more focused on the big picture and thus more managerial. "If you can't communicate concisely, you just don't feel 'senior'," says Richard Spitz, global managing director for executive recruiters Korn Ferry International. Make like Wayne in meetings, phone calls and emails, and your colleagues will turn to you to lead the posses.


Knowing your department inside out may make you indispensable, but it won't help you reach senior management. For that you need a high profile throughout the company and a broad knowledge of how things work. Instead of aiming for the next box up on the org chart, move laterally among different departments or divisions. You may spend longer in the same salary range, but you'll connect with people who can give you a boost.