With Martin G. Moore

Episode #262

Don’t Let Your Career Stall: A Q&A with Marty & Em

Really good people get stuck in their careers, for all sorts of reasons.

Sometimes, it’s obvious why it’s happening to them, and other times it’s a little more perplexing!

We get questions from our leadership community all the time relating to career progression, and they come from all levels—even C-suite executives who want to break into their first CEO role:

• What do hiring managers look for?
• What foundational behaviors and capabilities do you need?
• How do you become “more strategic”?

In this Q&A episode, we take a deep dive into some of the factors that are going to put you on the fast track to promotion and career progression.

Generate Your Free
Personalized Leadership Development Podcast Playlist

As a leader, it’s essential to constantly develop and improve your leadership skills to stay ahead of the game.

That’s why I’ve created a 3-question quiz that’ll give you a free personalized podcast playlist tailored to where you are right now in your leadership career!

Take the 30-second quiz now to get your on-the-go playlist 👇

Take The QuizTake The Quiz


Episode #262 Don’t Let Your Career Stall: A Q&A with Marty & Em

Marty: I’ve seen lots of really good people get stuck in their careers, for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s obvious why it’s happening to them, and other times it’s a little more perplexing.

We get questions from our leadership community all the time relating to career progression, and we’ve recently started to produce more content specifically to help take charge of your career.

But today we’re going to do a bit of a deep dive into some of the factors that are going to put you on the fast track to promotion and career progression. And of course, the best way to deal with this topic is in Q&A format. Em, welcome back to the mic. How many questions do we get every week about career progression?

Em: Hello. Hello. Great to be back on the mic. We get a lot of questions and it’s so interesting that they come from all levels. Even C-suite executives who want to break into their first CEO role are asking these questions, and that’s why I was so excited about scheduling today’s content in to answer them.

Yeah, so instead of answering specific questions from listeners, I’ve just put together a set of common themes that will give us maximum coverage on the topic. So let’s start with a really common one that we get all the time. This is the million dollar question. What makes someone promotable, Marty?


Let me just start off by getting us to think about what’s in the mind of the hiring manager. What does a hiring manager look for?

First, of course, they want someone who can do the job. They don’t want someone who’s going to be high maintenance. They’re looking for a level of independence. They want the people around them to think they’ve made a good decision in who they’ve chosen to appoint into the role. And, they don’t want to be dragged down into the day-to-day struggles that the person’s going to have when they come in, even if they’re fresh to the organization.

So, that’s the mentality of the hiring manager. The next thing is that they want someone who they know is going to get results. Now remember, there’s no potential without performance. So if you’re not producing now, you’ll be looked at completely differently, and it doesn’t really matter what you know or how smart you are.

I’ve often seen in the past that ambition can outstrip reality. A great example of this was, many years ago I was looking to hire a new CFO, and a person came into my office and asked if he should apply for that CFO role: he wanted to have a chat to seek my guidance. I’d had a conversation with this same person, not two weeks prior to tell him he wasn’t performing in his current role and gave him quite specific feedback.

Here’s what I’m expecting from you. Here’s the conversations we’ve had in the past. I’m looking for these types of outputs at this level of quality, and they simply haven’t come through.”

I’d given him performance feedback that actually said, “I don’t think you are doing your current job properly yet.” But, he still thought he’d be a genuine candidate for the CFO role, and I had to disavow them of that concept. It’s just interesting how people’s ambition often exceeds their performance. Results are absolutely critical.

And you need to try not to rationalize. If you aren’t performing, it’s easy to think that circumstances beyond your control are stopping you from getting results. Everyone has to deal with unfavorable circumstances, but the ones who are going to get promoted don’t make excuses. If you allow yourself to rationalize, you’re going to become a victim and no one wants a victim or a Teflon leader who blames other people when they don’t deliver.

Em: So true Marty. And look, we know that there’s no potential without performance, but potential is a lot harder to measure and assess. What are some of the key indicators that you look for to work out if someone has the potential to succeed or not?

Marty: You’re spot on, Em. Performance is much easier to gauge because you can actually observe tangible outcomes, and see people in action. What it’s not always easy to predict is what’s going to happen if you put them up to another level, because it’s a different ball game at the next level up.

The first thing we look for are behaviors. You want to see drive and ambition. You want them to have high energy and a really strong work ethic, and the ability to suspend self-interest. You want them to be direct and honest and trustworthy, and to have some strength of character where they can do some hard things and tolerate the repercussions.

I always look for thirst for knowledge and development because leaders are learners. We know that. And if you can find someone who’s not territorial, that’s perfect because you don’t want adversarial behavior. You want inclusive behavior with robust challenge, and that’s a slightly different thing.

And you absolutely want someone who you can see can learn from their mistakes. Slow learners are hideous. If you have to keep teaching someone the same thing over and over and over, you don’t want to promote them. It’s unlikely they’re going to be successful.

But there are also some observable capabilities that translate at any level. The first is abstract reasoning, and you can test for this. This is the ability to see patterns and apply them to new situations. Abstract reasoning capability is essential when you’re thinking about promotion.

There’s relationship building. You need people who can get on with others and play happily in the sandpit and can hold their own in these cross silo discussions.

You want a base of commercial acumen: fundamentals like negotiation, and you want someone who’s a smart, value-driven decision maker.

And, all of this wrapped up in the ability to communicate effectively. So those are just some of the things that I look for when I’m thinking about potential as opposed to performance.

Em: Okay, cool. That makes a lot of sense. And of course, all of this pushes towards value creation, which is right at the heart of the No Bullsh!t Leadership framework, and of course the first amazing module of our program, Leadership Beyond the Theory. But we have a lot of listeners who are delivering results, but their careers are still not getting anywhere. Why is this?

Marty: Well, this is where politics rears its ugly head.

We talk a lot about the concept of a workhorse versus a trusted advisor. A workhorse is someone who gets the job done, no matter what, and you keep throwing stuff at them and they will keep doing it. But they don’t ask questions, they don’t challenge you, they just do what you tell them to do.

They do a lot of low value work. Even if they’re closer to the action and they know something isn’t going to create a lot of value, they’ll still do it because the boss has asked them to do it. And when their team doesn’t deliver, they dip down and do it for them. They do their people’s work when their people don’t do their work. And you’ve got the problem where they don’t question things.

They do a lot of low value work. Their work ethic is awesome, but they step in and overcompensate for their team, and they never build capability and create the pipeline of talent that you need if you want that team to work long-term.

A trusted advisor, on the other hand, is someone who thinks above the level that they’re at. They think about the implications of what they do on the other functions and people and operations around them. They’re the ones who can talk to you sensibly about the things that are challenging your mind. And that’s why a trusted advisor is so valuable. And it’s the trusted advisors who get people’s attention up the line from them, and they’re the ones who are typically promoted.

You’ve got to be able to show that you can think at the right level.

Don’t think about making yourself indispensable (like the workhorse). Think about making yourself redundant.

We talk about working at the right level all the time, particularly in Leadership Beyond the Theory. But a culture will often encourage workhorses: no one’s going to stop you from saying, “I’ll do whatever you give me boss, and I’ll deliver it.” Right? No one’s going to tell you not to do that.

But while the workhorse is down, buried in the detail, somewhere out there there’s a politician sucking up to the boss preparing themselves and positioning themselves for the next promotion. Upwards managers are often regarded more highly than the workhorses for that reason, because workhorses don’t say no, they don’t question, and they just get down and bury their heads.

Em: Okay, talking of workhorses, one of the things that I used to see with really hardworking bosses is that they wouldn’t just focus on their job, they’d dip down into their people’s work. This was pretty terrible for everyone. And I know personally as a direct report, I used to feel like I was being micromanaged. I lost a lot of drive and motivation. I’ve spoken about this on the podcast before, but on top of that, my boss was always too busy, buried in the detail to do the high level work that really needed her attention, and there was no leadership guidance or development. Is this something that we see quite a lot?

Marty: Oh, such a common problem that I saw in corporate. A lot of careers stall simply because someone in a leadership role can’t let go of the detail. So, they lose their bandwidth to lower value work because they’re doing work that you’re paying other people to do, and they’re not doing their own job, which should be things like: making sure that the work program is the highest value use of the resources that you have at your disposal; challenging, coaching, and confronting people to make sure you are lifting their capability and getting the most out of them.

There’s a whole range of leadership jobs that simply don’t get done when someone’s dipping down into their people’s work. And if you’re buried in the detail, it comes out in everything you do. It comes out in the way you talk. It comes out in where you choose to focus your attention. You can’t build capability, develop talent, manage risk. That’s the work of leadership. If you want your career to flourish, you’ve got to show that you can think at the level above where you are, not the level below where you are.

Em: Okay. So we’re going a little bit into strategy here. I know you did a podcast some time ago about being more strategic. Is this a factor in career progression?

Marty: It was Ep.134: Being “More Strategic”. That’s what your boss is sometimes going to tell you when they can’t articulate what they’re looking for.

Certain ingredients are critical to being seen as someone who can rise up through the layers, and we’ve mentioned a few of them already. But, bosses who say someone below them is very strategic? Well, it’s often because of their affiliation bias. It’s just a person who tells the boss what they want to hear, and they agree with them a lot.

Sometimes it’s because they’re innovative thinkers, but they’re often away with the fairies. They don’t have any practical application for the innovative thinking, but they get that halo effect, which is transferred across to all other areas of their performance. And sometimes a boss will say, “You’re very strategic” if you’re a good presenter.

So you can get the “strategic” tag, not necessarily through being strategic, but through doing stuff that the boss will see as strategic.

Em: Yeah. So how do you combat that?

Marty: Well, you can’t really change a boss who comes under the spell of one of their direct reports. All you can do is demonstrate your worth by delivering the things that are high value, and demonstrating that you can deliver no matter what. Make yourself redundant, build capability, and grow talent. If you can do all those things, your boss is going to be pretty happy.

I remember going into a job years ago running a shared services division, and I was not long back from Harvard Business School. I’d just spent a couple of months there studying, and my thinking was just so far expanded beyond the role I was doing that I found my favorite conversations were with the people one or two levels above me. I looked forward so much to engaging in those conversations because that’s what gave me joy, challenge, and excitement. So I had lots of conversations with my boss, my boss’s peers, and the CEO of the company, which basically put me in that frame and marked me as being talent, who would be promoted.

Em: So, short of just becoming a “yes” person, how do you demonstrate that you’re strategic (as a poor communicator would put it to you)?

Marty: Of course, you can demonstrate your ability to be strategic (which really is a proxy for your readiness for the next level) by tailoring your messages for your audience. You want to make sure that when you’re talking to a CEO or a board, you stay out of the detail and get to the substantive issues. You’ve got to be a little careful not to oversimplify or lose meaning, because this can seem like you’re withholding information.

Make sure you’re staying at the level that people think at when you’re presenting to them… work on your abstract reasoning skills. As I said before, being able to recognize patterns and apply them to new situations.

Get good at explaining what you do without the jargon. This is sometimes a trap that we all fall into, and I came from the IT industry originally– there’s no other industry more laden with jargon than that. But as Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. I think that’s a really insightful comment (as you’d expect from Einstein).

The other thing is breadth of knowledge. Every new level requires greater breadth. So demonstrate your capability to think more broadly before you need to use it. For example, you might have a sales role, but it’s important to demonstrate that you understand the downstream impacts on operations.

Em: This is something that we talk about a lot in Module 4 of Leadership Beyond the Theory in terms of what to do when you’re transitioning to that next level: how to think and behave before you get to that next level.

So tell me, what part does education play?

Marty: Education is incredibly important. It’s your ticket to the game, right?

But your education and qualifications will only get you through the door. It may get you hired, but it won’t necessarily get you on the career trajectory you want.

For example, there are certain MBA programs that are very prestigious: Harvard Business School; Stanford; Wharton; INSEAD. But most employers don’t actually care about the qualification itself unless you’re going into a company that prides itself on only taking the Ivy Leagues.

So don’t rely on the qualification alone: rely on what that education enables you to do. So show that you can deliver. You need to turn all of that education into results and performance.

Remember, your education is the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Your track record of performance is cake. And no one over the age of 12 eats a bowl of icing on its own, as much as we’d love to.

It’s the practical application in anything that matters, right? Which is why everything we do in our business, Your CEO Mentor, is geared to practical application–to making a difference in the results you can achieve through improved leadership. This is why we spent all our energy trying to help leaders to capture that upside opportunity that exists in pretty much every team, to move it from functional to exceptional.

Em: But education is still a critical piece of the puzzle, isn’t it?

Marty: Oh, for sure. Education is critical in building competence. There are a few different types of learning. I’ve spoken before about the adult learning model, the 70/20/10 model: 70% of your learning should come from on the job experience; 20% from coaching and mentoring from your boss and those around you; and 10% from formal training.

Ideally, you want to take that 10% (which might be an MBA qualification or Leadership Beyond the Theory), and work out how to apply that to the 70%.

My MBA was absolutely critical in rounding out my theoretical understanding of a broad range of disciplines. And at the end of it, I could have an intelligent conversation with any expert in any field. But when I create content now, it’s to try to make practical application easier: tools, mindsets, strategies and techniques to implement right now and build leadership capability quickly. That’s what makes you more promotable.

Em: And if you can learn how to do that, then I’m assuming your career won’t stall. It’ll accelerate it, right?

Marty: That’s an outstanding observation, Em, and one of the reasons we chose to call this episode, Don’t Let Your Career Stall.


Ep #134: Being “More Strategic” – Listen Here

Ep #208: Breaking into the C-Suite – Listen Here

Ep #128: The Promotion Dilemma – Listen Here


Explore other podcast episodes – Here

Take our FREE Level Up Leadership Masterclass – Start Now

Check out our 8-week online leadership program, Leadership Beyond the TheoryLearn More


Here’s how you can make a difference:

Subscribe to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast

Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts

Repost this episode to your social media

Share your favourite episodes with your leadership network

Tag us in your next post and use the hashtag #nobsleadership