How focusing on my employees cost me a promotion

By Mark Stuart

Before I founded Anagram Group and became a corporate trainer/coach, I spent over 15 years in the banking industry working for some of the world's largest banks.

I had a successful career in Derivative Operations, developed high-performing teams in London, Sydney, and Singapore, and created happy, engaged working environments for those that worked for me.

Everything was going well, and then I hit a roadblock. Some of you might have also been there. The place where people are expecting you to get promoted, and then you don’t. You think you've ticked most of the boxes: low risk, low attrition, high-performing efficient teams, and team members ready to step up.

Then, comes the justification. "You need to be doing more than your day job", "you need to think more global", "you focus too much on your team and people", "you need to spend more time on raising your profile and managing upwards".

My initial reaction was one of surprise. I just couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being promoted when they admitted I was successfully doing the job of the level above me.

I couldn't understand why I shouldn’t be promoted because I wasn't spending enough time reporting our achievements to the Global Head. And I certainly couldn't understand why focusing too much on my teams was a reason for not being promoted.

I wouldn't then, and still won't, apologise for focusing so much on my teams. In most jobs, this should be the number one focus for leaders.

Importance of upward management in banking

In banking, you have to think about risk management first. Then, come your people. Without your people – the ones you have trained, cross-trained, engaged, worked 70-hour weeks with – you have very little, and you open your teams up to the very risk you're trying to avoid.

If you expect your staff to work stressful jobs, often with long hours, the least you can do is provide a fun but hard working environment where they have the support they need to do their jobs.

However, with hindsight came some lessons that I only recognised after talking this through with my peers, my mentor, and others I respected in the banking industry. Successful leaders in banking understand the need and importance of upward management.

It's not enough, especially in a global financial firm, to just communicate with those working for you. You need to learn how to manage those more senior than you. This isn't easy but it's an invaluable skill to learn. How can you do this?

Anticipate what they want to hear – Think of how nice it would be if your employees came to you with important information or updates, before you found out, or asked them about it. Now turn that around, and do the same for your boss.

Keep them updated – In addition to the standard regular reporting you submit to your superiors, think of what else they might want or need to hear. This can include resourcing constraints, updates on key projects, and staffing problems. This will make your boss perceive you as someone in touch with issues impacting their team, outside of your day-to-day responsibilities.

Proactively escalate – There is nothing more frustrating as a manager than to find out about an issue after it's happened, especially if you hear it from someone else other than your employee responsible for that area. Ensure that you proactively escalate issues the moment you know about, even if they aren't resolved yet. It doesn't take much time to contact them about the issue, admit you don't have the resolution yet but you're working on it. And then keep them updated until resolution.

Like anyone else, I made plenty of mistakes during my management career, but I've always tried to learn from them, and become a better leader. In fact, I include many of those examples in my training and coaching sessions today so others can hopefully avoid the same mistakes I made.

Even though I was frustrated at the time, I'm now thankful of the lesson it taught me. It's not enough to just focus on the teams and processes under your control. Powerful leaders keep their eyes on the wider target, and look for ways to make a difference outside of their own world.

Think about who else is impacted by your actions, what they would benefit from knowing, and how you can help serve your organisation better. You might just find yourself on the fast track to promotion.

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