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Five Strategies For Navigating Career Advancement: Climbing the Ladder and Breaking the Glass Ceiling

By Susan Fields, CFRE

For years nonprofit organizations, as well as for-profit businesses and corporations, have been talking about achieving “diversity and inclusion” in the workforce. Unfortunately, over the past twenty-five years little has changed with 18% of nonprofit CEO positions held by women, and one woman of color at the helm of a Fortune 500 Company. The “glass ceiling”—an invisible barrier that separates women, racial and ethnic minorities, as well as other marginalized groups from access to leadership positions—seems to be alive and well in the workplace. Even in fields that are traditionally labeled as “female dominated”—education, social services, and nursing—the few men hired are often fast-tracked to administrative positions.  We could explore the reasons for the affinity toward white male leadership and put forward ideas for correcting this form of discrimination, but the purpose of this AFP educational program was to provide hands-on tools that women and other minorities could use when acquiring the leadership positions they are seeking. The five strategies below for “climbing the ladder” as well as the attached handout distributed at the event are tailored to provide every advantage toward reaching that goal. 


1. Know who you are and exactly what you are seeking. This requires clarity of goals and an arduous search of the type of organization that best fits your skills, talents, personality, and work style. If you detest bureaucracy and need “space to move around in”, the last workplace you should be considering is a large university or hospital that separates its employees into silos and discourages creativity. Also understand in advance exactly what skills you will need to excel at the job from the very first day and make sure that you come prepared to “hit the ground running.” If you are still uncertain of your preferences, the best course to take might be to seek a position that isn’t completely perfect, but interests you—and put 100% of your effort behind it regardless of its drawbacks and limitations. By doing this you will develop confidence in your ability to succeed, define your likes and dislikes, and build the skills which will hold you in good stead once you decide to take the next step in advancing your career.  

2. Learn your organization’s culture. A company’s personality lies deep within its expressed and unexpressed values, and determines acceptable and unacceptable behavior on the part of employees. Notice the way in which your peers and administrators dress, talk to one another, and the manner in which meetings are conducted. For instance, if you are working in the development office of a large private high school, you will probably find yourself working with divergently different groups of people. Talking to a group of teachers will require a different approach than meeting with the school’s development committee or a group of alumni. In situations like this you might learn that the head of the athletic department holds almost as much power as the President—so tread lightly until you know the ground you are walking on.  Also avoid politics like the plague, steering clear of involvement with factions that might crop up around certain issues. The best course of action is to work hard and keep your own counsel.

3. Stand out from the crowd. Do anything and everything to make sure those who are in power know who you are and how hard you are working. Seek out extra tasks that will make the job of your boss and the people around you easier. Arrive early and leave late, and involve yourself in organizational events and activities that will give you the opportunity to make valuable contacts. It’s interesting how popular the employee who organizes the company holiday party can become almost overnight! Avoid negativity, give a helping hand to fellow workers when necessary, and foster your trustworthiness and dependability in all that you do. Along the way it is also a good idea to seek feedback from your boss now and then, implementing his/her suggestions in the projects you are working on. Know that whatever you put out will be returned to you in the form of respect and possibly that promotion you are seeking.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. All too often employees would rather struggle with a project than ask a team member or the boss for help. This doesn’t mean throwing up your hands and becoming impatient and irritable. But sometimes it’s necessary to have a meeting with your supervisor to discuss the problems you are undergoing and review possible solutions. For instance, the last thing that you want to do is conceal the fact that one of your organization’s publications—about to be distributed within a week—has a glaring error on the cover, or that one of its most generous donors is about to bail because they had an argument with the board chair. It’s at your discretion when to seek help, but be certain that you aren’t trying to “go it alone” when seeking advice might be the best course in avoiding a catastrophe. The same might be true with requesting additional assistance with a project that has become far more complex and work intensive than planned.

5. Make a move or create your own career. If you find nothing you do seems to work in getting that promotion, maybe it’s time to seek employment in an environment more amenable to your skills. Warning! This does not mean that you immediately quit your job and assume that you will find another within a week or so. If you haven’t already done so, join a professional organization to support you in your search and speak to a trusted mentor who can also assist you in the process. Contact people in your network who can send out the word, and review websites that have job listings in your field. If you are really ready for a risk, possibly it’s time to look into starting your own business. Whatever you do, keep in mind that in order to move to a higher level position, your work in your current job needs to be both extraordinary and exemplary! So the best thing to do is review the four suggestions prior to this one to make certain that you are living them out each and every day. 

Click the link below for
Tips for Women in Leadership Positions
distributed at this AFP Educational Program 

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