Finishing School

Raise Your Rank: Top Tips for Career Success

Steven Viscusi
Confidence can be cultivated, says recruiter Stephen Viscusi, who ordinarily imparts work advice to listeners of his "On The Job" radio show. (Courtesy The Viscusi Group)

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By Stephanie Beer
Special to
Friday, August 18, 2006; 4:18 PM

Is promotion eluding you? Your career advancement may not be entirely under your control, but acquiring certain skills and characteristics can alter your professional fate.

A broad network, well-read repertoire and an inquisitive nature can help you rise above a crowded field. For more on those tips and more advice, read on for best bets from the experts on professional posturing.

  • Expand your clique. Maintain a broad social network, says Advisory Board Co. CEO Frank J. Williams, by surrounding yourself with intelligent people with integrity who will challenge you to be your best. "Social capital" is built by establishing contacts: According to research by Stanford University professor and sociologist Mark Granovetter, most jobs are obtained through so called "weak ties" -- that is, people outside your primary social group. To maintain and build a network, keep in touch, sending interesting newspaper articles to acquaintances.
  • Take on more. Rising through the ranks demands that one anticipate and adapt to change. Fluctuations and insecurity allow opportunities to emerge, according to Gail Blanke, CEO of New York executive-coaching company Lifedesigns. Real and aspiring leaders need to be impassioned and bring energy and optimism wherever they go, so get involved, listen to others and view change opportunistically. Someone is going to take advantage of shifts; Let it be you, instructs Blanke.
  • Improve interactions. Studies indicate that people associate competence with vocal and facial pleasantness, signaling that perceptions of proficiency are linked with how we interact with others. Maintain eye contact and keep your facial expression neutral, neither expressing strong emotion nor appearing stony, advises author Margaret Shepherd in her book "The Art of Civilized Conversation." Animation and variety -- varying the rate, pitch and volume -- in your speech will also impress listeners, says Georgetown University lecturer and public speaking consultant Sue Roeglin.
  • Be inquisitive. "You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you," public speaking expert Dale Carnegie was said to have quipped. Engage others with questions. Open-ended inquiries start conversations and provide opportunities to expand your network and learn; small talk can lead to more serious discussions. Margaret Shepherd suggests replacing dead-end questions like "Working hard, or hardly working?" with inquiries about vacation plans and work projects. The ubiquitous Washington question "What do you do?" might be replaced with "What do you enjoy doing?"
  • Speak up. Most people are anxious when speaking in front of audiences -- about one-third of us are excessively nervous, according to a University of Manitoba study. Public speaking, however, remains pivotal to career success. Some advice Georgetown's Roeglin imparts to her students: The first 60 seconds are the most important, so grab your audience with a dramatic or compelling point; eschew caffeine; avoid iced water, because the cold constricts your larynx and gives your voice a "choking chicken" sound; write an outline, but do not memorize; record yourself to identify and eliminate vocal fillers such as "like" and and "at any rate"; and always end with a closing remark that signals the conclusion of your speech.
  • Book it. Reading the news provides one with useful, industry-specific information, but being more broadly literate is valuable too. Steve Leveen, author and CEO of home office supply Levenger Co., recommends building a list of must-read books. Asking colleagues about their favorite books helps you establish a rapport with superiors and tap their knowledge, while cultivating your extra-professional interests through reading allows you to connect other interests to your professional life. To increase your reading quotient, adopt the 50-page rule, suggests Leveen: if the book does not have you by then, set it down. Also try books on tape or reading clubs.
  • Make your name known. A name can stand on its own -- if it is "Donald Trump." But until you have a trademark after your surname, introduce yourself by your full name and tell people about yourself. To gain name recognition, you may opt to carry a tasteful "social business card," a modern-day equivalent to the social calling card. It used to be considered gauche to give out your business card at social events; in the age of ceaseless networking, however, a card that stylishly reflects you and not your firm is desirable, according to Paul Rubenstein, owner of The Written Word stationary shop in Washington.
  • Accept praise. The approaches different organizations take to single out employees for praise depends on their culture and work environment. In some cases, rewards may be monetary; good performance may also contribute to a promotion. When the stakes are high, taking or giving credit creates a delicate situation that should be navigated carefully. Claiming another's work can lead to lack of trust and high turnover, says Roger D. Sommer, vice president of client relations at human resources consulting firm OI Partners Inc./Maguire Group. Recognizing others is particularly important in peer groups; exchanging credit smoothes personal relationships, notes Sommer. Acknowledge assistance while gracefully accepting praise for your work.
  • Exude professional presence. You may not be able to fix faltering self-confidence easily, but you can cultivate a professional demeanor that makes you feel proud, says Steven Viscusi, syndicated radio host of "On the Job," and CEO of New York executive search firm The Viscusi Group. Viscusi suggests taking advantage of personal shoppers -- the professionals who guide you through boutiques and department stores -- to choose outfits and accessories that convey professionalism. And he also recommends taking a look in the mirror: Is it time for teeth whitening strips? Nothing exudes confidence like a big, bright smile, Viscusi contends. Finally, learn a strong handshake. Look polished and fortitude will follow.
  • Play the part. Interviewers are looking for upbeat candidates who remind them of themselves, according to research by Suzy Fox, associate professor at Loyola University Chicago Graduate School of Business' Institute of Human Resources and Employment Relations. A positive, gregarious nature was the biggest predictor of job selection, Fox found, while displaying behaviors that mirrored the characteristics of the interviewer also seemed to help. Those who weren't chosen, meanwhile, displayed signs of nervousness such as scratching and stroking their hands.

  • © 2006 The Washington Post Company

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