How to Get on the Management Track — And Stay On

For ambitious Asian corporate executives, the final frontier lies in the executive suite, that mysterious inner sanctum in which the corporate fate is pondered, decided and decreed. So few Asian Americans—men or women —have made it up there that some have postulated the existence of a glass ceiling calculated to keep them down in middle management ranks.

“I was their best brand manager,” complains a Chinese American female executive we’ll call Brenda. She had started at her mid-sized South Bay manufacturing company as a marketing assistant shortly after receiving her MBA. During her 14 years there, she worked her way up to the position of a highly respected senior brand manager.

“When they announced the opening for the vp of marketing job,” Brenda recalls, “I was sure I would get it. The last thing I expected was for them to bring in somebody from one of our competitors, especially someone who didn’t have as much experience as I do.” The woman ultimately tapped to fill the coveted post had been a salesperson who had set records at her old company.

Stories like these abound in the corporate world. Upset by what she saw as a slap in the face, Brenda left to join her husband’s real estate investment business. She remains convinced that she has been a victim of the glass ceiling that looms over the heads of ambitious Asian Americans.

She may have been. Or she may have been a victim of her own success as a middle manager.

What baffles so many loyal, hard-working mid-level executives is that the qualities that helped them succeed in middle-management aren’t necessarily the ones they’re judged by in being considered for top management posts. To understand how and why the standards differ, one needs to understand how a middle manager’s function differs from that of an high-level manager.

Middle managers are there to ensure smooth day-to-day business operations. They set standards, enforce discipline and provide specific solutions to help employees perform well enough to meet production, sales and financial goals set by top management. Their focus is on dealing effectively and reliably with today’s concrete realities. The ability to instill a comfort level in subordinates and superiors are a middle manager’s stock-in-trade. In a word, the commodity for which a good middle-manager is prized is stability. Maintaining stability is a good middle manager’s job one.

Top managers have a very different objective. They are the visionaries who must foresee the need for changes and implement them. A successful business must continue to grow and prosper in an ever-changing world. As socio-economic changes accelerate, the pace of business changes too must accelerate. A top manager must keep an eye out for opportunities and dangers lurking behind every bend to ensure that the company will be well positioned for the future. Her most important energies are directed toward reducing future imponderables down to specific goals and directives to guide the company in coming moths and years. Her most important attributes are a tenacious grasp of the ever-changing factors that can determine the company’s success and failure, and the creativity, insight and dedication to devise and implement long-range plans in the face of myriad obstacles.

A movement into upper management requires a dramatic shift in perspective and workhabits. Here’s a checklist of 10 precepts that will help you make a smooth and speedy transition from middle to upper management.

1. Pay your dues cheerfully.

This may go without saying but impatient executives forget that it takes years of loyal, dedicated service (though not necessarily in the same company) before you can enjoy any prospect of being picked for a key management post. The only question is how many years—and that’s determined by a combination of luck and how well you observe the precepts that follow. By making a point of paying your dues cheerfully rather than grudgingly, you’ll make your workdays a lot more productive and pleasant for everyone, especially yourself.

2. Do more than is expected of you.

Do what’s expected of you if your goal is to remain stuck in middle management. If you aspire to the very top, however, make a habit of doing more than is reasonably expected of you. Nothing impresses the powers that be more than someone who takes sincere interest in the company’s well-being. It may be revealed in little things like turning out the lights to save on the utility bill or tidying up the reception area when you’re the first one in. It may be something substantial like doing double duty to cover for another manager while she’s on leave or volunteering to revise the company policy manual to reflect recent changes. This kind of initiative is so highly prized because it’s so rare in the corporate world. You’ll find that it becomes easier to fit such extras into your daily routine if you keep the next injunction in mind.

3. Be an earlybird.

Nothing helps you achieve a calm, collected command over your day’s work than getting in before everyone else. If you’re coming in after the receptionist, your climb is probably stalled. Those who consistently run ahead of the pack always command more confidence and respect than befuddled stragglers. An executive who’s already working effectively while everyone else is waking up to her first cup of coffee can’t help but attract the respectful notice of everyone from the mail clerk to the chairman of the board. Waking up a couple of hours earlier than everyone else may seem like a sacrifice at first, but once it becomes a habit, you’ll never go back to being one of those countless poor schmucks sitting bleary-eyed in traffic. Being an earlybird is the easiest way to secure moral claim to a place at the top.

4. Pinch pennies as though they’re your own.

If you were a businessowner and were looking for someone to whom to entrust a responsibility for the operation, wouldn’t you take a pennypincher over a spendthrift? Nothing says I care about this company better than fighting tooth and nail to save the company money every chance you get. The one document every CEO scrutinizes with a magnifying glass is the monthly financial report. Each quarter you manage to bring your department in under budget is a glowing testimonial to your character and business savvy. When it comes to penny-pinching, the little things matter as much as the big. Paper clips, personal calls, postage stamps—they all matter — and they’re usually noticed. Remember the saying, Mind the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves? It’s true. And don’t limit your pennypinching ways to your department. Think of ways to save the company money as consistently as you think of ways to generate additional revenues. This doesn’t mean you should put off necessary expenses. That would be a false economy, one that will catch up with you sooner or later. But you should be so zealous in ferretting out areas of waste that your boss comes to see you as an ally on fiscal matters. Next

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