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9 Sensational Traits of Highly Promotable Employees

What criteria do you use when promoting employees? See if your list of qualities matches this one.
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One of the most common questions employees ask is, "What can I do to get promoted?"

It makes sense: Often employees assume there is a key initiative, a specific action, a high-visibility project, or a critical role they should take on...and if they do, a promotion is just about guaranteed.

Maybe that is sometimes true. Maybe that's how you make promotion decisions.

Dharmesh Shah, co-founder of HubSpot (No. 666 on the 2013 Inc. 5000), takes a different approach. Dharmesh focuses on the employee's attitude.

His reasoning is simple. Attitude informs action. Attitude informs behavior. Attitude is the driving force behind every achievement, every accomplishment, and every success.

Attitude, where performance and therefore advancement is concerned, is everything. To Dharmesh, highly promotable employees:

1. Are humble, not arrogant.

Arrogant people think they know everything; humble people are always learning. Humble people ask questions. Humble people ask for help.

Humble people automatically share credit because they instinctively realize that every effort, no matter how seemingly individual, is actually a team effort.

Humble people are willing to take on any job, no matter how menial, because they realize no job is beneath them...and in the process they prove that no job is above them.

Ultimately, success is not limited by how high you can stretch but by how low you are willing to bend.

2. Are servants, not self-serving.

People never accomplish anything worthwhile by themselves. That's why great teammates make everyone around them better.

Take an unselfish basketball player: He makes his teammates better by delivering pinpoint passes in space, by boxing out, by setting solid screens, by rotating on defense...all the things that don't show up in the statistics but definitely improve the stats of his teammates.

Great leaders focus on providing the tools and training and culture to help their employees do their jobs better--and to achieve their own goals.

Great companies serve their customers first; they know that by serving their customers they ultimately serve the interests of their business.

The employee only in it for himself will someday be by himself. The employee in it for others may not get all the limelight...but the right people definitely notice.

3. Are optimistic, not pessimistic.

Optimists add energy to a situation or meeting or business; pessimists drain away energy. Optimists try more things and take more (intelligent) risks simply because they're focused on what can go right. Pessimists never get started because they're too busy thinking about what might go wrong.

Optimists don't feel they need to wait--to be promoted or accepted or selected or "discovered"--they feel they can, if they work hard, accomplish almost anything.

Best of all, optimism is infectious.

4. Think execution, not just planning.

Planning is definitely important, but too many shelves are filled with strategies that were never implemented.

The best employees develop an idea, create a strategy, set up a basic operational plan...and then execute, adapt, execute, revise, execute, refine, and make incredible things happen based on what works in practice, not in theory.

Success starts with strategy but ultimately ends with execution.

Employees who advance are certainly good at planning, but they are awesome at execution.

5. Think forever, not one day.

Real leadership isn't short-lived. Real leaders are able to consistently inspire, motivate, and make people feel better about themselves than they may even think they have a right to feel. Real leaders are the kind of people you follow not because you have to...but because you want to.

Other people will follow a real leader anywhere. And they'll follow a real leader forever because she has a knack for making you feel you aren't actually following--wherever you're going, you feel like you're going there together.

Creating that level of respect, that degree of trust, and that type of bond takes time. Great employees consider not just the short-term but also the long-term--and then act accordingly.

And in time, are placed in positions where they can truly influence the long-term success of their team, their unit, and their company.

6. Are volunteers, not draftees.

The best employees are natural volunteers. They volunteer for extra tasks. They volunteer for responsibility before responsibility is delegated. They volunteer to train or mentor new employees. They offer to help people who need help--and even those who don't.

Why is that important? Volunteering demonstrates leadership aptitude. Leaders are proactive, and proactive people don't wait to be told what to do. They're already doing it.

Successful employees earn their promotions by first working harder, just like successful businesses earn higher revenue by first delivering greater value, and like successful entrepreneurs earn bigger payoffs by first working hard well before any potential return is in sight.

Draftees expect to be asked. Draftees expect to be compensated more before they will even consider doing more.

Volunteers just do it--and, in time, their careers flourish.

7. Are self-aware, not selfish.

Self-aware people understand themselves, and that awareness helps them understand the people around them. Self-aware people are more empathetic. They are more accepting of the weaknesses and failures of others because they know how it feels to fail.

And they can lead with empathy, compassion, and kindness because they know how it feels to be treated with disregard, disdain, and scorn. They do everything they can to help others reach their goals, because they know how it feels to fall short.

Self-aware people solve for the team, the organization, and the customer--not just for themselves.

Every organization needs self-aware people in key roles. (What is a key role? Every role.)

8. Are adaptable, not rigid.

Things constantly change in high-growth companies. Inflexible people tend to grow uncomfortable with too much change and consciously--even unconsciously--try to slow things down.

Best practices are important. Methodology is important. Guidelines, procedures, policies...all can help a business run smoothly.

But anyone can follow guidelines and procedures. Great employees are willing, even eager, to change. Great employees respond to new circumstances and new challenges with excitement, not hesitation. Employees willing to adapt and adjust tend to advance more quickly because that is what every company--especially a high-growth company--desperately needs.

Otherwise growth will be a thing of the past and not the future.

9. Are teachers, not truant officers.

The best people like to teach. They don't hoard knowledge; they spread it. They share what they know.

A truant officer's job is to make sure people show up. A teacher's job is to make sure people learn.

Besides, truant officers tend to give "advice." Do this. Don't do that. Go here. Don't go there.

A teacher gives knowledge. A teacher helps other people gain experience, gain wisdom, gain insight. A teacher willingly and happily gives other people tools they can use.

In the process a teacher build teams.

And a teacher advances, because a true team builder is a rare and precious gem.

Now it's your turn: How do you make promotion decisions? What criteria do you use?

How to Evaluate Your Employees

Gilt founder Kevin Ryan explains why it's so important to have clear metrics and a definition of success for every role.

IMAGE: Shutterstock
Last updated: Jul 24, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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