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Aiming for the next level

September 17, 2018

ASU executive in residence May Busch shares 7 common mistakes that can kill your chances of promotion

Editor's note: This piece was written by May Busch, senior adviser and executive in residence in ASU’s Office of the President. She is also a professor of practice in the W. P. Carey School of Business and chairs the Idea Enterprise. Find her at

Is this a promotion year for you? Or maybe you have a big milestone promotion coming up next year that you don’t want to miss?

May Busch

Working toward your next promotion is both an exciting and nerve-wracking time. There’s so much to play for, yet the result is uncertain and it’s not in your control. If only we could give ourselves our promotions!

I’ve been through many promotion cycles in my career. Some for me, others for my team members, and now with my executive coaching clients.

When I think back on my 10 promotions during a 24-year career, on the way to managing director and chief operating officer for Morgan Stanley, Europe, I can see patterns of how to earn a promotion and common ways people stay stuck in their jobs.

It’s easy to sabotage your chances of promotion

Every promotion is a milestone in your career. It’s a sign of progress, recognition and reward. So you can’t help but work hard and give it your best shot. But what if all your hard work is not enough to get the promotion you deserve?

What if you’re not doing the right things? Worse yet, could you be doing the wrong things without knowing it and killing your chances of promotion?

While these are natural fears, they’re also worth thinking about … in a calm, strategic manner. 

In fact, it’s easy to go about getting promoted in the wrong way despite good intentions. That’s because no one shows you how to do it. Sure, you get told the “facts,” like key competencies and important deadlines. But that’s just the official part and it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

What are the unofficial, unspoken truths to getting promoted they don’t tell you?

One of the keys to success is simply to avoid going about it in the wrong way. If you stay away from the “killer mistakes,” you’ll improve your chances of getting promoted significantly.

Position yourself to be promotion-ready

Whether your next promotion opportunity is around the corner or a year or two in the future, it’s important to make the effort to put yourself in a position to be promotion-ready. And a great place to start is by addressing seven common mistakes or, better yet, avoiding them in the first place. 

When you miss out on a promotion, it’s hard not to take things personally because it feels like you’ve been rejected from the club. And it’s all very public. 

That’s why I’ve shared these common mistakes. I don’t want you to go through the trial and error (lots of errors!) that I did. I want you to have a smoother time of it. I want you to have the best chance of setting yourself up to succeed.

Remember, if you’re making some of these mistakes, you are not alone. The most important thing is to start addressing the ones that are holding you back, and keep taking steps. 

And now, it’s time to get out there and take action to put yourself in the best possible position to win your next promotion!

7 common mistakes that can kill your chances of promotion

Here are seven common mistakes I’ve observed over my 24-year career and now as an executive coach. Any one of these can sink your chances of promotion. Worse yet, they’re easy traps to fall into. I know I did! See if you’re making some of these mistakes. Then start thinking about what you can do instead to have a better chance of winning your promotion.

Mistake #1: Relying on your work to get noticed

I used to think that if I kept my head down, worked hard and produced excellent results, the rest would fall into place. Maybe it’s just a “nice Chinese girl” approach, but I can tell you it doesn’t work beyond your very earliest years on the job. Unfortunately, your work can’t speak and good news doesn’t travel nearly as fast as bad news. So don’t be lulled into the belief that doing great work is sufficient. Don’t think that it alone will get you noticed. Make sure you keep people updated on your accomplishments.

Mistake #2: Being invisible

This mistake is about not speaking up and not showing up. In my case, I was always “too busy working” to attend anything that wasn’t directly related to producing excellent work. And for those meetings and events I had to attend, I was too self-conscious to say anything. I would sit on the side and only speak when asked. This combination made me less visible to senior people. When no one knows who you are, it’s hard to form a positive opinion about how deserving you are of promotion, and I missed out that year. Make the time to show up and learn to speak up.

Mistake #3: Being indispensable

I realize this runs counter to advice you’ve been given, but being indispensable for what you’re currently doing is a real mistake if you want to get promoted. I remember sitting in a senior planning meeting when someone suggested, “Steven could be promoted to fill that open slot,” and Steven’s boss jumping in to say, “Don’t touch Steven. I need him in his current role.” 

If you’re so valuable in the role you’re doing, you may be too valuable to promote into a new role. After all, they can’t possibly find someone as good as you to do it. It’s fine to be seen as indispensable in the short term, but don’t leave it so long that you get stuck because you’re seen as the only person who can do the job. Make sure there’s someone else who can step in behind you.

Mistake #4: Leaving it too late

Don’t be like my team member, Carlo, who waited until two weeks before promotions were going to be announced before he came to my office to make his case. By then, decisions had been made and new information wasn’t going to help. And don’t be like Nick, who spent the first half of the year operating at half effort. Then, he kicked into high gear a month before performance evaluations. While it was great that he was calling on clients more actively and participating in our internal meetings more proactively, it was too little, too late. Start thinking early, know what promotion you’re aiming for a year from now, and carve out time to make a plan. And if you’re worried it’s too late, there’s no better time to start than right now.

Mistake #5: Playing it safe

As one of just a handful of Chinese kids in my town, I spent most of my growing-up years wishing I could be just like everyone else. That desire to conform, to be liked and to blend in with the group became an instinct for going along with the crowd and not rocking the boat when I started to work. But that’s follower behavior, and we’re in a world where leaders are the ones who get promoted. It took me too long to realize that playing it safe and being just like everyone else meant I didn’t stand out. Instead, it’s the time to bring out what makes you special and worthy of recognition.

Mistake #6: Being in the wrong job

Some jobs don’t lead to promotion to a higher level or greater responsibilities. The key is to know this before you pin your hopes on getting promoted. When my boss moved up to run a bigger unit, he asked me to be his operations officer or “right-hand person.” I was thrilled to move with him to this new role. Better yet, the star performers of the firm had gone on from operations officer positions to bigger and better things. When the time came to look at the next step, I learned that the operations officer role I was in wasn’t seen in the same light. Our unit was much smaller and less complex. It wasn’t the training ground that led to immediate superstardom. I ended up having to move to a revenue-producing role and take an extra year to demonstrate my value. If you’re in a role that doesn’t lead to promotion, then take everything you can from it and use it as a steppingstone to a role that affords an opportunity for promotion. 

Mistake #7: Not having your boss on your side

Laura loved her work, was doing well with her clients and had great relationships with her colleagues. She had just one problem: She and her boss didn’t get along. No matter who’s at fault, the result is the same. Without her boss’s support and advocacy, Laura wasn’t about to get promoted. Unless your boss is about to be fired, I’ve never seen anyone get promoted when their boss doesn’t rate them. If you haven’t figured out the care and feeding of your boss, this would be a great time to do it. This is the time to be doing your job well, which includes making your boss look good and making their life easier.

This story originally appeared in the fall issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

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New strength in survival

September 17, 2018

In the past, people were told to take it easy after cancer treatment; now, survivors find empowerment through athletic challenges

Cancer draws a line across a life: before diagnosis, and after. Who you were then, and who you are now. For many, who they are now might be a surprise. They are people who navigate river rapids, jump off cliffs and paddle dragon boats in foreign waters — even if they didn’t consider themselves athletes before.

ASU alumna and breast cancer survivor Kathy Sullivan has been paddling with the Phoenix Desert Dragons for two years. The group, established in 2010, is one of 213 dragon boat teams across five continents that make up the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission. The activity gives her more than exercise and camaraderie with her teammates.

“It’s shown me that I can do something that I’ve set my mind to do,” said Sullivan, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at ASU in 1994. “I’m growing and becoming more confident and a better person — I’m becoming me.”

The Dragons include about 35 active members, ranging in age from 30 to 79, who practice twice a week. In July, the team paddled at the IBCPC Participatory Dragon Boat Festival in Florence, Italy, along with more than 120 other teams. Melissa Adams is the team’s coach and a breast cancer survivor herself.

“I find my solace on the water,” she said. “Many of us come from a completely different life prior to our breast cancer experience, and we sometimes struggle with trying to figure out: Where do we go, what do we do, what is our new normal?”

Adams said many of the paddlers were not athletes beforehand but that after finding dragon boating they realized, “I’m totally capable of being an athlete, and a good one.”

Activity that empowers

The American Cancer Society encourages physical activity during and after cancer treatment, noting that exercise can offer physical and mental benefits — but that wasn’t always considered the case.

“In the past, people treated for cancer were told by their doctor to rest and reduce their physical activity,” said Dr. Anikar Chhabra, the director of sports medicine at Mayo Clinic Arizona. “What we’ve learned is that too much rest leads to loss of body function, muscular weakness, loss of motion in your joints, and stiffness leads to pain,” and research has shown that exercise is beneficial, he said. Now, doctors are urging patients to “go and try to do things.”

A number of programs help survivors do that — in ways that both challenge and empower them. First Descents offers free, life-changing adventures for young people (ages 18–39) affected by cancer. This includes adventure trips in the U.S. and around the world, as well as shorter weekend events in several communities.

ASU alumna Andrea Lopez went on a weeklong First Descents kayaking trip on the Rogue River in Oregon.

“It was an awakening,” she said. “When you’re going through cancer treatment, it’s scary. You have to be so cautious with everything, and First Descents kind of wiped that clean” by immersing participants in adventures. “Going through rapids in a river, your adrenaline and your survival skills — they’re all being tested. And it’s not like your survival skills being tested while you’re in the doctor’s office,” she said.

Activities include kayaking, climbing, windsurfing, hiking, bikepacking and ski mountaineering — which most participants don’t have experience doing.

“Adventure sports are innately empowering,” said Ray Shedd, First Descents’ director of development and marketing. “The secret sauce of our programming is the brutal, cold indifference of nature. We don’t dumb anything down because our participants are sick. We make everything fully accessible and fully adaptive, but those Class III rapids aren’t going to calm down because there are boaters who have cancer.” And participants face these challenges “with the tremendous support of their peers, fellow survivors.”

Lopez recalled falling out of her kayak and going through a bunch of rocks while holding onto someone else’s kayak.

“That was scary, and I got through it,” she said. “When I left, I just felt so empowered. I never knew I needed something like that.”  

Lopez was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia when she was 19. When you go through cancer, “your body kind of wears away a little,” she said. “I remember once attempting to run while on prednisone, and I fell flat on my face. I kind of avoided going back to the gym because I didn’t think I was capable of it.” But First Descents was different. On the water, she realized, “I’m good at this. I can do this.”

On the final day of Lopez’s trip, the kayakers completed their own run solo.

“It was so empowering because you got to do it by yourself. I did it without needing anyone,” she said, adding that she realized, “I am capable of a lot of things. I know what my body has gone through. I had a 40 percent chance of surviving, and I’m surviving. I did this — I’m here.”

After her trip, Lopez said she was motivated to be more active, and she took up running. “I go back to what I was able to do on the Rogue. I was able to go through all these rapids, I jumped off a cliff — I did all these things.”

Using the body to move forward

First Descents conducted research to evaluate the psychosocial benefits of its programming and found that participants’ self-esteem, body image and ability to cope with cancer and its ongoing effects increased while depression decreased.

The organization is working with health care providers to get its programs introduced to cancer survivors earlier, to “mitigate some of that psychosocial distress, depression, alienation and isolation so common in young adult survivors,” Shedd said.

“Most cancer centers realize the value of a multidisciplinary approach to cancer treatment,” Chhabra said. “Here at Mayo, we have a robust team of oncologists, radiation therapists, surgeons, social workers and psychologists” who work together to “optimize not only their physical health but also their mental health.” The patient’s well-being is important, he said. “As surgeons, we’re taught to fix what’s broken or take out what shouldn’t be there. But it is much bigger than that.”

Different types of cancer affect the body in different ways, and exercise should to be tailored to the individual, taking into account his or her treatment, pre-existing fitness level and other considerations. “Your physician should be there to tell you what’s safe and what’s not,” Chhabra said — but what’s safe and possible is much more than previously thought.

It’s part of a shifting mindset toward recovering from cancer. Standard advice used to be to warn breast cancer survivors against upper-body exercise to avoid lymphedema. Don McKenzie — a sports medicine physician and exercise physiologist at the University of British Columbia — challenged that, conducting a study in 1996 with survivors paddling dragon boats: They did not develop lymphedema and were happier and healthier. It sparked the creation of myriad dragon boat teams.

Recovery on Water (ROW) gets breast cancer survivors on the water in different boats — rowing shells. It runs a year-round team in Chicago and a four-day camp in northern Michigan. “A lot of times, women don’t feel like they can trust their bodies, that their bodies have betrayed them,” said Executive Director Jenn Junk. But in ROW, survivors are “using their bodies to move forward with their lives.”

Both Lopez and Sullivan said they became more open about their cancer after participating in these programs. Lopez said she realized “I should be proud of this. I got through two and a half years of treatment, and I’m still here.” She survived kayaking, and “I’m capable of doing so much more,” she said.

“When I was diagnosed with cancer, I would never talk about it,” Sullivan said. “I put it in the back of my mind. Sixteen years later, I came across this dragon boat team. Then I just started owning that I had cancer, and I wasn’t afraid to talk about it. Now I tell people that I’m on a dragon boat team for breast cancer survivors. And I feel that if I can come this far in my life, others can as well.” 

Written by Allison Torres Burtka; top photo by Jarod Opperman. A version of this story was originally published on GlobalSport Matters, a joint initiative between ASU’s Global Sport Institute and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Read more stories about sport at