Although possible, it’s unlikely that the perfect leadership position will present itself at your company. If you want to advance to a senior leadership position, you must position yourself as a leader. One way to do that is to learn the ins and outs of the organization, including understanding how the organization works: How does the company make money? Who are the key people in the organization? The earlier you understand this information, the better you can create a strategy to advance.

Here are some things you should know:

Understand How the Organization Works

At the minimum, know the company’s vision, mission and values statements. Most organizations have their statements listed on their website under their about or company page. When reviewing, questions to consider are: Does the company live by its declarations or are the statements a good marketing ploy? Does the company values line up with your values?

What about the company’s culture? Does the company encourage diverse ideas from its employees? Do the organization’s employees reflect its diverse customer base?

Another area to consider is the company’s Human Resources (HR) Department. HR can very instrumental in helping you advance. Learning the organization’s hiring practices, on-boarding endeavors, recognition programs, and performance management programs are essential. Does the company offer training, and if so, what programs are available? Does the organization pay or reimburse for college? Does the company have a formal leadership program? Is participation by invitation only? What is the procedure for asking about becoming an executive leader?

Does HR have an open door policy in which employees can explore their career options or inquire about policy and procedures? Do employees feel comfortable going to HR in confidence if needed?

On the technical side, it is important to understand how the company operates. What processes and systems are in place? You can find out this information.

Besides learning about the workings of the company, you must know how the company profits.

How Does the Company Make Money?

One of the main goals of businesses is to make money. As a leader, you must be clear on what business the company is really in.

For example, Ray Kroc of McDonald’s fame understood this principle. He knew that although McDonald’s is known for its burgers, the real money maker was in the land McDonald’s purchases for his restaurants and subsequently leases to his franchisees. Once he understood that, he knew that he needed to create a duplicable system to ensure franchisee success; while profiting from leasing the McDonald’s properties. So what type of business was Ray Kroc really in? Well, the real estate business!

To get clear on what business the company is really in, these questions are helpful:

  • What does the company sell? How does it let the world know?
  • How much money does the company get to keep after it makes a sale?
  • What is the time between when money goes out of the business and when more money comes in?
  • What are the costs to keep the business running daily?
  • How does the company pay for everything?
  • What is the company’s definition of success?
  • What obstacles may interfere with making a profit?
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You can find the answers to many of these questions in the company’s annual 10K SEC filings. You may find these either on your company’s website or on the SEC website.

Who are the leaders of the company?

Besides knowing the obvious leader of the company (CEO/president), it’s a good idea to know how the structure of the company. And to know who are the heads of each department. You may run into them and it would be nice to know exactly who they are and at least have a basic conversation with them about their department. These individuals can also provide insight into the leadership culture of the company. You’ll also get an insight into how to fit in at the company (dress, company language, etc.). This information will serve you well in advance.

You may find this information on The Official Board. You may find some information listed on the 10K SEC filings and also the company website (Try investor reports, annual reports, and corporate governance).

Note: HR would have the chart; However, some companies consider the information confidential, privileged for only certain persons.

Consider making lateral moves within the organization.

It is also important to note that understanding the company is only one piece of the career path strategy. Another important part is gaining the experience needed to advance. Keep in mind that making a lateral move may be better than making a vertical move in the company. Gaining experience across the business lines of the company may prove to be better than being promoted within a department. This may help avoid being promoted into a functional silo that benefits your manager’s career aspirations more than it helps yours.

Understanding the company you seek to advance your career is a very useful and essential tool. Not only are you better equipped to help the company find solutions to their challenges, but you also position yourself to become a valuable asset. Learning this information early in your career can vastly help you realize your career goals.

About Nancy Gettridge

Nancy Gettridge is founder of Phenomenal Image, a career strategy coaching firm dedicated to helping women reach their full leadership potential.  Frequent points of discussion include aligning one's life purpose to one's career and gender bias in the workplace.   Other key topics include career strategy, leadership, and overcoming workplace issues.  You can get weekly career tips straight to your email by subscribing here

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