As a 19-year-old college student, Justin Hutchens began work as a resident assistant at an intermediate care facility in Greeley, Col. Over the next 18 years he worked his way up at six different companies from a caregiver to admissions director, regional operations director and chief operating officer. In 2009 he joined National Health Investors, a health care real estate investment trust, as president and chief operating officer.
Two years later, at the age of 36, he was appointed chief executive officer.
Mr. Hutchens made his way to the top of the proverbial corporate ladder quicker than most. How? "My Dad gave me advice early in my career to always to the very best with whatever level of responsibility that I was afforded, and to take less desirable assignments that others might not want," he says. "That approach has offered great exposure throughout my career."
A quick climb to the top can be trying – and not everyone wants to make the trek in a conventional way.
"The culture has changed and people no longer stay at one firm for the entirety of their career," says Ford Myers, a career coach and author of Get The Job You Want, Even When No One's Hiring.
"In the 1970s or 1980s, it was assumed you'd join a company, work hard, pay your dues and climb up the ladder at that firm. Those were the unwritten rules of the game. But the world has changed."
However, one thing holds true today: Most people still want to grow as a professional and get to the top, even if they do it more laterally.
"Most, but not all, still want to move up the corporate ladder, but climbing up isn't always done in a straight line," says Andy Teach, a 30-year corporate veteran and author of From Graduation to Corporation: The Practical Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder One Rung at a Time. "Some workers make lateral moves to other companies, hoping there is more room for advancement at their new company."
Lynette Lewis, a business consultant and author of Climbing the Ladder in Stilettos, concurs. "I would agree that every person working will typically have the desire to move up, or perhaps the better way to say it is they will want to grow. Growth is a natural sign of being alive, so it is healthy to want to expand, develop, and advance both personally and professionally."
Mr. Teach believes it's a lot easier for employees, especially those who are part of the younger millennial generation, to move up the corporate ladder quickly today.
The baby boomer generation is known for paying its dues, and it took us a while to climb up the ladder," he says.
"I once had a baby boomer boss who told me that it took them a certain amount of years to get to their present position and therefore it would take me the same amount of years, even though it had nothing to do with my work performance. This is no longer true. The millennials have a reputation for being impatient and for wanting to move up quickly, by switching jobs often."
You may have to take a more roundabout path to get to the top today – but if you want to arrive quickly, there are a few things you can do. Here's what the experts suggest:
Make a plan
"Too many people bounce through their career like a pinball in a pinball game, but in order to achieve your full potential, every person needs a plan – some sort of road map or blueprint," Mr. Myers says. "A smart person will have a long-term career plan, which focuses on where they want to arrive at the pinnacle of their career, as well as the interim steps they'll need to take in order to get there." Make adjustments as you go, but implement the plan early on in your career.
Get an education
"Get the best possible education and training you can, as early as you can," Mr. Myers suggests. "No matter what has changed, there is still no replacement for getting a head start with a great education."
"Use all your resources to get into the corporate world," Mr. Myers says. "Leverage your network to get in at the best possible starting point." Networking doesn't stop once you have the job. "The more people you know and who know you, and like you, the better," Mr. Teach adds.
"Don't just put in your hours," Mr. Myers says. "Do more than most people, and work harder and longer." Treat everything with urgency and volunteer for high-visibility projects. Always seek to contribute more, and be known as the go-to person or the get-it-done person, he adds. "Arrive earlier and leave later. There is no replacement for hard work and smart work."
Dream beyond the job description
Don't let yourself be limited by what you are officially assigned to do, Ms. Lewis says. This does not mean ignoring present responsibilities; it means working beyond achievements that are obvious or expected.
Develop a 'whatever it takes to get the job done' attitude
"I think your work attitude is just as important as your work aptitude," Mr. Teach says. Most people work hard, but if you're the one with the can-do attitude, your supervisor will certainly recognize and appreciate it.
Become a resource
Continue building your own skill and knowledge outside the job, Mr. Myers says. "Keep growing your expert status and credibility in your field, not just within your company." Become an industry expert, Ms. Lewis adds. "Read, study, follow industry leaders on social media outlets, and attend industry conferences. This helps you grow beyond your job to know the industry and others in it."
Dress for success
Don't look at how your peers are dressed; look at how the top executives are dressed. Dress for the position you want, not the one you have, Mr. Teach says.
Get to know your company and your boss
Understand the company's values and your boss's priorities, and align your efforts with their goals and objectives, Mr. Myers says.
Ms. Lewis agrees: "Know your boss's top personal and professional goals, then do all you can to help him or her advance their priorities. Every leader needs lieutenants, and when you serve them their favour toward you will increase and they are likely to pull you in and up to more responsibility and opportunities for quicker advancement."
Keep an continuing success file
Record and file all of your achievements, especially those that align with broader company priorities, Ms. Lewis says. "Find ways to keep your boss and others informed of these achievements so you are recognized increasingly as someone leading company success beyond your own responsibilities. This list is especially helpful at annual review time."
Be keenly aware of broader company goals
Know which projects are being funded, who is in charge of those projects, what priorities are high and which ones are low, Ms. Lewis says. "Align yourself with the people and projects at the highest levels of attention and expectation. This gives you visibility and the chance to shine more quickly."
Consider yourself a free agent
"I really believe every person needs to think of himself as an independent agent," Mr. Myers says. "Whether he stays with one company or jumps around, he needs to keep his options open. Someone who is fully in charge and fully responsible for his or her own career is more likely to make good decisions and succeed."
Think and act a level above
This means operating like someone in a position higher than you already are, without losing sight or attention to current responsibilities, but conveying the confidence and intent to be someone who has potential for promotion and leadership, Ms. Lewis says.
Be an initiator, not just an executor
"I believe that 90 per cent of employees are executors, but it is the other 10 per cent who initiate, who do things that they are not asked to do, who move up the ladder the quickest," Mr. Teach says.
Be a team player
Supervisors look very carefully at how employees work with the rest of the department and other departments, Mr. Teach says. "If you are seen as a team player and can work well with others, this will definitely help your career."
"This sounds so simple, but I'm amazed how seldom junior professionals articulate their gratitude for the opportunities and guidance extended to them by more senior leaders," Ms. Lewis says. "I learned the value of this one time when I saw our CEO walking through the atrium at lunch. He did not know me but I thanked him for his weekly voicemails that I knew he intended to be informative and encouraging to the work force. Not 30 minutes later my boss told me the CEO had asked what my name was, and I realized my simple gesture of appreciation had left a positive impression. From that point forward the CEO called me by name."