How to Break Into Senior Roles (Starting Today!)

Advice to help you get over the hump of middle management and into the executive level.

Not to sound like a broken record, but everyone’s doing it.

You know, moving jobs. Changing companies. Taking part in the Great Resignation.

Or, as we’ve come to know it, the Great Reconsideration.

When we wrote about knowing if it’s time to quit your job , we saw that many Elphas are ready for a career change. This rings especially true for those working in middle management. 

After a few years in a manager role, it’s common to feel stagnant or stuck. We talked to more than 20 Elpha women in leadership who have been there. Our takeaways will show you how to break into a senior role , or transition from manager to director, starting today. We’ll also show you how to make your dream job come right to you . 🤩 

Theresa Helmer, Executive Director of Integrated Content Strategy at Disney Branded Television, said it best about how to become a director of a company: “So much of my growth has come down to two key things: Championing Myself & Sponsorship.

Elpha members agreed. Our recent conversations revealed action items (such as finding sponsorship) that can help you break into a senior role:

Ready to make the move to the executive level? Let’s begin!

Pay attention to what you learn. Where learning ends, stagnation often begins.

Out of the 22 Elphas who responded to our recent post , 19 said that they’ve experienced the feeling of being stuck in their career.

When Christmas , Prev. Senior Director of Corporate Strategy at Yahoo felt stuck in her career , she spent a lot of time reflecting on why. She realized that "Leadership could see that I was a great employee, but they could also see that I wasn’t really clear on my future at the company and in my career. Armed with this clarity, I took action and started looking for senior leadership roles in different industries and careers where my skillset was transferrable."

Many Elphas shared that they know they’re stuck in a job when they aren’t learning.

If you’re not learning, you’ll likely grow bored. Boredom can be a red flag that our once-challenging jobs have run their course. 🚩

As Raven , Customer Experience Director, says; “My wake-up call was when I joked to a friend that I could do that job in my sleep. I felt bored, unchallenged, unheard, and under-resourced.”

Another Elpha says, “As a PM, I felt bored with lower-level story writing, sprint planning, etc. and frustrated that higher-level decisions were either made poorly or not well communicated.” 

Lack of learning can also mean you aren’t developing the leadership skills needed to transition from manager to director.

Nicole , Operations Leader & Chief of Staff at Team Rubicon, advises Elphas to “be mindful of movement over time. Even if you are in a manager or more senior role, are you having the same pace of opportunity to continue taking on new things and increased responsibility?”

If you’re figuring out how to get promoted to executive-level work, start tracking what it is you’re doing day-to-day. By keeping a careful eye on projects that you’re managing or involved in, you can develop a gut check of whether your skillset has maxed out.

Jessie , Chief of Staff to the CTO at Roblox, follows a specific method for tracking career growth: Keeping a weekly log.

She says, “I'm learning so much in my role every day. I actually keep a log where I write down key learnings each week - things I could've done better, how a decision got made, how someone asked the right questions to surface a key issue, etc.”

Mia , Midcareer Career Coach, offers a similar suggestion. If you’re actively applying to new jobs, look at what you’ve learned from your current role. Fold that into your application process through storytelling. Mia advises Elphas to:

Identify places in your current job where you’re using strategic thinking skills and bringing in innovative ideas, even if they are limited in scope. So curate the stories that support the role you want. That’s what goes into your cover letter.”

Speaking up is key to getting out of that stuck place.

Your dream senior-level position may be within reach at your current company, or it may require finding a new role. One thing stays the same, though: If you feel you’ve maxed out your career growth, you should start speaking up.

Madison , Senior Manager at ERPi, explains that communication was key to moving out of a stagnant situation at work. “...I communicated my desire to learn more and do more with my immediate leadership - how someone reacts can clue you into whether or not you're in the right place.”

A word of advice from Susan , CPO and CTO at Ikea: "Spend some time on where you want to get to. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is an incredible book for thinking about this. if you know your destination (or generally where you are going), you give yourself flexibility and the ability to make decisions in context."

With that in mind, if you’re starting to have conversations about getting “unstuck” – whether that’s with your boss or a job recruiter – we recommend following these tips:

  • Know what you want. When you picture your ideal job, what does it look like? Determining this will help you articulate your goals to others.

  • Make big decisions. Anyone figuring out how to become a director of a company or how to get promoted to executive-level jobs must decide whether to move up or along. A higher-level role may be at your current company, or a different one. 🏃🏾‍♀️ 

  • Make finding a better job easy. If you decide to move along, let a senior role come to you by joining Elpha’s Talent Pool. And get prepared for the desired salary conversation with our tips.

  • Get feedback about your decision. Ask bosses, mentors, or friends for advice on your career goals. Utilizing friends or mentors as a sounding board can help eradicate those flashes of self-doubt that appear in job changes.

Sarah , Talent Lead at Just Appraised , comes up with ideas for moving out of a stuck situation and asks for feedback. She says, “I would brainstorm ideas, sometimes alone, sometimes with colleagues and at times with upper management. I identified gaps and improvement areas and prepared a brief plan to approach them… Remember you don't have to have all the answers, sometimes simply taking initiative and leading the charge is what needs to get done.

Your happiness at work is worth fighting for. Just ask one Elpha who says, “Early in my career, I didn't have the courage to speak up. With a few notches in the belt now and more confidence, I began talking to a couple of execs I had access to about my challenges...   Showing that level of maturity gets you noticed - for the right reasons.”

If you want to move up within your own company, managing up is one productive way to directly communicate your career goals to your boss. Here's how Rema , Senior Director of Engineering at Fandango suggests doing so: "Ask your manager directly what their goals are this year and how you and your team can help with them. Are there things that you're noticing that should be done, improved, or fixed and haven't been? Bring those ideas to your manager!"

Amanda , Founder & CMO at House of Wise, proactively completed independent projects to show she was ready for more senior work: 

“I would think about problems that hadn't been solved yet and spend 2 hours a day to work on creating decks that showed solutions to those problems. I would then ask my boss if I could show her something I was thinking about and if she liked it, I would ask to either get resources for it or give me the opportunity to present it to the team that could implement it. I stopped caring about offending people as long as what I was doing was going to move the company and business forward.

Whether you want to progress your career internally or externally, communicating your goals is the most effective way to show people what you want. And, as Amanda told us, “the only person looking out for your career is YOU.”

Don’t hesitate to be your own biggest fan.

Say you’ve decided to speak up and make changes to your job. At this point, it might be time to ask your boss for a raise or promotion.

If you can display the value that you bring to your team when asking for a promotion, you’ll be more likely to get your manager on the same page. Just ask the Elphas we recently spoke to.

Ericka , Career Coach, says this: "Here's what I know to be true: when seeking a promotion, clarity is your step one. What seat would you like to occupy and how much money would you like to make?... There are several salary websites you can leverage to understand how much your seat is worth in the industry. However, check your employer’s intranet as well for job families, postings, and salary information. Whatever you do, don’t sit on your ask. If you’re going to hear “no”, make sure it’s not from you! Be your first yes and go in the direction of your career dreams."

Bottom line – when you’re asking for a promotion:

  • Know what you want.

  • Know what you’re worth.

Apply this to your next annual review or next 1:1. Back up your excellent work with hard numbers when you’re interested in moving from senior manager to director.

Tina , AVP at U.S. Bank, includes historical data when she asks for a raise. “I would come in praising my boss about his/her support for me during this time. I would ask about their goals for the next 3 years and how they plan to achieve them. Then, I would provide my reasons for desiring a promotion and back it up with historical success I had to prove I could help them achieve their goals."

Research is always your friend – particularly when you’re asking for a promotion. Head over to salary reporting websites like to determine the comparable pay for executive-level roles.

Psst… 🤫 A recently passed Colorado law requires pay ranges to be disclosed in all job postings. You can filter your salary search to be Colorado-specific for a more accurate view of what companies are actually paying.

Develop your strategic mindset.

It can be hard to know whether or not it’s time to leave a job. Knowing if you’re ready to break into a senior role is particularly challenging. 

Lorena , VP of Marketing at Go Nimbly, knew it was time to move up when teammates began seeing her as a leader. “This is an easy one for me. It hit me when my team members were coming to me for advice…”

Shin-pei , Director of Policy at Uber, shared the qualities that show her someone is ready for a senior role.

"One is the ability to think beyond your role and about the big picture. Another is to be able to prioritize strategy or decisions in ways that impact the entire organization, not just your specific team. But not at the expense of your team either. I don't think it has to do with being louder or more assertive, there are so many kinds of leaders! But I do think being able to contextualize and contribute to decisions at a higher level - and do it in a way that feels comfortable to you - can help start to hone those executive functions that can push you towards more senior roles. It's not just managing multiple things at once, it's more about honing on what's most important and being able to persuade people to see your POV."

Out of the Elphas we recently spoke with, many agreed they were ready for growth once they developed a strategic approach to their work. Leang , Founder & CEO at Pelora Stack, was ready to move into a senior role when:

  • Her “scope started to expand beyond a narrow or specialized focus.” 

  • She “was invited to contribute to or own strategic projects.”

  • Herresources (budget & people) began to expand.

Susan , CPO and CTO at Ikea, says that she developed her strategic mindset by closely following business outcomes:

“I'm very interested in the business outcomes... being more focused on the outcomes than the outputs. This is a skill that you work on and grow. When I first started, my perspective on outcomes was narrower than they are today. But always having the curiosity to try and better understand the business and outcome context has been really helpful…"

As we saw from several Elpha Office Hours, proactively taking on projects or engaging with more senior-level business concerns shows that you don’t just have a strategic mindset. It can also show your boss that the entire company could benefit from your skills being put to their greatest use.

Walking the walk of senior leadership can be your biggest edge.

Becoming a director of a company, or member of a leadership team, does not follow a one-size-fits-all approach. But, Elphas shared a few of the most common qualities and skills that helped them get over a career hump.

Asha , Professor and Program Director of Women and Leadership, says that when it comes to growing your career, you should develop the following traits: “Leadership, expertise, network, passion. Vision.”

Susan , CPO and CTO at Ikea, shared the 5 qualities of leadership that she looks for when she's hiring or promoting leaders.

  • "Being smart

  • Getting things done

  • Having agency (not just getting things done, but knowing how or being able to fight through the challenges or ambiguities)

  • Giving leverage (enabling others...could be as simple as documenting code so that others can be better)

  • Being humble (meaning being curious, open to challenge, good at giving and getting feedback, and - of course - accepting improvements with humility)."

As Limor mentions, actively listening is one of the most sought-after skills for a good leader. It shows that you’re truly engaged with your team.

Maylee , Director of Marketing, agrees, “I think one of the most important skills is listening. Match that with understanding how to ask the right questions and empower the people who are working under you and it can be a pretty cool outcome.” Outside of soft skills, learning to speak like a leader shows that you’re ready for a new role. Elphas across the board say that doing this was instrumental to their career development.

Shelley , Founder/Director, shares, “At some point in my career, I think in my late 20s when I was an account director, a woman spoke to me about gravitas and the importance of having it in order to progress.”

Another Elpha seconds this, “I also got good at talking about my leadership philosophy, which is really helpful for interviewers to understand to see if you'll be a good fit for the team. Being able to talk about how you understand the industry, where you think it's going, and what that means for the organization is really important.”

Learning how to speak knowledgeably about your industry shows senior team members you’re ready to make a jump. This doesn’t mean you have to lose who you are, though. The unique qualities you bring to leadership should be at the forefront of your advancement. 

Are you ready to advance your career starting today? Alana , Director of Search Platforms at Google, provides a 3, 6, and 12-month plan for those wanting to move into a director role:

  • “I didn't leap to trying to make a 5-year plan. Start small. What are you aiming for in the next 3 months? 6 months? Then build to year, then beyond as necessary. Bit by bit I built my ability to see ahead.

  • Book yourself time to do so. Day-to-day activities can continue to sweep you along, so book yourself time on your calendar for time to brainstorm and come up with org plans, product plans, etc. As part of this, pay attention to when you're the most creative and book time then.

  • Tell people you're doing this! This serves two purposes -- it gives people a way to participate, give you feedback, and grow with you. This worked well with other things I needed to do like inspire followership and grow my team. But also it helps market you and get you credit for your eventual results!”

How to break into senior roles – starting today

You can build the career that you want. As Theresa Helmer says , “...I believe no one is going to care more about my career than I will…” 

If you know that you’re ready to leap into a senior position, you can get started now. To get there, we suggest that you:

  1. Keep track of what you’re learning. Use a journal or Google Doc to track this on a daily or weekly basis, or through Alana ’s 3/6/12-month plan.

  2. Stand up for your career growth. Taking on independent projects within your own company can show that you’re ready to grow into a bigger and more demanding position.

  3. Maintain a file of your big wins. Having this information on hand shows your company (or future employers) just how hard you’ve worked.

  4. Know when it’s time to go. If your hard work is being overlooked, it may be time to quit your job. It’s worth it to work somewhere you’re appreciated.

  5. “Talk like a leader” to move up. Hiring a career coach can provide much-needed support (like learning how to be a better public speaker!) to launch you to a senior role. 

As you work towards a senior role, join the Elpha Talent Pool to connect directly with great companies that match your values. This can take the hardest part of breaking into senior roles – the job search – out of the equation.

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