The surest route to your next promotion is probably through your boss, but enlisting his or her help can be tricky. Here’s what to say.
FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I work for a large multinational firm, and I’d like to be considered for a promotion to a management position. How should I let my boss know about my desire to move up? I do not want to give the impression that I want his job (which I really don’t want). I’d also like to make it clear that I’m not looking to leave the company, unless I have no choice.
Another question: There are other groups within the firm where there might be management opportunities for me, but they are so remote geographically that I don’t have a chance to make myself visible to them, or to get a sense of the political dynamics there. What do you suggest? — Looking Ahead
Dear Looking: In an ideal world, mentioning to your boss that you’d like to be promoted would be easy. You could simply tell him what you just told me. After all, plenty of companies pay lip service to the idea that a big part of managers’ mission is developing the talent under them and mentoring tomorrow’s leaders.
Even so, says John Beeson, “It’s shocking how few big companies make it a point to help people develop a coherent career path” — despite the fact that countless studies have shown that doing so is one of the surest ways to keep star employees from quitting. Beeson, who is head of New York City-based Beeson Consulting, wrote a book you might want to check out called The Unwritten Rules: The Six Skills You Need to Get Promoted to the Executive Level.
“To some bosses, ‘ambition’ is a dirty word. Whether or not yours is one of them, this conversation is going to take some finesse,” Beeson notes. That’s especially true if you are someone your manager relies upon to meet his own goals. In his consulting work, Beeson often comes across a phenomenon he calls “talent hoarding.” “Gaining a reputation as a ‘star spotter’, someone who develops future leaders, can be good for a manager’s career — but sometimes the downside of losing you outweighs that benefit.”
So how do you start this tricky conversation? “First, avoid any indication that you’re impatient. Instead, make it clear that you’re thinking about the long term, and you’d like to have an ongoing discussion about your career,” Beeson suggests. “Emphasize that you’re committed to staying with the company, and you’d welcome your boss’s help in identifying which skills you need to work on, to prepare you for making a bigger contribution.”
Then, ask for your boss’s help in reaching out to other managers, both at his level and one rank higher. “Say something like, ‘I’d appreciate having their input into my career planning, especially what skills I need to develop and where in the company those might be most useful,’” says Beeson. “Managers outside your immediate sphere can be influential in opening doors for you in other parts of the company. They can recommend you for openings that are never posted anywhere, so you want to get on their radar screen for when the timing is right.”
Of course, you could approach those managers on your own, without involving your boss, but Beeson advises against it. “Getting in touch directly with a manager in another business unit who doesn’t know you tends to raise eyebrows,” he says. “He or she is going to wonder, ‘What is this person’s agenda? Does his boss know he’s calling me?’ Having your manager pave the way eliminates that.”
Once you’ve met and had conversations with a few people at your boss’ level and above, Beeson says, “it gets harder for him to justify hanging on to you when a better opportunity comes along. At that point, standing in your way becomes a bad reflection on him.”
It probably won’t come to that, he adds: “Even if you’re a star performer your boss would hate to lose, don’t assume he’s going to block you. If you approach this the right way — especially if you stress that you’re thinking about your future and have no immediate plans to go anywhere — most managers will be amenable.”
Nancy Friedberg, president of executive coaching firm Career Leverage, agrees, and offers two further thoughts. First, she points out that “in the Internet Age, being remote geographically from other business units isn’t the disadvantage it used to be. So make the most of your online presence.”
She recommends inviting influential leaders in your company — ideally after you’ve met them in person — to connect with you on LinkedIn. Join group discussions and contribute “thoughtful, content-rich information that can raise your visibility and identify you as an expert in your field.” You should also follow those senior managers on Twitter and, when it makes sense to do so, retweet their Tweets with an insightful comment of your own.
And second, Friedberg notes, “Often people overlook the fact that becoming more visible outside your own company also raises your profile inside. Making a name for yourself in your industry — through public speaking, writing for the trade press, or a widely-read blog, or being active in professional associations — can get you noticed by higher-ups who are in a position to promote you.” Good luck!
Talkback: Have you ever reported to someone who helped you get a promotion? Leave a comment below.