The best thing you can do to advance your career

Article first published on Forbes.com

You work hard and your work is good. But you’ve been in this slot for a couple of years and are starting to think about what’s next for your career. You love what you do; you love your team, your boss and your company. Everything seems perfect, but you’ve begun to wonder if you’re ever going to advance. Is anyone above you doing what it takes to get you a well-deserved promotion?

I worked for a man once who had a sign on his office door that said, “Surprise me.” Your own boss may tell you, “I don’t like surprises,” but does she really mean it? Surely any smart manager would be delighted if, in addition to fulfilling your expected responsibilities, you brought in new ideas, strategic thinking or some new tech breakthrough. Delivering positive surprises will get you the right attention — the sort that gets you promotions and builds your career without having to leave the company.

Maybe right now you’re doing such a good job that your superiors don’t think about you at all. They could be saying to themselves: “She’s great. She’s on top of her assignments. Her clients love her. So no worries, I’ll focus on where the problems are.”

Wait, I hear you say, screwing up is probably not the most productive way to get noticed. But you do want to get your boss’s attention — just make sure it’s positive. Understanding her needs and ambitions can’t hurt. Position it in your mind that you are trying to help your boss advance her own situation, in addition to yours. Don’t make superiors think you are in competition with them. If you know what you’re talking about and you are passionate about it, you should have nothing to fear.

To come up with that something extra that will make any boss sit up and pay attention to you, I suggest to my coaching clients that they expand their areas of curiosity and immerse themselves in the literature of their field, in the direction of the market, in the data and human insights, in the thought pieces of the experts and pundits. They should be inspired by new trends, or new technologies that haven’t yet been adopted — figuring out how they can be applied to their own projects or to growing the business. Maybe they could even publish some articles and become thought leaders themselves.

If you are working with partners or vendors, pick their brains. Don’t say: “I don’t know what’s going on in my field, can you help me out?” Do say: “I’m excited about what is coming next and keen on finding new and better solutions. Here are some things I see. What do you see from where you sit?” The conversation should be positive and supportive: trading ideas and generating new ones.

As you get into all this, you will come up with things that you can share where it counts. Surprise! Your superiors weren’t expecting that. Suddenly they’ll notice that you are someone who sees the bigger picture and will bring it to the table. They’ll start to think of you as more than just someone who does a great job. Instead, they’ll begin thinking of you as someone who has their finger on the pulse and can be a big help in advancing the company’s ball — and their own.

A media executive I am working with has started sending regular emails with tidbits of new thinking; she tells me, “My boss loves getting these new ideas.” Since she started doing this, she’s been picked for a prestigious program in the firm with significantly increased responsibilities.

Another great way to surprise your superiors is to get yourself involved in new business pitches, where the future of the company is at play. Find out who is running the pitches and offer to help. Find out what they need. Perhaps you have some niche skill that could be useful or some sector of experience that is relevant. This will give you a terrific opportunity to show what you can do and how you think directly to senior management — surprising them on topics and strategies that are not what they normally associate with you. These new business projects will likely call for new solutions, different from the ones you are working on day to day, so there is the added benefit that they will stimulate your brain and expand your experience. You’ll return to your own assignments with fresh ways of looking at the work and new ideas that you can implement.

So, to borrow from Monty Python: your two weapons for advancement are exposure and surprise. Get their attention and surprise them. Your star will soon be rising.