Remember those kids who did well at school by sucking up, rather than actually helping out? Look around. You probably see many of the same dynamics in the workplace, even, perhaps, in yourself. Where is the line between proving your worth and annoying everyone with self-promotion?

Move up the right way

Don't put others down. Be good, work hard and you will get noticed.

Help yourself by helping your manager. Push your boss up… and get his or her job.

Choose your supervisors wisely. Weak bosses will see a strong number two as a threat. Strong ones know you may help them get their next promotion.

Source: Jorg Stegemann, head of Kennedy Executive Search.

With the right amount of finesse, careful self-promotion can improve your chances of moving up the career ladder. Done the wrong way, there’s a good chance that you’ll be passed over when it comes to promotions and you certainly won’t win any awards for being a team player.

Don't wait to be asked

One way to curry favour correctly is to give people what they want before they know that they need it, suggested Lucy Owens, a Sheffield, UK-based associate coach with The Career Coach consulting service.

Case in point: A colleague of Owens once attended a meeting of senior executives. Without being asked, she quietly took notes for her “somewhat grumpy, hard-to-impress” manager. The colleague knew that after the gathering, the manager would meet a client and would need a summary of the meeting. Within the hour, Owens’ colleague had summarised the key points in a one-page document and given it to her manager, who was “taken aback — in a good way — and said a gruff ‘thanks very much’.” He used the summary in his client meeting. Soon after, Owens’ colleague secured a promotion to another team. “[She] hasn’t looked back,” said Owens.

Strive for clarity

Another smart way to get ahead is to be clear with your boss about what you need, according to Owens.

“Rather than using sneaky, teacher’s pet approaches… (have) an honest, adult conversation with your line manager about what you’d like to achieve in the role and organisation,” she said. “It’s the most effective, direct way of getting what you want at work.”

Just don’t wait for an annual review or appraisal. “You can simply ask for a short meeting with your manager and talk directly and confidently about what you’d like to do, the promotion you’re working towards [and] your longer term career goals,” she said.

Good bosses will likely find this approach refreshing and valuable because it will help them understand what you’re seeking. Just don’t forget to keep it a two-way street. Ask your supervisor how he or she sees you, what your strengths are, and for any suggestions for developing your career.

“When I did this with my manager, she got much more clarity about my aspirations and strengths,” said Owens. “That, ultimately, meant that she was able to carve out a role for me that was fruitful for her, her managers and my career.”

You will not convince your manager of your strengths in one meeting

But don’t stop there.  “You will not convince your manager of your strengths in one meeting,” said Philippe Gaud, an affiliate professor with HEC Paris’ MBA and Executive Education programmes, in an email. “Keep coming back to it when you meet. Repetition is important, and time will work for you.”

Even better, find opportunities to show those strengths in action, suggested Gaud. “Do not focus only on one-on-one personal development meetings to discuss your strengths. Take every opportunity you get in business meetings to demonstrate them.” For example, if you are good at challenging coworkers in a positive way, then use those skills at the next staff meeting so your boss can see them in action, he said.

Act like a leader now

Rather than wait until you have a leadership role or position, go ahead and start acting like a leader.

“Take advantage of opportunities throughout your career to lead,” said Virginia, US-based Deborah Golden, principal at Deloitte & Touche LLP, in an email. For example, experiment with influencing others, innovating or strategising. “If others follow you, it showcases your ability to lead and not simply manage,” she said.

Be fearless. “Take opportunities as they come; [don’t] simply wait for a role or a title to come your way,” Golden said. “Showcasing the characteristics, skills and capabilities of a leader in advance of a role is one sure fire way to become a leader. And if you don’t receive a specific role, move to the next challenge; sometimes it’s equally as important as a leader for others to witness the way in which you react to a situation.”

Don’t just talk about being a great leader; put it in the context of a specific situation. “You should not state ‘I’m a great leader’,” said HEC’s Gaud. “You should give examples of situations where you have, in your views, demonstrated leadership skills.”

Bosses can’t read minds

Golden says she sees many people who do not fully advocate for themselves. “It’s important to articulate your aspirations because people can’t read your mind,” she said. “Consider the role you want… and be visible in situations that provide a platform to highlight these capabilities.”

By putting yourself out there, you will find people who will support your development as a leader, or who will help you find new opportunities. Then, it’s up to you. “Your performance needs to show that you’re ready to lead from the front,” said Golden.

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.

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