Most people want to be promoted but what needs to be done is often unspoken. Learning how to address this, as an employee or manager helps everyone.
Many of us think about promotion, but do you actually know how to get promoted? It seems obvious, but is it? Take a moment to think of your answer. The answer may seem simple, but it may not be obvious despite being an important consideration in your career plan.
Hard work is a common answer; companies often talk about wanting hard workers. But the reality is most companies can’t measure your level of effort. At best they can measure things like time in the office (and some organizations do, rightly or wrongly, value it). At the end of the day the companies care about your output, not your input. Working hard often correlates to that but working hard itself is not the metric.
Good output is the other common answer, and we just noted above that companies care about output. Certainly, someone with poor output is very unlikely to get promoted. However, output alone isn’t sufficient. Consider a marketing team of ten. The new social media manager joins the team and does a stellar job. Compared to any standard—her predecessors, industry standards, general metrics—her posts knock every metric out of the park. Volume, creativity, innovation, likes, reposts, and every other measure are fantastic. On a relative basis her marketing campaigns outpace all the other marketing efforts. When the head of her marketing team leaves, shouldn’t she be promoted?
Maybe. There’s no question she knows what she’s doing with social media. But the marketing team isn’t only a social media team. There are other types of marketing—events, radio, TV, online, and channel marketing—and she may have little or no experience with them. Moreover, perhaps she has no people management experience, making her a risk for the company. Success, even outsized success, in your own role may not be sufficient to qualify for the next role.
There’s a simple way to know: ask your company, “What are the things you need to see in order to promote me to <role>?” It may be a specific achievement in your current role, demonstrated abilities, or maybe even some external goal, like getting a specific certification or degree.
“What are the things you need to see in order to promote me to <role>?”
It’s a fair question for any employee to ask what would qualify him or her for a promotion (or a raise). Importantly, every company should be able to answer it. This question is one you should be able to ask of the company at any time. Even if you were just hired or just promoted it’s fair to ask. It’s arguably even good to ask then; of course, how you ask is important. If you just say on your first day, “How do I get promoted?” that could be off putting. On the other hand, you could say, “I’m excited to join the team. I always like to think ahead, so I want to ask what will qualify me for a promotion. As I just joined, I certainly don’t expect one to come up but it’s helpful to know the goals and standards against which I’ll be evaluated for a promotion [or raise].”
Your boss or the company may not have an answer on the spot. Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about promoting their team or planning raises. Be understanding and ask them to think about it and get back to you in a week or two. It may even be, in smaller companies, that the promotion is contingent on the company, based on things like growth in revenue or headcount. There’s also a difference between going from X to Senior X, where you’re given more responsibility but are in a similar role versus moving up a level in terms of scope. For example, moving from Engineer to Senior Engineer may mean bigger projects or budgets but similar types of work. Going from Director of Engineering where you manage engineers, to a VP of Engineering who manages directors, is very different in scope, not just the same role but bigger.
The one unacceptable answer is, “I don't know.” Again, that’s fine for the initial answer if it’s followed with, “Let me think about it and get back to you.” If, however, your company can’t provide a clear answer that’s a red flag.
If . . . your company can’t provide a clear answer that’s a red flag.
The only exceptions are when there is significant change. If the company is going through a merger, IPO, restructuring, new executive, or other overhaul you may need to wait until the dust settles to get an answer. Likewise, very early-stage startups (typically less than twenty people or so, or in the first two years or so—but neither is a hard number) are likely to pivot or change significantly. Even then you should be able to get some guidance even if not an exact definition. I’ll often talk to people at my startups about hiring under them versus over them based on how I anticipate the team growing, and what I would need in those who lead the team but saying that it’s all dependent on how the company grows.
This is unfortunately not as common a practice as it should be. If you’re a manager, please consider encouraging these conversations with your team; at the very least you should think to yourself: what would it take to promote the people who report to you (assuming you have the upcoming open role)? Even if you don’t have an opening currently for them, you are responsible for helping them grow and that means having a target you’re growing them into. Of course, if your subordinate expresses interest in a different type of role, for example moving to a different department, then focus on that and not just direct upward progression on your team.
If you wish your manager did this, feel free to share the article. A number of my articles are written not just specifically for employees or managers, but to help teams and organizations begin dialogs about important topics. If this got forwarded to you, consider how you can provide clear guidance to your team, even if you don’t want to have the specific conversation outlined above.
This conversation may seem awkward the first time or two you have it (for both parties), but over time it becomes natural and improves communication. Like so many things at work, we don’t do it simply because we haven’t done it before, but that doesn’t mean it’s not helpful to do. Conversations and clarity are almost always an improvement over the lack of them.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.