Have you ever worked very hard for a promotion and got passed over? Was it delayed by indefinite duration of time like months or years? Or worse, you were told in a vague way that the company doesn’t intend to promote you? At the same time, you might have experienced one of the following cases: The networking guy who is less experienced than you got a promotion because he happens to know all department heads. Or your lazy colleague got a bigger raise and recognition because she is leading the CEO’s pet project. Your manager is a jerk and he doesn’t care about your promotion, therefore you have no idea about your chances. And here’s a famous one: because of recession, the position that you intend to take is cancelled although you were the only candidate.
If one of these things happened to you, I’m really sorry for you. It happened to me as well. I feel you. If you think this happened because of some outside factor (i.e. recession) or bad luck (i.e. bad boss), I strongly recommend you to read till the end, because I have some good and bad news for you: First, the bad news: It’s all your fault. But hold on, here are the good news. You can do something about it. Let me explain.
Most of us use a common mindset to get promoted. Work hard and get recognized. This is the same recipe that we were taught at school for years. And it really worked for years. When we studied hard at school, we got good grades. The teachers liked us. We passed the exams with success and moved on to better schools. The correlation between efforts and results were obvious. Yes, there was a little bit of competition but who cares, the success was available for everyone who put their efforts into it. And most probably, this was the mindset that got you into trouble at work. While we tend to blame outside factors that stop us from getting our promotion because of our school conditioning, it is us to blame for failing to see the rules that govern the promotion process.
Promotion is not about hard work. So what is it about then? Whether it’s a multi-billion dollar company or a small enterprise with handful of people, the rules don’t change. Here you go: Practical tips to get promoted as fast as possible.
1. Promotion is a game. Learn the rules to win the game.
Imagine you’re playing a soccer game. The ball is in your possession. You see a great opening and pass the ball to the forward player to generate a chance to score. All of a sudden the referee blows the whistle. It’s offside. Meaning your teammate can not be beyond the line of the last defensive player of the opponent team while you make a forward pass. If you’re not familiar with soccer, this rule will mean nothing to you. Yet, that’s how it feels to play a game without knowing the rules. Your efforts mean nothing. You feel frustrated. So here’s a powerful question to change your action: Would you continue to play the game, without knowing its rules? … I can hear the answer is ”No”. But then why do you keep doing it at work over and over again, hoping that it will work?
So, let’s first learn the rules.
What are the rules of promotion at work? There is no referee to explain the game. Teammates are not always helpful or well informed. Boss is intimidating. Rules are not written anywhere. What would you do? So let’s get down with the practical action. Ask 30 minutes of your boss to talk about an important subject that matters to both of you. If he asks what it’s about, say that it’s important and you’ll share the topic in the meeting. Once you have his attention in the meeting, start gently with a good justification. Tell that you like the company and your job. Explain that you have ambitions to contribute more to this company but you’re not clear how. So you’ve listed some questions that you’d like to discuss with him. Here they are: ”What does it take for me to get promoted?” If you don’t get a clear answer to this question, walk away. Your career is in danger. But let’s be realistic. Most of the time, you’ll get some sort of an answer. So don’t settle down with it. Ask the follow-up questions. ”How long does it take for me to get promoted to the next level?” ”Which results should I deliver? Can we quantify them?” ”Which skills should I demonstrate and develop till my promotion?” ”Who decides on my promotion? Who inputs to this decision? And what will be the criteria for decision?” I guess you get the point of these questions. You are trying to learn the official rules of the game. I can already feel some anxiety, but let’s be clear. Did you ever hear about anyone being fired for asking how to get promoted? Would you rather not know the answers to these questions? In other words, would you prefer playing the game and randomly get fouled out? Or would you rather ask the referee to explain it to you in advance? Whoever is your boss, don’t forget an important tip here: He is entitled to give these answers to you. The trick is to ask these questions and insist on the answers without irritating him. If you feel push-back from your boss, remind him (and yourself) that knowing these rules will be very critical for your joint success and avoiding any potential misunderstanding in the future which might hinder the relationship. Moral of the tip: If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
2. Make your boss shine.
I got my first promotion in record short timings and became an acting brand manager in a multinational FMCG company in under 3 years. While I thought it was because of my hard work, it was dumb luck. I happened to work on CEO’s favorite oral care brand and he hated the old package. The project seemed doomed for long years due to lack of consensus with headquarters. I threw myself into it, developed modern designs, and managed to bring it to CEO’s attention to decide on the lead route. I was shocked at his reaction. He didn’t like the modern design and showed his strong preference for a slightly refreshed classical design, which defeated the original point of the project. So I argued back with him, explaining that we would probably need to renew the design in few years because it would get old very quickly. Although he wasn’t known for tolerating such public confrontations well, surprisingly, he respected my courage and wanted to give it a chance in an expert panel. Long story short, the modern design got superb feedback and we managed to renew the package design in record timings with global consensus. He felt proud of the project as it started to travel at global level. Actually, he started talking about it everywhere including presentation of company results. I was promoted before I knew it.
While one can mistake this story easily for work hard – get results – get promoted sequence, the reality is that, the project was on CEO’s radar from the beginning and I was lucky to work on it with success. As a result, it was his success. Without knowing, I made my boss shine. We tend to forget it but our bosses also need to deliver results and get recognized. They need to show success and it comes from the work of the people under them. So here’s how you can reverse engineer your way to the promotion. Ask the following questions to your boss: ”What is your biggest priority?” ”What does your boss expect from you?” ”How can I help you with your top priorities?” ”Can you think of a project which will bring spotlight to our group? If yes, can I lead it or be part of it?”
Next, find your way to sit down with the person above your boss. It could be your department head, director or CEO himself. Approach in an informal way and ask for 15 minutes of coffee time to talk. It’s hard to refuse such talks by people in higher level. Then ask the following questions: ”What are your main expectations from me?” ”How can I make my more useful to this company (meaning you)”? This approach will not only get you first hand insights to higher level priorities and expectations, it will also differentiate you against your peers (competition). We’ll visit the importance of this point later. The mere courage to initiate such talk will be noted positively by higher level.
Answers to these questions will give you clear direction on what to focus on. But your job doesn’t finish here. Next, you need to prepare an action plan with clear targets which builds on these priorities. Let’s assume that your boss told you to launch the new product under 12 months and reach +2% market share. Write this down and get his confirmation. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll also assume that this is fully in line with higher level company priorities such as bringing innovation to gain market share. Now you’re off to a good start, because you are preparing yourself to play with the rules. If you succeed, you will make both your boss and his boss happy. But that doesn’t guarantee success. Because you need to take good care of the influencers. It’s the next step.
3. Charm the influencers. They are key to success.
There is bureaucracy in every company, even if it’s small. It means, besides the decision maker, there are always contributors who provides official and unofficial input to the promotion decisions. We call them influencers. In a very small company it could be CEO’s personal assistant who might be one of the biggest influencers of the hiring / recruitment based on her judgement of candidates and her informal feedback to the CEO. I’ve seen this many times. Or in a bigger company, it could be other department heads which might have influence on decisions regarding your career. They may not be directly involved in your career, but they might influence the decision maker with their good or bad feedback about you. Think about the following way: Let’s assume your boss (John) makes your promotion decision. He might have a good opinion on you. But he also has good relationship with another person (Jane) from logistics department. Let’s say that you happened to impress Jane while working on a cross departmental project. You can almost be sure that when John and Jane get together for lunch, they will talk about you in a positive way. And this will increase your boss’s impression of you. It’s not different then seeing the same ad on TV and Billboard. You tend to remember it better. Needless to say, this also works the other way around, if you had a negative experience with Jane during the project, this might travel to John because he’s looking for feedback about you.
So let’s reverse engineer this knowledge to build a positive news web around the decision maker of your promotion. First step, identify the influencers. They can be official or unofficial. Second step, ask their time to have coffee for 15 minutes to ask the similar questions about their priorities and expectations. There is one more critical question: ”What are your expectations from me to cooperate better with you?” It’s this question that will gain you a fan-club if you can follow through on these expectations. Remember the action plan that you wrote? Now make few revisions to deliver on the priorities and expectations of these key influencers. If Jane, from logistics expressed her concerns about increasing logistics costs and told you that her priority is to keep stocks at maximum 2 months level despite the launch of new products, this is a great opportunity to revise your action plan and share back with her for her alignment. Remember your action plan? Now, let’s revise it as: ”Launch the new product under 12 months, reach +2% market share with maximum 2 months additional stocks”. After talking with Finance Head Joe, you might add ”bring 1% incremental profit margin at the end of 12 months”.
But what if it’s a small company? Simply asking the CEO’s personal assistant if you can help her in any way goes a long way in her heart and gain you longstanding support.
My point is, address other people’s priorities as long as they make sense and not distract you from your main mission. Then, share this Action Plan with those key influencers for their feedback and confirmation. Again, you’ll gain 3 benefits. First, they will be aligned with your plan. Second, they will be impressed with your cooperation. Third, you’ll stand out vs your peers (competition). By now, I think it’s clear that you’re not doing all these things in isolation. You also have peers, who are your competition, whether you accept it or not. Time to talk about how their presence and actions effect your chances of promotion.
4.Build competitive advantage, fight for every inch.
Here’s the story that I tell everyone, who doesn’t like competition at work.
Two biologists were doing research in a wild forest. All of a sudden, one of the biologists notices a tiger approaching in a hostile manner from a distance. He warns the other. The second biologist, acts quickly but calmly to take out his sports shoes from his backpack. As he ties his laces, the first biologist asks in astonishment: ”Why are you changing your shoes? You will never run faster than the tiger.” Second one answers as he starts running: ”You’re right, but I’ll run faster than you. Bye now.”
When there is an opening at a higher level, the first thing that the companies do is to look for a candidate to promote from within. Internal candidates have many of advantages over external ones. They know the company and its processes better. They fit the culture. They require less training and and they become productive faster. So when the company starts the internal search, it’s the small advantages like sport shoes that will distance you from your peers. It’s not about being perfect, its about being better. So how can you become better than your peers?
It’s all about the inches (as in my favorite movie Any Given Sunday) that will distance you from your peers. Your writing, follow-up, presentation skills, good feedback from other departments(!), good feedback from your internal customers, your willingness and track record to take on new challenges, ability to coach others, ability to be coached and learn, how you dress and finally your results and projected image as a future manager. While none of these qualifications are good enough to get promoted, their combination distances you significantly vs your competition. Before most promotion decisions, the decision makers usually mentally projects you on a higher level and want to convince themselves that you will fit there. This is a semi cognitive, semi emotional process. Therefore, you have to cover all the grounds (including how you dress, because it plays a part in mental projection). Practically, list down the skills that you are required to develop to get promoted with the help of your boss. Then start demonstrating these skills in your day to day job.
5. Delivering results is good, but it’s better when more people know about it.
You learned the rules of promotion, identified the decision maker, aligned your action plan with your boss (and his boss) in line with his priorities, added factors to cooperate with the key influencers based on their feedback and expectations then showed competitive progress on skills which are required for your promotion which places you for success. Now it’s time to deliver and show success. This is the part where your ”work hard” conditioning come into play. In a good scenario, I’m assuming that you are delivering the results as expected. In this case, you should work like a publisher and communicate your results back to all key people, focusing on the nuances you agreed with them. This is probably the point where our personal values such as ”Modesty” work against us. You may not be accustomed to publish your results as it might look like show-off or self-serving. However, this is totally wrong. Let me explain why. Remember Jane from logistics? If you’re good to go on the launch of your the new product and you have an approved plan to deliver it with maximum 2 months of stocks, it’s a great idea to make sure to share this progress with Jane. Because everybody loves to be part of success and like to think that they contributed to it in some way. Go ahead and celebrate your result, acknowledging Jane’s role in setting these expectations with you and her cooperation to get it done.
The tone is completely up to you, but a short note about the result with a small thank you goes a long way to make Jane not only feeling part of the success, but also acknowledging your leadership to get it done. You can do this regularly throughout the months or quarters to register progress. Needles to say, it goes the same way with your boss and his boss who would love to see progress on their key priorities, achieved in collaboration with key departments. Your communication will be perceived as good news. And nobody will ever kill the messenger for it. So what did you achieve with it? Official recognition of the results, which were given to you as a requirement to get promoted. Of course, life is not that simple. You will have multiple projects, multiple goals and many stakeholders. You may not be successful in all of them, but your constant focus and relentless communication will be well noted. The approach doesn’t change. Applying this method consistently, will set you up for success and a strong position to get promoted, if there is a position above. But, what if there is no position for you to get promoted?
6. When and where counts. Position yourself towards future. Follow the growth.
If you ever watched ice hockey, you probably noticed that it’s very difficult to follow the puck for the first time. But as experienced spectators know very well, the trick is not to look at where the puck is but to which direction it will go. You need to apply the same method to your career when it comes to promotion. I recently met with an old taxi driver which I ordered through a smartphone application. He kindly asked me to rate him well if everything was alright at the end of the ride. I was quite impressed with his attitude and action because he understood the importance of good rating for more business, despite his old age. Yet, I interact with many young people who can’t clearly answer the question: ”What is the most obvious change in your work and which skills do you need to build today to cope with it in the future?”. This may not be a very easy question but it’s not rocket science either. So going back to our reverse engineering approach, you may anticipate what will be the future of your industry, function or line of work so that you can start positioning yourself for future. I started my career in marketing but in 2004, I decided to take a broadening assignment in retail. Mass marketing was still very effective and digital was not mainstream. The power was slowly shifting to retailers. Looking back, my choice wasn’t obvious to everyone, but I sensed the opportunity to diversify my career, although it meant getting out of fast track line marketing for 2 years. My bet paid off and the combination of marketing and retail gave me an opportunity to take a CMO position 8 years later in a top electronics company which needed to integrate its line and retail marketing. We managed to expand our company stores opening 190 stores in 18 months which qualified me for a CEO position in a Quick Service Restaurant Chain which was looking for a leader who can manage hyper-growth. During this time, traditional marketing career got faded due to transformation to digital and centralization of marketing. Broadening my career early on, gave me the additional options to work on alternative line which eventually helped me to become CEO, even when my traditional line (marketing) got stuck. The same approach is true for industries and geographies. If you are a doctor and the technological innovation is disrupting your line of work, you have to master it sooner than later. If you are a taxi driver, you have to sign up for fastest growing digital application and manage your ratings. It’s easy to say than do it but career growth follows business growth. Simple demand and supply. Fast growing industries provide more promotions. It’s the same as choosing your lane in the highway. You can’t go fast in the slow lane. To do so, you have to change the lane.
7. The only person that really cares about your career is you.
I hope by now, it’s quite clear to you that the only person responsible for your career is you. So if you got passed over, it means you weren’t competitive enough. If your promotion is delayed, it means you weren’t clear with your boss about the expectations and timings. If the position that you were supposed to get promoted is cancelled, it means you didn’t anticipate the growth path. If your projects are not in the radar of top management, it means you didn’t understand their priorities and position yourself or your projects to serve their priorities. Net, this proves the point that you are responsible for your career. So it’s time to use your conditioning to switch from hard work to smart work. Learn the rules of promotion and focus on the results that will get your boss promoted. Reverse engineer the process of promotion and plan backwards while aligning expectations with key influencers. Publish your results with confidence, create an aura of success and make others part of it. Take control of your career path, anticipate growth and set yourself up for new skills, new projects, new positions that will enrich your career and promotion options.
What if despite all that, you don’t get that promotion? Therefore, as you are working towards a promotion, you need to run a parallel job search that will help you advance your career. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, the reasons are obvious. The best time for a job search is when you have a job, which gives you increased confidence, negotiation power and mental strength to pick and choose in case things don’t go your way in your current company. The best time to buy insurance is before the accident.
Finally, sometimes, life really turns against us. Even after everything you’ve done, you may not get what you wanted. The truth is everyone loves promotion, but no-one needs promotion to be happy. Therefore, if things didn’t work out, I recommend you to turn back to yourself and see the self transformation you achieved from being a passenger to a driver, modest to confident and hard worker to smart worker. This is called self-promotion, which happens to be the fastest and the best promotion, as it was offered in the title.
- Who gets promoted, who doesn’t and why (Book, Donald Asher)
- Stuck in the middle (Book, Curtis Odom)
- What got you here, will not get you there (Book, Marshall Goldsmith)
- 7 steps to getting paid more and promoted faster (Article, Fast Company)
- 4 hour work week (Book, Tim Ferris)