How do I get promoted ?
Securing a promotion isn’t easy most of the time, but its especially hard in this market.
It requires resilience, conscious self-marketing, networking and awareness of what is going on around you.
“Surprisingly enough, it has less to do with competence and skill than you think (unless you work for a completely meritocratic employer, which remains rare)”
Most importantly, securing a promotion almost never comes from putting your head down and working hard in the hope that someone will notice your achievements.
Unfortunately, many people are told exactly this when they are moving from studies to work.
“Just work hard, be diligent and you’ll see that everything works out for the best…”
Apart from the fact that it doesn’t. I still vividly remember the pain that hit me the first time I realized that I didn’t know the real rules of the promotion game, and it took me some time to reboot. Here are the key aspects I wish I had known at 21:
Figure out what you want:
Growing up, I was taught not to demand, but rather accept what was given to me. A bit like in dating – girls are not supposed to go for the guy they are interested in but rather wait for him to make the first move. Bad idea, BAD.
The first step to successfully climbing the corporate ladder is to know what you want to be promoted to. You need a goal, beyond promotion itself. Many firms have pre-determined ladder steps (e g analyst, associate, VP, Director, MD etc) but you decide the nuances. Are you aiming for a particular specialism, team or the opportunity to work abroad? Are you into research, investment or sales? It may take some time, especially if you are in your first job, but you need to figure this out – the sooner the better.
If you struggle on your own, get help from an older friend, senior colleague or career coach.
Understand what it takes:
If you want a promotion, you need to make sure that you tick the essential boxes in the job description. This doesn’t mean ticking every single box, but the most important ones. This is particularly important for women as studies have shown that women – much more often than men – refrain from applying for a job if they feel they don’t meet every single criterion.
Use the Internet to research the objective requirements of the job – e g do you need a specific degree or certificate? Then, put more meat on the bone by speaking to a colleague who is in that role now, as well as to his/her boss to get the management perspective of what the job demands – and what skills are the most important.
Identify the key decision makers:
Now, the formal requirements of a job is one thing. Having the right attitude to land the job is something else – and far more important. A key aspect of such an attitude is making the effort to understand who the decision makers are, and to build a relationship with them. Again, a mistake commonly made by women is to blindly trust the official hierarchy of the workplace. It is important to realize that the world is not always what it seems, and that decisions can be made in a very different place than you’d expect.
Don’t assume that your boss has all the power but rather do some undercover digging to understand who is influencing your boss and your boss’ boss in turn. Build a relationship with your boss, but make sure to be on the radar of those people influencing him/her as well.
Build your professional brand:
In order to be considered for a promotion, people making the decisions need to know that you want one. You need to TELL THEM EXPLICITLY about your ambition – they can’t read your mind.
Sadly, I often come across young women who assume that their boss knows that they strive to progress their career. Again, I blame such misconceptions on the reactive behavioral rules many women are taught from an early age. Yes, your boss may suspect that you want a promotion, but if he/she has to choose between a silent person and someone who openly and regularly communicates an ambition to move forward – who do you think your boss is going to choose?
Putting your ambition out there is important but not enough. You also need to dress that ambition in action. Secure a place in high-profile work projects and deliver. Volunteer for challenging tasks. Chair the Young Professionals committee if your employer has one, or launch one yourself. Write thought leadership articles and publish them.
Map out your competition:
Like it or not, at the end of the day your success will – to some extent – be determined by what those competing for the same roles are up to. You need to understand who they are and what circles they move in.
This is where networking at your place of work comes in. You can do this in many ways, but 1) working on cross-team projects, 2) volunteering for committees and 3) proactively asking colleagues on other teams out for lunch or coffee are some of the most effective. Also, each team/department usually has one person who is more up to date with the grapevine than all others – make sure to befriend him/her for the latest news.
Get one or more sponsors to assist you:
Trying to do everything on your own is NEVER the best way forward. Ask for help, in particular from a sponsor – a senior manager at your firm who would put you forward and recommend you to others.
Men aren’t ashamed of asking others for help, women shouldn’t be either – it’s NOT cheating. The effect is further strengthened if your sponsor is one of the people influencing your boss or whoever ultimately makes the decision to promote you. Learn more about how to get a sponsor in our “How do I ask for mentorship?” feature.
Know your plan B and C:
If you have done all of the above and you still don’t get promoted, start considering your options. Unfortunately, there are still many employers who won’t progress women’s careers – just because they’re women.
As an example, I was once told – despite having surpassed my annual budget already in August – that I was too young and had too short of a tenure to be promoted (I was 35 and had been with the company for 4 years). A short while later I realized that the person didn’t believe in female managers. Don’t try for too long but rather cut your losses and look for another employer who values you more. The better prepared you are with a plan B and C, the less painful such a break-up process will be.
Taken together, getting a promotion is all about putting yourself and your ambition out there – matched with good performance at the base. In particular for women, it is high time to stop waiting for others to notice us.
Rather, speak up and tell others what you want – men do so all the time with great success and no one finds them difficult or demanding. Try it – I promise you won’t regret it!
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