How To Get Promoted
A simple guide from an experienced manager
We tend to treat promotions like surprise coronations. We think that if we just put our heads down and do our jobs long enough, somebody will spontaneously crown us and tell us that we have made it to the next level. But promotion is much more complicated than that.
In a lot of ways, our school system does us a disservice. During our first thirteen, seventeen, or more years, we are taught that progress is linear and time-based. Each year, unless something terrible happens, you are inevitably promoted to the next level. Your grades vary, but you generally progress in lockstep with the people around you. Those who were there when you started first grade are often with you when you graduate from high school, or even college.
The workplace is completely different. Progress and promotion don’t happen on a fixed timeline. At many companies, right or wrong, they don’t even happen based on a written set of objective criteria. Time, performance, and mastery are all elements of promotion, but they are at times not sufficient, and by no means a guarantee. There is more to advancement than just plodding along and hoping for the best. If you want to progress, you have to be strategic about it.
In this article, I share my advice for maximizing your chances of getting promoted and taking your career to the next level.
1. Do the work
This is the first and most important thing that you can do. It may sound simple, but you would be surprised how many people lose sight of its importance. Sure, you probably know some people who were promoted for other reasons, but those are bugs in individual companies’ systems, not the norm. Companies want to reward performance, and thus performance will be your most critical investment. Sustained high performance is what I, and most managers, look for when promoting, so seeking excellence in your daily work is critical.
The biggest thing to remember here is that doing excellent work in your mind is insufficient. You also need to be doing excellent work—work that’s aligned with your company’s goals—in the eyes of your manager. It’s important to close the gap between what you think your work should be and what the organization actually values. Make the company’s priorities your priorities, and you will ensure that you are making progress in the right direction.
2. Amplify your impact
If you do your work in a vacuum, and no one knows about it, did it actually happen?
My team once built a product that accounted for more than 10 percent of the company’s revenues. No one cared. Despite the product’s success and importance, our work on it went unrecognized. Later, at the same company, another team and I built a second product, which also accounted for more than 10 percent of the company’s revenues. The reaction couldn’t have been more different. Our work was not only recognized, but celebrated, and turned into a model for future teams.
The contrast couldn’t have been more stark. One product was largely forgotten, while the other is company lore. The difference? How we talked about our product. The first team was self-contained, which allowed us to stay insulated from the rest of the company without having to justify our work or describe the impact we were having. The second team, on the other hand, was really lightly staffed. We needed everyone to help us to execute, so by necessity, we had to talk a lot about our work in order to get more people on board.
There’s a tendency to think that if you work hard, your results will speak for themselves, but that’s not always true. If nobody is aware of your impact, those results will go overlooked. Make a point to keep others up-to-date on your progress, and you won’t have to worry about your contributions going unrecognized during the next promotion cycle.
3. Find a sponsor
Fair or not, having—or not having—a sponsor can completely change the trajectory of your career. A sponsor is someone who is senior to you, who is keeping an eye out for your success and can open doors that would otherwise stay closed. While they may not be someone who is directly responsible for your promotion, having someone senior at the company who talks about your work and supports your career can make a huge difference. It means they are asking about you, and encouraging your managers to see your potential. I have been a sponsor to many team members who didn’t report to me, but instead were two or three levels away. I kept an eye on them, nudged their managers to support their career growth, and found opportunities for them.
Remember, someone who believes in you makes others want to believe in you, too. That amplification is critical to long-term career success.