The Ugly Truth About Promotions

“What can I do to move to the next level?”

“How do I get promoted?”

Two questions I hear with enough frequency that I feel compelled to have an answer rehearsed to make it through the awkward fumbling. Why is this question so difficult for me to field? This should be a question I LOVE to field…an opportunity to have yet another conversation about all the great things people are doing, how our development planning is making a difference, and how a carefully laid out plan (and hard work) will give you the outcomes you desire.

Instead, this question sends chills up my spine (in an awkward way) and in the back of my mind, I know why. Frankly, I’m finding this a tough thing to write. In the interest of full disclosure, the dysfunction of promotions in large organizations is not for a lack of trying to make the process transparent and virtuous. I think ALL managers go through this process thinking about the virtues of their employees, true value to the organization, and general fairness.

For me, it boils down to a few things. Very few on this list will shock you. Some might. Frankly, I just can’t tell. I have had this conversation so often (and been surprised by it) that I feel like basics escape people when assessment season <gulp> rolls around each year. Maybe it’s due to individual contributors having not had to perform such tasks? No matter what it is, the conversation is akin to telling your 10 year old that Santa isn’t real.

“I think they know, right?”

“They have to know this.”

“Man, I hope they know this…”

Related to Promotion Decisions (large organization):

  1. You are not competing against a set of criteria in a development / performance plan (in most large organizations). You are competing against your peers.
  2. Your direct manager has little “direct” control of promotion decisions. Management “teams” have ultimate say and even then, the decisions are mostly “recommendations” to someone w-a-y up the chain of command.
  3. By the time promotion decisions are handed down (or at the EOY evaluations) there is typically nothing your direct manager can do to change any decisions that have been made.
  4. If your 20 person organization busts their asses and deliver unreal accomplishments, the constraint of 2% (or some small percentage) still exists. Not everyone will get promoted.
  5. Seems obvious, but promotions are completely subjective. Even though you have a list of criteria for promotion staring you in the face, it’s still a judgment call by a team of people. (This one trips up technology people frequently)
  6. If you have just been promoted, your chance of promotion the following year is effectively zero (another obvious one) even if you have moved Heaven and Earth in one of your projects. This one troubles me for many reasons.
  7. There is a constant PULL to minimize the number of promotions submitted. This typically comes first from management, then from HR. The fewer people submitted as the numbers are rolled up, the easier the decisions for managers up the chain become.
  8. Every single person in this process has a world view, and every decision they make reflects it. What your management finds valuable personally will affect decision making.
  9. The last thing to note: I HATE HATE HATE this list.

So who cares that I hate this list. It doesn’t change the fact that these are real issues. So what can be done?

Effective Ways to Contribute and get Recognized (as a by-product):

  1. Just Get Stuff Done – Make sure others view you as a person that “just gets stuff done”. You become the person that doesn’t require consistent hand-holding to make decisions or make things happen. If you can take requests and “just get them done”, you make their lives so easy!
  2. Understand your Teammates – Get to know your teammates and find out what will WOW them.
  3. WOW your teammates! This is more important than WOW-ing your manager. Over deliver to these people at ALL times. This doesn’t have to be something overwhelming to YOU. This could simply mean it qualifies as a “Little Big Thing” in the world of your peer.
  4. What about BOB? A friend of mine refers to people on his projects as “BOB”. Seems silly, but this is his way of determining his “Band of Brothers”….the people he can COUNT on when things are tough. (BTW – his 2 most trusted BOB’s are women. Maybe they could be his BOSs?).
  5. Be Nice – Be perceived as a “nice person”. The nicer you are, the easier it is for others to engage you. This makes it easier to WOW them!
  6. Be Relevant – Be relevant to other teams in your work unit. The more relevant (read: “I know Jane. She is a dynamite data person!”) the more they will sing your praises when you OVER DELIVER for them! (are you getting the point yet?)
  7. Be a cross-functional Maven – Ask about other disciplines most pressing issues and help guide and partner with those folks on your projects. Be the bridge between your peers and those other roles. This will create raving fans of those people over night. Trust me on this one.
  8. Lastly, and so importantly, be your Customers Advocate. Whether internal or external, advocate for your customer! Make their lives easy. Make your interactions with these people INSANELY simple and valuable. Cut through the mess FOR them. Be their tour guide through your organization and take care of them. If they are on your side, you are half way there.

To sum it all up, your ultimate goal is to take the PR of your promotion OUT of the hands of your manager. If you are busting your ass all year, creating raving fans all over your organization, ensuring you reach “BOB” status with your peers, are a cross-functional maven, can get stuff done, and are an advocate for your customers, nothing but great things will happen. OTHER managers will come to promotion meetings and mention your name. Other managers will KNOW your name, as well as all the great things you are doing. The leadership will sit up an take notice.

This is the advice I give to team members these days. I want to impress upon them that my ultimate goal is to make them successful. If they are, I’ve done my job. I want to help them navigate the politics and bureaucracy of organizations (for good or bad). That requires that I continue to tell people the reality of performance related to promotion. You get the good with the bad.

I hope to have the promotion conversation with ALL employees one day, and for all the right reasons. If they succeed following the steps above, then the organization will be better off. That will be a great day indeed.

2 thoughts on “The Ugly Truth About Promotions

  1. You forget something vital. Sometimes to get a promotion you have to leave your company and get other experience. I really believe I have a better change of getting unstuck by starting somewhere else than staying in the same company doing great work.

    Time will tell, but that is always an option people should consider.

  2. I tend to agree! I missed that one, and it’s an obvious one. Promotion sometimes requires people to move on, and I think many professionals today realize that. I also want to make sure people understand that there are ways to improve your lot in life in the company you currently keep as well!

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