This Is Why Some People Get Promoted At Work And Others Don’t
To get a promotion, four things must be true:
The company must have a position that it needs filled.
You must be capable of filling that position.
You must be the best person for that position.
You must express interest and willingness to take the position.
So the people who get promoted are the ones who get themselves into companies where opportunities open up, make sure they are prepared for those opportunities, and make sure their managers know they want more responsibility. This has a few implications for anyone who wants a promotion:
You can’t get promoted into a position that doesn’t exist. Don’t ask to be promoted to manager if the company doesn’t need a new manager right now. It immediately positions you as someone who wants a promotion for the sake of it vs. showing a true understanding of how you can help your company. This is why you want to work at dynamic, growing, companies – those are the ones that generate new opportunities.
Promotions are not about reward and punishment. Your company is not mommy or daddy who is going to give you ice cream or send you to your room to reward or punish your behavior. The company needs certain things done, and you need to work with your company to get yourself into a position where you can help.
Promotions are not about longevity – yes, it usually helps, but don’t believe that “putting in your” time automatically makes you the best person for the open position.
It is not enough to just be “qualified” – you need to be the most qualified among both other internal candidates for the position as well as external candidates that could come in through a search. Think of your company as a sports team. Being able to kick a 30-yard field goal may make you “qualified” to play varsity, but you’ll still lose out to the draftee who can kick 50-yarders. Be the guy who can kick 50-yarders.
A promotion is a change of job description – you don’t get a promotion then go right back to your old job at more pay. You go into a new job. Do you know what that new job is? Are you studying and preparing to do it?
Promotions are about the future, not the past. They are about putting the best person into an open position starting *today*, not a reward for a job well done in the past. You can toil away for 80 hours weeks your whole careers as a great individual contributor, but that doesn’t mean you “deserve” a promotion to a position you won’t be good at.
“Promotions” can be lateral – if you get promoted from senior engineer to junior manager, your salary may not necessarily go up. The pay scale for that open position may or may not be higher than your old job. Again, this is about job description. Do you want to be a manager or not? And would you want to be one even if it were less pay?
Promotions are not about compensation – they are about an employee taking a role with a different set of responsibilities than the last role. Yes, more responsibility usually means better comp, but the promotion is not a way to get you a raise, it is a way for the company to fill a role it needs filled. When you talk to your manager about a promotion, the conversation is about the job and why you want it. The comp comes later.
Focus on *being* good, not about *convincing people* that you are good – understand the job you want. Talk to the people who have it. Read, learn, and study. Look for projects that let you exercise those skills. By the time a position opens up, you should have firm evidence that you are ready.
You don’t become a leader by being promoted. You get promoted because you are a leader – don’t sit in the corner lobbing pot shots at your “clueless” management then act bitter when you don’t get invited to join them. Understand the company’s projects and priorities and work to make them successful. Approach problems the same way your managers do. Lead from your current position. Don’t try to convince yourself that once you change jobs you’ll lead.
You must cross over into the dark side – when you take a leadership position, you simple can’t do some of the things that you used to do. No bashing the company or other managers. Stay on message. Be ready to fire and lay people off. Make hard decisions. Get ready to tell other people why they are not getting promoted. Don’t want to do those things? Then why do you want a promotion?
Much of what is dismissed as “politics” is simply part of the job description – being a good communicator. Being visible. Being helpful. Building relationships. You can’t be a leader without doing those things. Many folks make the mistake off dismissing an entire category of soft skills as “politics,” which usually reflects a misunderstanding of what managers do.
So stop obsessing about “politics” – yes they exist and you need to be aware of them, but treat them as the exception, not the rule. Yes, you may lose a promotion because of “politics,” but if it keeps happening to you again and again, you are the problem, not politics. Does Tiger Woods stop practicing because 5% of his shots take unlucky bounces? No, he trains like hell for the other 95%.
The company can’t read your mind – tell them what kinds of positions you want, ask how you can get trained up to be ready when they arise, and follow up. This should be an ongoing discussion with your manager during your regular 1-1’s and performance reviews (you do those, right?)
Work hard and do a good job – you are correct that it isn’t sufficient, but it absolutely is necessary. I never promote anyone who is doing badly in their current job into a new job.
If your company is really so truly dysfunctional that you believe none of these apply, quit – why do you want to work there anyway?
Work at good companies, constantly seek opportunities to build your skill, build relationships across the company, make sure your manager knows are you seeking more responsibility, and be patient but not complacent.