How Can I Get That Long-Deserved Promotion?


Raise your hand if you want to get promoted!  The whole room erupts with elevated hands.  When I ask people what makes a strong case for a promotion, I get some very interesting responses:

  • A finished project that was successful
  • The release features that had been advocated by you
  • The experience that accumulated since your last promotion
  • A successful product launch
  • A set of large deals that closed with your help

and so on.   You get the point, most of the these responses are off the mark and speak to a general lack of understanding of how to get promoted.

The First Way

Let’s assume you have done the right thing and have been asking for feedback, you have a mentor and have a clear performance plan from your manager and are pretty self aware.  This should just be a piece of cake right?  Wrong.  I have observed that getting promoted in large companies takes one of two paths.  On the first path, you spend a lot of your time focused on making sure the project that has your name on it is successful, even it means making some enemies in the name of project success and focusing on managing upward.  The individual who takes this approach is readily observed spending the social BBQs at work seated next to the top leaders in the organization.  She works the crowds, but only the people who are the organizational chart leaders.  Many meetings seem to happen behind the scenes for this individual. When they succeed, it seems like there is a little string connecting them to the GM of the organization.   And yet they often get promoted when you don’t see how it could have happened.

  The Second Way

Okay, you can tell my disdain about the first way.  The second way  is simply summarized by knowledge of three direct but yet difficult vectors to focus on:

  1. Make people around you successful—be selfless
  2. Make your manager look good—find out what she is graded on and focus on the items that support your manager
  3. Ensure that your manager’s peers see and value your contribution—remember they have final veto power and your manager may not want to use a banked favor on you

Are you asking if those three points are all it takes?  Well obviously you need to work on projects that are visible, have a good work ethic, contribute some secret sauce and have the hard and soft skills to be successful.  However, these above three areas are critical.  Items 1 and 2 are about making the “success balloon” even larger.  In an organization that is governed by conservation of credit (for those who know about conservation of energy this is easy to understand) where there is only so much credit to go around,  the First Way of promotion is often more successful.  In those organizations, only a few people with the big wins get promoted.

So with items 1 and 2 your job is to increase the amount of credit going around.  You will be seen as moving the organization forward, not just yourself.  A key difference from the First Way.  A huge amount of work goes into making people around you successful: taking time to help a colleague, working on organizational and product processes, sharing the credit when success happens, taking the blame when you are even a small part of the problem.  The second point, making your boss look good is not just about managing relationships and perception above him, but by making most everything you do take on a slant towards your manager’s goals.  If he has a goal to improve processes in your organization, make sure you do many retrospectives after the release.  If he is driven toward improving the skill set in the organization, organize the lunch and learn sessions.

Controlling the Veto

Having been in many promotional discussions and hearing stories on how it goes at the rarefied levels, it is clear to me that even if you did a top-notch job in areas 1 and 2, you still leave a large vulnerability which is not paying attention to your manager’s peers, item 3.  But what about the top banana, how much time do you need to spend working your boss’s bosses?  You obviously don’t want to kick them in the gonads, but honestly those top leaders just want their organization to roll smoothly. So if the peers around your manager agree that you are ready for a promotion, then it will make your boss’s job easy and he or she will look better (see item 2).  You should converse with your manager about the promotional situation and have answers with direct evidence for why you are ready. You should be working throughout the organization in building your credibility.  Across functions and levels.  Your street cred should be impeccable.   People will want you on their project.   They will seek your advice out when doing their own postmortems.  You  won’t just be resting on your laurels from last year.  When you have that discussion with your manager, find out who among his peers is not yet convinced that you are a slam dunk for the promotion.  Once you have that name (which should not be a surprise to you, because you are indeed a political animal and inherently know you have some work to do with that person).  You need to work tirelessly on that person’s organization and the person in particular; get their feedback, find out what makes them look good and what their goals are, find out how your can help their organization,  overshare your increasing credit with their organization, buy pizza for them when they work late.  Doing all of this seems like hard work, it is!  You have to remember that the peer of your manager can veto your promotion.  Your boss does have the power to overcome that veto, but only at great political cost.  He may lose an ally in a different conversation, or expose himself to frank feedback from his manager.   Good managers, when confronted with one of their employees having done all the homework and working hard but unsuccessfully with the manager’s potential peer veto groups, will overcome that veto if it materializes,  for the good of their employee.

But really, do you want your boss to burn one of his silver bullets on your behalf?  Do the work with the veto peer and ensure a smooth as possible path to your next promotion.

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