When I changed jobs a few years ago, I worried about being promoted.
The position I interviewed for was at a senior manager level, but when the company made me an offer, they downgraded the role to manager — based on my “experience level.” I tried to negotiate the title but ultimately decided that salary was more important. (According to research, the best approach to negotiation is to consider the whole package and make tradeoffs.)
But I still really wanted to be a senior manager — which would require a promotion.
So, before I accepted the job, I called my manager and said, “I’m excited about this role and want the opportunity to make further contributions by becoming a senior manager. Can we set up an informal review in six months to assess my performance and a potential promotion?”
He consented to my request. And I accepted the job.
I initially planned to wait to discuss promotion with my manager until our informal review in six months. But after talking to a friend, I realized that this approach would be a mistake. She had recently been promoted after having regular (in her case, weekly) discussions with her manager.
If I waited six month to discuss my performance, I would have no idea in the interim if I was meeting expectations and on track for promotion. So I decided to take a bolder approach than I ever had in the past: I resolved to have direct discussions around my performance and promotion in our scheduled development conversations. Every. Single. Month.
I was apprehensive before initiating our first discussion about a month after I started. My manager was a direct communicator—not my natural style. As a self-identified introvert, I hesitate to act in ways that could be construed as aggressive.
So instead of directly asking how promotion worked, I made the conversation about performance management and my interest in long-term career growth at the company. I kicked off our first conversation by saying, “I’m excited about the opportunities at this company and would love to learn more about how career development works here.”
I progressed to asking him about how the performance management system worked and what it would take for me to reach the next level. Then, each month, I consistently asked for feedback and whether I was on track for promotion. (See #1 and #4 below for the specific questions I asked, both in our initial meeting and regular follow-up meetings).
Surprisingly, I found that our frequent, open conversations improved our working relationship. And I realized two things about asking for what you want: 1) It doesn’t have to be aggressive, and 2) when done appropriately, it is extremely effective.
As a result of our regular conversations, coupled with the strategies below, I was promoted to senior manager after only six months and then promoted again in a year (under a different manager) to director, a much larger role.
Through these experiences, I realized something critical about effective career management:
Job performance is important — but it’s not enough simply to be good at your job. To be promoted, you must understand how promotion works, be strategic in your approach — and, most important, advocate for yourself.
1. Get Clarity on What Is Required to Be Promoted
Before my first performance discussion with my manager, I couldn’t identify any clear or consistent standards for promotion. I wasn’t sure why some people were promoted quickly and some never made it to the next level, even after 10 years at the company.
This uncertainty led to my first revelation around promotion: If you don’t know what’s required to get promoted, you must ask.
So, in our first monthly performance management meeting, I asked the following questions:
- “How does performance management work?” (e.g., Are there performance criteria that determine promotion?)
- “Who assesses my performance?” (Just my manager? The whole team?)
- “When do performance reviews occur?” (Annually? Semiannually?)
- “What would it take to move to the next level?” (Specifically, what do I need to do? Is promotion possible in my current role?)
Having this conversation early gave me a tangible goal to work towards I learned about the company’s official performance matrix — and which characteristics were most important to my manager for my role (in his case: strategic thinking, influencing, and executive communication).
This conversation will also allow you to understand if it’s possible to be promoted in your current role. Promotion requires: 1) a role for you to be promoted into, 2) the budget to pay your higher salary, and 3) often, a consensus decision by several others. If you’ve performed well, sometimes your manager cannot promote you — even if he really wants to. In this case, figure out what the other long-term options are for you at the company.
2. Act Like You’re Already at the Next Level
When I asked my manager about the key drivers of promotion, he said people who are promoted have: 1) excelled in their job, and 2) already proven that they can operate at the next level.
I realized that the best way to earn a promotion is to: Act like you are already at the next level.
I studied what was required at the next level and tried to do it. From my experience, here are a couple powerful ways to display your promotion readiness:
- Ask for “stretch” projects: When I was promoted, I requested — and received — a high-impact digital strategy project that enabled me to engage with leaders who were involved in promotion decisions. My performance on this project was later cited as one of the reasons I was promoted.
- Own your work: As a manager, one of the top things I look for in promoting members of my team is the ability of each employee to “own” their work. Can they problem solve on their own? Can they influence others? Can they complete entire work streams without constant guidance? Here are some powerful suggestions on how to “own” your work.
3. Ask for It
For people like me who liked school, sadly, work is not like school, where you could sit quietly in class, do solid work, and get an A. At work, sitting back and hoping someone notices all the great work you do is unlikely to lead to a promotion.
Instead, you must make it very clear that you want to be promoted because: 1) It shows ambition, that you actively want to take on the challenge of the next role, and 2) not everyone wants to be promoted.
When I was promoted the second time, my management responsibilities and scope of work doubled. While the role was exciting, it was also a lot more work — and more stressful. Some people, understandably, don’t want to take on expanded career responsibilities at certain points in their lives. I’m sure I’ll be there at some point in my life, too.
4. Discuss It Regularly with Your Manager
Research shows that 80 percent of people feel uncomfortable discussing employment terms like promotion. People often find these discussions intimidating because they think they must be aggressive (e.g., “I want/ deserve a promotion!”)
But these conversations can, and should, be done in an agreeable way and on a regular basis. In my monthly promotion discussions, I focused on personal development by asking for feedback and what I could do to enhance my performance.
Each month, I asked my manager the same questions:
- “Do you have any feedback for me?” (Note: Providing feedback was not common at my company, so this was a new request for my manager. I gave him advance warning that I would be asking for feedback so he could prepare — and so he wasn’t thrown off guard. I also prepared feedback for him in case he asked for it (he did).
- “Am I on track to move to the next level?”
- “What do I need to ensure that I stay on track?”
These regular conversations with my manager ensured that we were on the same page throughout the process.
5. Show Why You Deserve a Promotion
No one knows how much you contribute at work except you. Your manager is busy with his own worries. She’s probably more concerned about her next promotion than yours.
Your first responsibility is to ensure that those at higher levels in your company know what you are accomplishing. And the best way to ensure they know what you are achieving is to tell them.
I realized that I needed to show my manager my contributions, visually and regularly — and here’s how I did it:
- I wrote down and reviewed goals and accomplishments regularly. For each monthly development conversation, I prepared a document listing my goals and accomplishments for that time period. We reviewed it together, which ensured that we were on the same page about priorities and that he was aware of what I had done.
- I sent weekly update emails. Another way I have kept my manager apprised of my work is by: 1) sending him an email each Monday with my top priorities and goals for the week, and 2) sending him an email on Friday highlighting what I had accomplished that week. If you take this approach, have a verbal conversation with your manager first to establish this process. And make sure your emails are bullet-pointed and easy to read quickly.
6. Get to Know the Decision-Makers Who Determine Promotions
In each of my promotions, I quickly realized that my manager was not the only one involved in the decision.
So, I started forming connections with the key promotion decision makers through regular coffee chats and work projects. Despite initially feeling anxious about reaching out to leaders that I did not know, I found that I enjoyed building these personal relationships and learning about their work.
Figure out who is involved in your promotion decision. Ask to grab coffee with them. Get to know them. If you can, try to work with them so you can demonstrate your talents.
People promote people they like, so start forming strong connections early with the people who hold the power to promote you.
What to Do When You Get Promoted
Celebrate! Grab a glass of champagne, go to a movie, or have a nice dinner.
Then, make sure you take the right steps to set yourself up for continued success.
Being promoted is an optimal time for negotiation. What do you want? Ideally, try to negotiate your base salary (since annual salary increases are based on this number.) Then, consider other things: bonus, stock options, extra vacation days, etc. (Here are some tips on how to negotiate effectively.)
Most important, what do you need to succeed in your new role? Extra team members? A larger budget? Support from certain leaders? Ask for the things you need, and make a clear case for why you need them.
It is critical that you do all you can to set yourself up for success in your new role so you can succeed in your new role — and put yourself on track to achieve that next promotion.