How to Play Your Cards in Getting that Promotion

One of the biggest considerations most people have in their careers is when to expect, or ask for, their next promotion. Let’s face it: a promotion sounds like it solves a lot of problems. It demonstrates that your efforts have actually meant something meaningful, and it validates your successes to those that care about you, as well as to those in the industry. Most importantly, a promotion often comes with a nice bump in salary which helps you pay for an upgrade in your San Francisco apartment, makes the payment on your new Tesla, or affords the Hulu, Netflix, Spotify, or Lyft account you just opened (depending on the promotion we are talking about). Promotion criteria can change, depending on the phase the industry you work in may be in. During times of steep growth, experienced people for high-level jobs may be few and far between – creating earlier-than-normal opportunities for faster promotions. But how do you know if the time is right for a promotion? Read on…

Differentiating Promotions from Raises
It may be obvious to most of you, but let’s start with the basics: a promotion is different than a raise. A raise is recognition for doing a good job – and perhaps a bit of an incentive for continuing to do a great job. A promotion means you will be taking a new job, with new (and sometimes added) responsibilities. When asking for a promotion, carefully consider what you are asking for. Sure, you would like the additional cash associated with the next level – but are you ready to deliver the work at that level? One common “myth” that I sometimes find people adhering to is that time is the marker to identify someone who deserves a promotion. I’ve heard on more than one occasion, “I’ve been here two years, I deserve a promotion.” My contention is that time has little, if anything, to do with it (that’s the good and the bad news). Time often suggests you have been assigned a task a certain number of times – but does not indicate your level of success or the quality of your work, nor does it suggest the initiative you have put into your job. The good news about not using time as the primary measuring stick is that if you demonstrate repeatedly the ability to do something successfully, even after only a short period of time, you may be ready to move to the next level. The point is, don’t let yourself be bound by time.

Are You Ready?
Admittedly It’s hard to be totally objective about your own work – but before you have that conversation with your manager, it’s good to think through your personal readiness for the next job. Here are a few tips that should help you:

1. Read your current job description (and if your company doesn’t make that easily accessible to you, you should ask that they do). How many of the objectives have you met? Try to differentiate the things you have done successfully once or twice from the things you have done successfully on a repeated basis. If you have accomplished 80 percent or more of the items on the job description, that’s a good thing! Onto step two!

2. Read the job description for the level above your current position. How many of those objectives are you successfully meeting? Pay special attention to whether you can demonstrate that you have done those several times, without assistance.

3. If you feel you are not only doing the job you currently hold successfully, but are doing 25 to 30 percent of the job above yours successfully, it’s time to sit down with your manager and make sure that his or her opinions align with yours. In this conversation, check for qualitative differences, which are typically the basis of any misalignment. Ask for training or a mentor to help you work on those things. Most importantly, get specific on what success does look like and ask how long they think it will take you to get to the point of being successful at whatever is holding you back. It is really important that you have a trusting relationship with your manager, and the manager above him or her. They should definitely be advocating for you in this process.

Is it Worth the Wait?
It’s easy to get discouraged when you are waiting on a promotion. The important thing to understand is why your company is also waiting. Sometimes promotions are not made at the time people are “ready,” but instead made when it suits the business. Some businesses plan only a specific number of promotions per year, and the other people who are ready for a promotion simply have to wait until the next time the business is ready – which sets up an unhealthy competitive dynamic, a la Hunger Games. For example, some European PR firms promote only every 16 months – and have only a few promotions to offer based on profitability goals. And some small PR agencies simply cannot afford the higher salaries associated with promotions, because their revenue stream is unpredictable. If these are the reasons given to you about the wait on your promotion, then my advice is to seek another employer. This type of system is unpredictable and the owners or key executives are putting profit before staff – and you deserve better.

Another consideration is how long you have been waiting. As mentioned earlier, while time is far from the only factor in determining a promotion, let’s face it, it does take a certain amount of time to repetitively accomplish a task successfully. If your job is to do tasks that require only a short time frame to complete (such as a few hours to a couple of days), then a promotion in less than a year is feasible. When the tasks become more complex and take longer to measure success, you might have to wait 18 months to two years.

Finally, when seeking a promotion within your place of business, or if you are looking to take a higher position in a new company than one you’ve had in the past, make sure your references align with your title aspirations. A couple of years ago I had an account executive interview for an account manager position. His only references referred to his work as an intern. They couldn’t speak to his work quality at the account manager level – only that he was a nice guy. Recent examples and references that speak to you doing some or most of the job you are going after are really important.

Are all the Boxes Checked?
What is most important is that you can demonstrate readiness for the promotion you are seeking. This will demonstrate that you are thoughtful, strategic and not impatient (which makes a big difference to your perspective employer). Demonstrating that you’ve spent time to devise an ambitious yet realistic career path will create even more trust with your current or future employer. Talk to your manager, make sure they are advocating for you, and have a realistic (and as objective as possible) perspective of your strengths and your gaps, and practice talking about both comfortably.
Good luck as you climb the career ladder!

By Susan Thomas

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