Reality check on promotions

Promotions are hard for the employee and the employer. Unless its the first couple of levels in the organizational ladder, there is always a lot of subjectivity that goes into the process from both sides. Even when a company says it is all data driven – it is often the case that subjective decisions ( my favorite one – a score for communication skills) that contribute to the final “score” .

I have had my fair share of happiness and frustration when it comes to promotions – both as an employee and as a manager. So I thought I will offer a few thoughts on this topic for what its worth. I am skipping over some obvious stuff like networking, having mentors and coaches and sponsors, gaining the right skills, being a good communicator and so on.

action adventure beach dawn
Photo by Pixabay on

Careful what you wish for !

While the title looks cooler, the office larger, and the pay check looks bigger – promotions come with things you don’t always realize prior to the big event. To maintain the level of high performance you are used to – You may need to travel more, you may not get as much time with family or to exercise , you may be risking your job itself a whole lot more with the kind of decisions you make , you may get a new boss who is not as good to you as the last one, and at some senior levels – you may not have any air cover any more !. Before you set down the road to promotion – you need to understand what it means to your life uniquely . And since circumstances changes, you need to evaluate along the way if you still want it.

When Performance and Potential meets Feasibility

If you are awesome at your current job – there is a high chance that you will get good raises and bonuses. If you don’t and you leave – you probably can get a job elsewhere at the same level that pays you better. That does not get you promoted most of the time. Similarly if your leaders feel you have the potential to be good at your next job – they will put you on the slate to be promoted. But then you need to perform at a level consistent with the job you are going to be promoted to. If you don’t – you will stay in your current level. Even if performance and potential are great – you may miss out on promotions because the business makes an evaluation that there is no capacity to promote you. If you miss out on a promotion – you need to know which of these scenarios played out, and then make a decision to fight it, improve on it, give up or leave . Don’t just do the same things all over again and expect a different result .

Don’t be petty – be Great !

While the prevailing wisdom is “results should speak for you” – that is not how it works in real life for the most part. So you need to market your success so that people know what you did . This needs some nuance too which is where this usually goes wrong terribly. If you steal credit – you will get exposed at some point and take a fall for it. So do yourself a favor – and don’t EVER do it ! Also – as you grow as a leader, you need to demonstrate that you are grooming a top performing team, and not just growing yourself. I need more than fingers and toes to count how many people have not made it through promotion processes just for being petty .  It’s the kind of reputation that is really hard to shake off.

Grow some thick skin ….really thick skin 

No one likes to be criticized – even when it is “constructive”. In the ideal world – leaders praise in public and criticize in private. As your responsibilities grow – the risk of taking heat in larger forums also generally increases. If you melt down frequently when your leaders turn on the pressure, take some time to figure out how to grow your resilience. Remember that they are evaluating you against the job you want – not the one you have now. That means they also expect you to push back when you have conviction in your actions. You need to get comfortable with testing boundaries – and you need to be resilient if you want to be good at it.

Trust and transparency are never out of fashion

I remember the coaching a senior partner gave me the evening I was promoted to senior manager – “Vijay, it is quite simple to progress in this firm. You tell people what you will do, and then you go do it. You ask for specific help and act on it. You let everyone who needs to know if there is a meaningful deviation from what you set out to do and what is your new plan. You keep doing it to higher degrees every year and you will progress rapidly. That is all there is to it”.

That advice has stayed true to this day and I gratefully pass it on to others.

From “Climbing a ladder” to “Surfing waves”

The first few promotions are absolutely like climbing a ladder – each rung looks to be the same distance above the last one. You can plan the process fairly well. This analogy stops being relevant by the time you make first line manager. From that point it is more like surfing waves. A surfer cannot will a wave to show up. He can only be as prepared as he can when a wave shows up. Waves many not show up for a while – but you could also have back to back big waves that you can ride high. If you don’t see waves at all for a while – you may want to find another beach to try your luck, and it is totally ok to be happy paddling around in the sun and enjoy the peaceful scenery for a while. Its your life after all 🙂

Have a plan for dealing with rejection

Promotions obviously get progressively harder to get given there is lesser room as you move up a pyramid. The criteria gets not only harder – it gets fuzzier as well. You have a decision to make when you are passed over for promotion.  The best time to decide what to do with rejection is before you go through the process when your judgement in less clouded with emotional distress. You need to make peace with the fact that the world is not fair. Someone else may have powerful connections, may have more skills , or just have the knack of being in the right place at the right time.

If performance was the reason, and you agree with it – obviously the solution is to get the right skills, try harder etc. If potential was the reason – its time to have an honest conversation with your leader and decide if there is something you can do about it. If it was because the business could not afford to promote you – understand what else can happen instead . Can you get a raise and a promise to get promoted when some agreed up on event happens? Is this a make or break milestone for you that you would rather leave than try again ? And if it is – does your leadership know it so that they can factor it into their process ? Should you check the open market to see what else is available so that you don’t need to settle for less in the last minute if things don’t work for you in the promotion process ?

The only thing harder than getting a promotion 

is to sustain the performance at the new role ! Its one thing that you and your leaders both thought you are awesome. It’s quite another to make it work every day . Again, I think the best time to plan for that is before you get promoted . Learn as much as you can about what success looks like at the new level and what is the big difference from success in current job. Then fix those gaps as much as you can. That will improve your chances of success in getting promoted, will give you the confidence to make a strong start and worst case – it will help you interview better and find a new gig if you choose to leave.

 Good luck !


Published by Vijay Vijayasankar

Son/Husband/Dad/Dog Lover/Engineer. Follow me on twitter @vijayasankarv. These blogs are all my personal views - and not in way related to my employer or past employers

3 thoughts on “Reality check on promotions

  1. Hi Vijay,
    Excellent thoughts as always.

    However …
    I’d like to propose a different view of the promotion conundrum; Many organisations, either explicitly or implicitly, are designed around the industrial mode, where the manager has an overview of the desired results and how to get there, but the workers are meant to do what they are told. Both financial rewards, and just as importantly, status within the organisation, are tied to your position in the hierarchy.

    I saw a great quote from someone in the US military talking skills required for cyber security
    “You train a person to a standard by essentially instructing them, verifying that they can repeat the task, and then you aggregate it together to accomplish a goal, That worked in the industrial era… but for computer security, hacking, cyber and all that, you could have a thousand people, and if none of them are really problem solvers, you’re going to have less capacity than two guys that are really good problem solvers.”

    Because of that structure I mentioned earlier, these “problem solvers” can not be rewarded without promoting to positions that they a) are unsuited for and b) are not interested in.

    In the short term, the only answer for the “problem solver” is to get out, but from the organisations POV, they need to do something more than just add a “technical” career path for people like this; they need to nurture`e these people, because while they aren’t the traditional manager / leader, they have a massive influence on the rest of the workers, via mentoring, setting examples of good practice informal education etc.


    BTW, I follow the blog via RSS, so I hadn’t seen the new layout, very nice !!


  2. As always, very well analysed and well written. A great article for young people who are looking for coaching. Fred


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: