Can someone just tell me... how do I get promoted?
Updated: Mar 15
Back in the days before the Agricultural Revolution, when smoke signals were the communication method du jour, and the wheel was still a modern invention treated with the utmost skepticism, I was accepted for a role on a graduate management trainee at a big corporate. I'll level with you: I had no idea how totally and utterly unprepared I was for the mystifying world I had entered.
When you don't know what you don't know
I am from a family of librarians and hair dressers and, well, smugglers (yes really). Growing up in the North West of England in the 80s and 90s wasn't an economy overflowing with job opportunities. The job talk I heard from the adults around me was was about clinging to jobs for dear life, not pontificating about responsibility, and spans of control, and emotional fulfilment. So it was the achievement of my life just to have a "proper job" to go to after college. Never mind the fact it was at UNILEVER (whisper it in hallowed tones), who had a hometown reputation as a little fragment of unreachable employment Nirvana in that job desert I was talking about.
So when I was asked what questions I had about the role - the one I'd accepted before the words were barely out of the recruiter's mouth - I had no idea what kind of questions there could possibly be.
I had no concept of salary negotiations or benefits or training or placement rotations or mentorship or competency development or performance matrices or high potential identification or lateral moves or filling in skill gaps.... The corporate terms that I'm now fluent in like some unofficial second language meant nothing. They were going to pay me and I was going to get my own desk (yes, honestly, that's a question that I DID ask, bless my heart.) What more was there to know?
What do you mean, there's no rule book?
Up until the end of college, life is actually pretty straightforward, although it doesn't feel that way. At high school, we were basically trained how to pass exams in order to go to college. Then there was college itself, with pretty clear expectations, and even fixed marks out of 100, that made it easy to decipher when you were a good student and when you were more of a slacker. And regardless, you were all going to get to the end of it at the same time with a degree (as long as you didn't go too far down the slacker route.) It was all predictable and clear and everyone was playing to the same rules.
I'll be honest, it didn't even occur to me that having a career wasn't even remotely that way.
That progression would happen based on things called "readiness" and "role availability" and "identified potential," not based on a calendar month.
That you could have a group of people who joined a company in a cohort and not all get promoted at the same time.
That you could do what was officially called the same job title as someone else but it be in practice very, very different indeed.
That there's a thing called "exposure", but that having the wrong sort of it is worse than having none of it.
That progressing wasn't necessarily just about moving up.
That you're supposed to spend the time that you're in a job thinking about your route to the next one.
That you can say you don't want to play the corporate game when it comes to your reputation, but you're going to have to find a way to. Because not playing at all is like turning up on a football field in a kayak. You might make an impact, but you're not going to get very far.
That there's no longer a schedule. Now progression and direction is all down to you. Except it's not, because wanting to do something is one thing, and being given the green light to do it comes down to whether other people think you can.
Because what so much of corporate career management comes down to is what impression people have of you. No tests to pass, no check boxes to fill, no spreadsheet of hours completed, no set months of experience required. Just some vague criteria to do with that magic word "READINESS."
Nobody actually told me this. I am so fortunate to be blessed with great bosses and mentors who over a matter of years helped me put the pieces together like one of those jigsaws that's all sky. Maybe if you grow up with a mum a CFO and a dad as a Head of IT, or a best friend or partner in the same field it's different? I don't know.
As my career progressed, I stumbled around and I kind-of worked it out. I learned who I needed on my side, what I needed to do and say to get them there. I figured out what I wanted to be said about my when I wasn't in the room. I decided what impact to leave on the people around me. All the things you need to get across in order to be viewed as READY. I remember thinking, can someone just tell me what I need to do to be READY? But there were times it felt a bit like a secret society. Some leaders almost have the view that if you need to be told then, well, you just aren't READY.
There is no bigger decision point of READINESS in career progression in a corporate than Your First Manager Role. So much is talked about Your First Manager Role. Because you'll understand when you get to Your First Manager Role. You'll receive further training before Your First Manager Role. You'll really see the difference in expectation in Your First Manager Role. Oh and you're being trained before you Your First Manager Role so you should expect your salary to be lower... Your First Manager Role always seemed rather like the wedding in a fairy tale, we all live happily ever after once it's bestowed.
What I remember really wanting was a straightforward answer to the question....
So...how do I get My First Manager Role?
You know how there's two schools of thought on healthy eating? Career advice is kind of similar.
Approach one: the miracle diet with lollipops infused with questionable cactus extracts made under a blue moon by Amazonian natives, subscribe now. Incorporated into your ketogenic (but intermittently-fasted daily meals), washed down with a bullet proof coffee made with lard. You are guaranteed to lose 60lb in your first month, but you might never want to eat another egg again.
Approach two: eat what your body tells you it needs, don't eat so much sugar that your teeth ache, drink water, eat your vegetables (but, you know, don't deep fry them). If you're looking to fit into jeans two sizes smaller in a week, it's probably not the right choice for you. But if you stick to it over the longer term, you will have lovely clear skin and a cavity-free smile.
Why the reason for this tangent? Especially with the holy grail of Your First Manager Role in front of you, everyone wants the answer to be like approach one. The magic wand for instant career gratification: do a show stopping presentation for the CMO, have lunch with an SVP, done. Company car and assigned parking space!
Sorry, friends. But it doesn't work that way.
Proving your READINESS is like eating your vegetables and 30 minutes exercise a day. It's not exciting or sexy, it's behaviors witnessed consistently over time that deliver the results.
So... What do I have to do to look READY I hear you ask? Thank you for being patient! I have promoted a number of people in my time and I'm now going to tell you my top 3 READINESS indicators.
1. Consistently go beyond what's asked
I don't mean ignore the instructions, heavens no: there's nothing more irritating than giving someone a project and them coming back with something that bears no relation to what you wanted. Or doing extra work for the sake of it. But someone who is READY for a promotion consistently looks at the problems they've been asked to solve and say - what else can I do? If this is a solution, what else could be? If this is a problem, what else could be? What else can I do about that?
For instance, I once asked one of my team to look over a survey we'd sent out to the marketing organization. She sent me back a quantitative analysis of the results with recommended actions for the biggest gripes. It's a "for instance", because pretty much every piece of work she did had the same thought process. Seeing her promoted one one of my proudest days.
2. Surface problems - and bring potential solutions
One of the things I used to consistently tell my team was, if something doesn't work, don't put up with it, tell me because I want to know. So much of corporate life is bogged down with bad process: but the further you get away from the day-to-day mechanics and the closer to the ivory tower of executive life, the more distant you get from just how much molasses there is to wade through every day. As we all know, corporate molasses is one of the most bang-you-head-on-the table-go-home-and-drink-wine parts of the job. So if you can do something about it, and make things better for your team (not to mention look like a veritable hero) why wouldn't you? And how well disposed would you be to the person who brought it to your attention?
Here's the thing though, no boss wants only problems because that's just moaning about what doesn't work. We also want to know what you think the answer is. We're very busy in alignment meetings you see, we don't have time to come up with the solution ourselves.
3. Act like you've got the job, before you get the job
Yes it's total BS, yes it's not fair, yes the cynical would say it's how corporates save money. But it's how things are, so you can stop throwing things at me and take in what I'm saying. If you're going to be seen as READY then you're going to have to prove it. If you want to get your First Manager Role then act like you've already got Your First Manager Role.
Show leadership with the people around you, even (especially) if you aren't asked to. Support and motivate the members of your team on the tough days. Celebrate their achievements on the good days. In other words, be on the look out for the moments that allow you step up and you to show your leadership potential. Leadership is nothing to do with a job title and all to do with behaviors. But exemplify the behaviors, and ultimately you will get the title.
Wait, there must be more to it than that?!
It can't just be that?? What about....How do Directors and VPs make promotion decisions? Is career management just about promotions? What if you're happy where you are? What's a performance matrix? How long does it take to get promoted? Why do some people progress faster than others?
If you're 1-4 years into a corporate career and, like me way-back-when, have nobody to answer these questions and more, I'm starting group coaching for early career corporate people. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more details!