brad dickason
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Take charge of your promotion

Do you believe that if you do a good job and write a great performance review, you will be promoted?

That’s not how it works.

At my first startup, I had a manager who seemed to have a sixth sense to detect when I wanted to be promoted. I never mentioned it to him. I felt awkward bringing it up and didn’t want to come off as selfish or greedy. I would walk into his office one day and he’d say, “Brad you’re doing great work. You deserve a raise.”

From that point on, I assumed that promotions just happened and you would be rewarded on a reasonable timeframe if you do good work. I was baffled at other companies when I would go years without seeing a promotion. My bosses would tell me, “You’re doing great!” or “Wow you are redefining what it means to be a PM here,” but I wouldn’t get promoted.

I expected my performance to speak for itself. I was leaving my promotion up to chance.

The reality is:

My breakthrough came when I started having conversations with successful people who kept getting promoted. They didn’t sit back and wait for a promotion to happen. They worked to understand what was expected and then proactively exceeded those expectations.

If your promotion was a product, you’d want to know exactly what was missing. You’d act on that feedback quickly and look at data/research to make sure your actions made an impact. You’d try to increase the speed at which you get high quality feedback. Let's apply that to your promotion:

  1. Get high quality feedback
  2. Develop a plan
  3. Increase the rate you receive feedback.
  4. Do the work. (Sorry, I can’t help you with this one!)

These steps are not rocket science, but they work.

How to get high quality feedback

Meet with the right people

Your Manager - Make time for a career conversation. Instead of projects and updates, block out a 1:1 to focus on your promotion. Your 1:1 is your time. Your manager is in charge of your promotion so their input is important.

Your Manager's Peer - Find a fellow manager that has has seen your work. This person has likely promoted people to the level you’re trying to reach and have a different perspective than your manager. Bonus points if they’ll be in the room when your promotion is decided so you have an ally.

Your Peer - Sometimes you need to hear advice from someone who has already lived your experience. Find a kind peer who will take some time to talk with you about your promotion. Let them know that you're trying to reach the next level. Share challenging situations that you're facing and ask for their guidance. Ask them what changes they made to reach the next level.

Ask good questions

People often ask vague questions like 'what do I need to do better?' Open ended questions lead to open ended answers. We need to probe for specific behaviors with specific questions:

  1. What did I not do this month that I should have done to show that I'm operating at the next level?
  2. What's the one thing I should do more of to operate at the next level?
  3. And what's the one thing I should stop doing to operate at the next level?

You may have to ask these questions a few times before you get good answers but stick with it. Remember that people don't always have clear criteria for a promotion. These questions will prompt them to consider the specific gaps, it just might take some time.

Make a plan

Write down each behavior that comes up in conversations. Label each one with: Not Doing, Doing, Doing Well. Each time you meet with someone about your promotion, you should have this sheet filled out. The goal is to make sure you both agree on the progress you've made. Are you trending towards 'Doing Well' for every row? If not, why not? Does your manager agree with your assessment? Great, let's discuss!

The purpose of the plan is to create a framework to discuss your promotion. Adding a bit of structure in written format gives you common ground to anchor your discussion in common language and topics. You might not agree at first, but now you have a way to talk about it.

Increase the speed you get feedback

Now that you've created space and structure for career conversations, you need to make sure they happen regularly.

Schedule a monthly check-in with each person mentioned above. Come prepared with your document filled out and bring tangible examples for each section. It may feel foreign to spend this much time talking about your career, but it's the only way you're going to get real feedback in a timeframe where you can make meaningful changes.

Be careful to always block off one of your 1:1's per month with your manager. It's easy to fall into the habit of check-ins and lose valuable time to discuss your promotion. Make it happen.

Landing the promo

At some point the feedback will shift from, "you need to do more or you need to less," to "Oh crap, you're ready!" When you start to hear those responses, you want to ask your manager a very explicit question: "Are you comfortable recommending me for promotion in the next half? Or is there something holding you back from doing that?" Again, we're asking direct, specific questions. This will force your manager to picture themself in the room putting you up for promotion. Any last questions or concerns that haven't been brought up so far.

Bonus: How to talk to your manager

Promotions are uncomfortable topics. You’ve likely been thinking about a promotion (but haven’t brought it up) for a few months. Your manager likely hasn’t thought deeply about a promotion and doesn’t have clear criteria in their head to evaluate you. You don’t want to appear selfish, your manager doesn’t want to appear uncaring.

It’s tough.

Do any of these sound familiar: “Promotions and Salary are awkward topics” “I don’t want to come off as greedy or ungrateful” “I feel like I’m already performing like a (insert next level here). Surely my manager sees this.”

That you're asking these questions already shows that you have humility and aren't greedy or ungrateful. Promotions are awkward and it's ok to be uncomfortable.

We can turn this conversation into a friendly one by removing the pressure. Instead of asking if you’re ready for a promotion, we focus on the behaviors. This relieves the burden of saying "yes" or "no" to a promo case when your manager has reservations. Instead, you get the high quality feedback you need.

I hope you're feeling empowered and ready to take charge of your promotion. Remember, performance reviews don't lead to promotions, understanding expectations and changing behaviors do.

If you need more tips on navigating your promotion, Deb Liu wrote a post on the topic that elaborates on navigating career conversations.

Do you have an interesting promotion story? Are you working towards one right now? Hit reply and let me know! I'd love to hear more: @bdickason

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Post last updated: Mar 5, 2021