By the time Claire reached out to me, she had been passed over for promotion twice. She worked in a laboratory that was thriving during the pandemic, had taken on a ton of responsibility within her role, and was considered essential by her supervisor. Still, she couldn’t secure the promotion she wanted to the next level, and she was frustrated.
“I’m really ambitious,” she told me. “I just thought that if I worked hard enough, I would be rewarded.”
Of all the questions I get on Feedback Friday, “How do I get promoted?” is probably the most common. Another common one is “how come I didn’t get promoted?” All around the world, people are looking to get ahead, to rise up, to grow. But they’re often finding a ton of resistance along the way.
The reason, I’ve found, is that most people think about getting ahead the way Claire did. If they just work their asses off, play by the rules and keep their bosses happy, they’ll be rewarded.
And sure, sometimes that does work out. But a lot of the time it falls short. Then they get frustrated, so they stop putting in as much effort, which makes it even harder to get promoted.
We need a new model for getting ahead at work, one that doesn’t rely on a boss’s loyalty or a company’s policies or a traditional idea of what a “promotable” employee looks like. We need a system that puts us in the driver’s seat — and makes a bid for promotion impossible to ignore.
That’s what I’ll be sharing in this article — my tried and true approach to asking for a promotion, maximizing your chances of landing it, and building on it to create a thriving career.
And the first step, paradoxically, is to stop obsessing about a promotion for the moment and just…
Crush it in your current role.
Most people who are determined to get promoted — especially high performers — are so focused on rising up that they forget that they have to be undeniably great in their current roles. No matter how much “potential” they have, no matter how much “better suited” they are for a more senior position, they still need to have a solid track record.
So before you think about getting promoted, you have to rewind the tape a little and make sure that you’re well-positioned from the start.
After all, when the time comes to ask for promotion, you’re going to be banking on your past performance as well as your future potential. Being theoretically amazing at a more senior role won’t make up for being middling in a junior one.
So before you even approach your supervisors about a bump up, take some time to honestly assess your performance at this moment. Ask yourself a few key questions.
- Am I fulfilling all of my assigned roles and responsibilities?
- Is my work as strong and consistent as it could be?
- Am I cutting corners, slacking off, or sidestepping opportunities in any way?
- What is my reputation on my team, in my department, and across the company?
- How strong are my relationships with my supervisors, peers, and subordinates?
- If I were giving myself a complete performance review today, where would I be falling short?
- If I asked my colleagues anonymously what they honestly thought about me, what would they say?
Carve out some time to answer these questions candidly. Dig deep. Be specific. Answer them thoroughly, thoughtfully, objectively. Write out your responses. Consider consulting with a trusted colleague, friend, or coach to round them out.
Then use your answers to identify any gaps in your skill set, any weaknesses in your performance, or any opportunities for growth. From there, your job is to come up with a handful of concrete, achievable goals or habits to address each of those areas.
Your job for the next cycle — three to four months is usually a good timeframe — is to work toward those goals and create those habits. Not to take on new responsibilities, not to work on your promotion pitch, not to daydream about that raise and corner office, but simply to iron out every wrinkle in your performance.
You don’t just want your track record to be strong. You want it to be undeniable.
Case Study: Claire’s Self-assessment
When I invited Claire to do this exercise, she came back with some great insights. Even though she was a strong employee, she realized that she was far from perfect.
For one thing, she had been relying on her teammates to handle a lot of the lab’s process reengineering, an area that she didn’t understand well and that she found intimidating. She also admitted that she didn’t have the strongest connection with her direct manager, and that a couple of her subordinates in the lab probably viewed her as an icy, task-oriented boss. She also remembered getting some casual feedback about the structure of her presentations, which she knew was accurate but which she hadn’t earnestly addressed.
So Claire came up with a plan.
To step up in the process reengineering initiative, she booked brief tutorials with two of her colleagues to answer her questions and master the company’s process-mapping software. She also took a couple of short online webinars about process engineering from an industry veteran.
To work on her relationships with her colleagues, she started experimenting with a more playful, collaborative style at work, and made an effort to share a little more of her personal life with her colleagues. She also made it a practice to spend a few minutes talking about other topics besides work before diving into a meeting.
And to improve her presentations, Claire enrolled in a corporate communication course online. She also created a system to finish her decks a few days early and send them to a colleague whose presentations were always on point. Her colleague then gave her notes and shared some best practices, which Claire used to up her presentation game while also building some much-needed rapport with one of her most valuable peers.
Claire had a game plan. For the next few months, all she had to do was follow the systems and habits she created to level up, and her performance would automatically improve. She could already see how different her next promotion conversation would be. In fact, she was excited about it. This time, she told me, her improvements would be even more noticeable. She was actually looking forward to acknowledging how far she had come.
Getting the Full Story
If you’re flying blind about how you’re performing — or you just want some more guidance — then I recommend approaching your supervisor(s) for an informal review.
In this conversation, ask them where they think you’re doing well, where they feel you could improve, and what you should be doing to step up. Take notes, get them to commit to specific expectations, and come up with an action plan together. Frame this conversation as wanting to have as much constructive feedback as possible in order to do your best work.
By having this conversation, you’ll actually be accomplishing two things.
Obviously, you’ll be gathering the data you need to improve. If a supervisor gives you meaningful feedback, they’re basically giving you a roadmap to promotion. From there, you have your marching orders. You know what you need to do.
Just as importantly, you’ll also be signaling to your supervisor that you’re curious, dedicated and committed to growing. Then, when you act on their feedback, you’re showing them through your actions that you take their criticism seriously and you’re willing to do the work to get ahead.
Why This Stage Matters
If you go through this step and realize that you’re already knocking it out of the park, congratulations! Pass go and collect $200. You don’t need to linger in this stage for long.
But even if you’re already killing it in your role, it’s worth taking the time to really make sure. There are always opportunities to go the extra mile. There are always ways to level up. You can always be a little faster, a little sharper, a little more sophisticated. And the review with your supervisor is still laying important groundwork — and deepening your relationship with them, which is key.
So don’t breeze past this stage too quickly. You can never go wrong reinforcing the foundation of your case. Once you’re confident that you’re killing it at your job, then you can turn your attention toward the promotion.
But there’s one more step before you actually have that conversation.
Start performing above your level.
Sometimes all you need to get ahead is to knock it out of the park in your current role. That tends to be truer in traditional organizations where there’s more structure and less competition.
But if you want to make a truly bulletproof case for promotion — especially when there are other people gunning for the same role — then your best bet is to perform at the next level, long before anyone asks you to. That way, you have proof that you can handle more responsibility, rather than having to argue that you’re “ready.”
This entrepreneurial approach to getting a promotion is powerful. It inverts the typical order of events, where first you ask for permission and then you’re allowed to do the job you want. By taking the initiative, you prove to your company (and yourself!) that this promotion, in effect, has already happened. Now you’re just asking to make it official.
Punching Above Your Weight
So how do you actually push yourself beyond your current capabilities? How do you take on responsibilities beyond your current level when no one’s handing you the keys?
Well, there are a few common ways. You can:
- Perform your current work at an even higher caliber
- Take on some responsibilities of the person above you, split the work with them, or pitch in here and there
- Initiate new projects or create additional responsibilities around your current role
- Become more of a leader within your role, as opposed to purely an operator following instructions
- Find opportunities to grow by learning new skills from other colleagues and sharing your own approaches in return
- “Apprentice” under more senior people by supporting them in ways that advance their interests while also upping your game
Some companies encourage this kind of entrepreneurial spirit as part of their culture. Other companies don’t value it as much. But I’ve never heard of a company that wasn’t happy to have an employee go above and beyond.
So even if your organization isn’t explicitly asking you to step up, take the initiative anyway. You don’t need permission to do an even better job.
The general principle behind all these opportunities is basically this: Find ways to create value beyond your role. Look for ways to be of service beyond what your bosses expect of you. Use your assets to create new opportunities that serve your organization in meaningful ways.
If you do that, you’ll automatically start performing above your role.
Why Stepping Up Matters
Obviously, performing above your level is an indication that you’re ready to rise up. But this strategy isn’t just about proving something to the higher-ups.
For one thing, performing above your level gives you a chance to figure out if you actually like the role you want. A lot of people fight for a promotion thinking that it will give them more excitement, more fulfillment, more power, only to realize once they get promoted that the role isn’t all it was cracked up to be. Taking on these responsibilities early lets you do a kind of trial run before you’re locked into a new position.
Taking on responsibilities above your level also makes the transition into a new role much smoother. Rather than being promoted and then having to catch up, you’ve already greased the skids. If you got promoted tomorrow, you could step into the role immediately with no learning curve or disruption. That eliminates a ton of stress and risk, and makes you look like even more of a rockstar.
Most importantly, performing above your level makes your case for promotion significantly stronger. Rather than telling your boss, “Hey, I’ve been doing my job for three years, I’m ready for a new opportunity,” you get to say, “Hey, I’m already basically doing this more senior role, now I’d love to make it official.” That’s a very different position from which to negotiate.
With that approach, it’s much harder for your supervisor to deny you the promotion. If they do, they’ll either seem unappreciative of your contributions, or weirdly biased against you rising up — neither of which is a great look.
With that in mind, let’s talk about what stepping up actually looks like in more detail.
How to Actually Step Up
Take on a piece of the job you want.
The most obvious way to perform above your level is to literally begin doing part of the job you want alongside your current role.
For example, let’s imagine that you’re a customer service rep at a tech startup, and your job is to help users solve their technical issues using a set of support scripts. Your manager’s job — the level you hope to step up to — is to increase customer satisfaction, retain users, and make the department as efficient as possible.
Your current job, in a nutshell, is to resolve support tickets. But as you work with users, you might also start developing some new approaches to helping customers — for example, by talking to them in a certain way, asking certain questions, or finding ways to diagnose problems more quickly. In other words, you might start working on the role as well as in the role.
(By the way, this is a great principle for doing higher-level work in general. Once you’ve mastered working in a role, start working on the role. This is basically the definition of management. Any time you can work on something, you’re already beginning to step up.)
You could then test those new techniques out for a month and gather data on how well they work. For instance, you might measure whether they prevent customers from canceling their subscriptions, increase their satisfaction ratings, or reduce average call time.
Then you could put together a brief memo or deck and present those findings to your manager. You might explain that you’ve found some exciting ways to do your job better, and you’d love to share your recommendations with the team. Maybe you work with your manager to refine and implement them across the department — for example, by incorporating your new scripts into the support manual and training your peers on your new techniques — and keep measuring and improving them over time.
If you took initiative in that way, you’d be showing that you can do more than just answer calls and read from a script. You’d be demonstrating that you can think like a manager, improve the infrastructure of the department, and contribute to the company as a whole.
In other words, you’d be acting like a leader.
Then when it’s time to ask for a promotion, you can point to these initiatives as evidence that you’re not just ready to rise up — you already have risen up, and now you want your title and compensation to reflect that.
Carve out a job that doesn’t exist yet.
Sometimes the position above you isn’t clearly defined, or you’re interested in a role that doesn’t formally exist. In those cases, your best bet is to initiate new projects and responsibilities.
For example, imagine that you’re a financial analyst at a consumer goods company, and your main job is to help prepare the company’s financial statements. You’re interested in a more sophisticated role — one that would be analytical and interface with the sales, marketing, and product teams — where you can use your quant skills to do more strategic analysis.
But right now, no one’s doing that job. In fact, your company doesn’t seem to know that that role would be valuable.
So for a few hours each week, you take it upon yourself to start doing that kind of analysis. For example, you might build a model to calculate how much it costs to acquire different types of customers, and come up with some recommendations about which customer segments the company should be prioritizing. Or maybe you find a better way to measure the profit margins of different products, so the company has better insight into where their earnings are coming from.
After gathering some interesting intel, you could then take your analysis to the Head of Finance and discuss your findings. Maybe you and your boss present your recommendations to other departments that could use your data to make better decisions. Maybe you put together a monthly dashboard with your analysis and send it to the C-suite. Maybe you even teach your peers in other departments how to do similar analyses, so they can generate their own insights.
If you created a project like that, you’d be showing that you can do more than just basic reporting. You’d be proving that you can think strategically, collaborate well with your colleagues, and use your analysis to improve the health of the business overall.
Then, when you ask to be the company’s first Director of Strategic Finance, you can point to this work as proof that you can do the job — and that the company truly needs this position.
Support your boss.
In some organizations, it’s just not possible to take on full responsibilities above your role. Maybe you’re spread too thin. Maybe your boss is territorial about their work. Or maybe you just don’t have the experience to do the job yet.
But that doesn’t mean you’re boxed into your role. Even in situations like this, you can still punch above your weight by offering to support the person above you in smaller ways.
For example, imagine that you’re an associate at a law firm working in the financial services group. You know that in the next five years you want to make partner — which primarily means bringing new clients into the firm — but you don’t have the relationships or experience yet to bring in new business.
Rather than bide your time, you book a meeting with one of the partners in your group, tell them that you want to start learning about business development, and ask them if they could use some support drumming up new business. They say yes, and start breaking off pieces of what they do and sending them your way.
For example, maybe the partner tells you that they want to reach out to the Chief Legal Officers of the 50 biggest banks in the country, and you create a spreadsheet with their names, contact information, and top challenges. Maybe the partner says that they need to get up to speed on a new kind of financial instrument so they can talk about it with a client, and you do the research to create a brief report for them. Maybe the partner even asks you to attend meetings with prospective clients, and you tag along to take notes, chime in and follow up on any action items.
Then, over time, you start taking on more and more responsibility. Maybe the partner invites you to tag-team a few accounts together. Maybe you apply what you’re learning and set up some meetings with prospective clients on your own. Maybe you start to become an expert in a specific niche so that you can carve out your own little fiefdom in the legal world.
By making yourself available to your boss in this way, you’re slowly stepping into the role you want, even if you’re not actually ready to take it on yet. You might not be able to sign a client tomorrow, but you can definitely support the person who can. The work might not be all that glamorous, but it will teach you what being a firm partner is all about.
(Incidentally, offering to help someone out here and there is also one of the best ways to find a mentor. Not only are mentors super valuable in teaching you what you need to know, they often end up being your greatest advocates for promotion.)
Then, when the time comes to make your case for becoming a partner yourself, you can point to all the work you did in supporting and learning from other partners.
Case Study: Claire Steps Up
After Claire began leveling up, she began to notice a huge difference in the quality of her work. A few months later, she felt ready to prove she was ready for the next step.
During the last review cycle, she asked for the opportunity to take on more responsibility. This time, she decided to take that responsibility on herself.
First, she decided to start thinking like a lab manager, rather than as a technician. (On the lab, not just in the lab.) While she worked on the process reengineering project, she began talking to other departments to learn some of their best practices. She then brought those back to her supervisor, discussed how they could integrate them into their department, and offered to help her implement those recommendations. With her supervisor’s help, she began shaping the operational future of the lab — not just executing on it.
Next, Claire decided to play a bigger role in the company’s intellectual property. She approached her supervisor to co-author an official white paper about one of the lab’s new methodologies, and her supervisor was thrilled to have the help. The project required a ton of research, making her even more of an expert in her field, and also forced her to improve her writing skills, which made her communication even stronger. She also began writing short articles on LinkedIn about her lessons from the lab, which increased her visibility in the industry. Within a couple months, she had her name on a few high-quality publications.
When the white paper came out, she sent it to her colleagues, as well as people who held similar roles in other companies. Her network organically expanded, and suddenly she found herself having conversations with even more talented people who could teach her what she needed to learn (and vice versa).
Finally, she began scheduling time to get to know her peers and employees better. She found that she really clicked with a few of them, and began informally mentoring them. A few of them even landed their own promotions with her help, which gave Claire a gratification she hadn’t experienced before.
Six months later, Claire had an entirely new mindset about her promotion. She was no longer hoping her bosses would give her a shot. This time, she was ready to show them that she had given that shot to herself. And rather than being apprehensive about the conversation, she was actually pumped.
Make your case.
Once you’re thriving in your current role and performing above your level, you’re in the best possible position to ask for the promotion. If you’ve done everything right up to this point, then this step should actually be the easiest part.
Here’s what the process actually looks like.
Put it in writing.
The first step is to create some kind of document that makes the case for your promotion.
This could be an email, a memo, a presentation, or just an informal outline you’ll use to guide an in-person conversation. Choose the format that best reflects your audience and environment.
For example, if you work under a senior vice president on a 50-person team in an established company that requires input from multiple departments to approve a promotion, then you’ll probably want to create a memo or a deck to make your case. That way you’ll be speaking the language of your audience and allow your pitch to “travel” from your department to HR to the C-suite as it makes the rounds for approval.
But if you work in a 10-person family-owned business that prizes face-to-face communication, a memo or a deck might feel oddly formal. In that environment, you’ll probably have more success inviting the founder out to lunch to chat about your future.
But even in a less formal setting like that, it still helps to memorialize your request in some form, like an email. That way, you can lay out a solid case before you have the conversation in person, and you’re on record asking for the promotion. And even in a more formal company, you might want to start with a conversation about your future, and then follow up with a formal promotion request to the entire team.
Build your case.
Even if you’re a shoo-in for a promotion, you still have to make a compelling case. Whatever format you choose, a great pitch should cover five key things:
- What you’ve been doing in your current role
- The responsibilities you’ve taken on above and beyond your current role
- The impact your work has had on the team and company as a whole
- The promotion you’re asking for (title, salary, benefits, responsibilities), and why you believe you deserve this promotion now
- What this promotion will enable you to do for the organization going forward
If you can speak to those five topics, then your case for promotion should be airtight. If you find yourself struggling to make the case, then it’s worth going back to the previous two steps and making sure you’ve really laid the groundwork.
(In fact, working on this pitch in advance is a great way to identify any gaps in your bid. Even though I generally think you should get your house in order before you consider a promotion, you can always imagine what your pitch would be. I’ve talked to people who put together this document, realized they still had work to do, and then spent the next year filling in the gaps. In that way, this step is also a really great exercise.)
Wherever possible, quantify your impact. Being able to say that you reduced customer churn by 12% and improved overall call time by 20% by writing 12 new support scripts is a lot more powerful than just saying you “made the department more efficient.” When you can’t assign a number value, talk about the quantitative impact on your team, customers, and colleagues. I’ve even heard of people including quotes from their colleagues — almost like testimonials — talking about what it’s like to work with them. Any data you can use to bring your impact to life, whether it’s in words or numbers, is powerful.
The last part of this pitch — what this promotion will enable you to do for the organization going forward — is arguably the most important.
Explaining what you hope to accomplish in your new role signals all the right things: that you’re not just interested in your own advancement, that you care about continuing to make an impact on the company, and that you’re committed to it for the long term. It’s basically a way of saying, “Here’s what your ROI on my raise will be.”
It’s also just a great way to end your pitch.
“In my new role as Strategic Finance Director,” you might say, “I’m excited to continue doing the kind of financial analysis that will make us more competitive and more profitable as a company. I’m also eager to share what I’ve learned with my peers in other departments, so we can make analytics a bigger part of how we do business overall.”
A forward-looking statement like that is a lot more palatable than “I’m really excited to get this raise so I can do work I actually enjoy and get paid what I think I deserve.”
And this isn’t just about etiquette. I really do encourage people to think about why their promotion is the right thing for them and for their organization. That’s how you make a solid business case. If you can articulate that in your conversation, you’ll be hitting all the right notes.
Tap into your relationships.
The final variable in a great promotion bid is the people who can vouch for you. When undeniably great employees fail to get ahead, it’s usually because this piece is missing. They’ve gone all-in on their work, but they haven’t invested in the people who can help them get ahead.
Who are these people?
Anyone who can speak to your accomplishments, your potential, and your value to the company. Obviously, that includes your supervisors and other executives. But it also includes your peers, and sometimes even your subordinates. Having great relationships at work isn’t just about being politically connected. It’s about being trusted and respected at all levels of the organization.
So when you decide to ask for a promotion, you might consider asking your champions within the company to put in a good word with the powers that be (if they’re not doing so already).
Of course, if you wait until your promotion to start making these connections, you’re too late. And that’ll probably backfire. As we talk about all the time on the show, you have to dig the well before you get thirsty.
In fact, digging that well is part of the first two phases of this process. Crushing it in your current role and performing above your level both include building strong relationships. With your managers. With your teammates. With your subordinates. With your customers. Really with anyone you interact with in your role.
You want to create those connections long before you ask them to put in a good word for you — and, at the same time, with zero expectation of a quid pro quo. This is the nuts and bolts of relationship-building based on value, curiosity, and generosity.
(And if you want to learn more about that “always be giving” mindset, then I definitely recommend checking out our Six-Minute Networking course. It will bring all of these principles to life in a super practical way.)
Of course, asking someone to put in a good word for you on a promotion is delicate. I don’t recommend asking for this favor if you don’t have a meaningful relationship with the person. I also wouldn’t ask in a way that crosses any political lines (for example, by asking a department head to meddle in an independent selection committee’s decision). And I obviously wouldn’t ask people who don’t have the ability to help you out, or whose endorsement would backfire. The last thing you want to do is put someone in an awkward position or work against yourself.
Since this is a sensitive request, your best bet is to be open and respectful when you ask a trusted colleague to put in a good word on your behalf.
I recommend saying something like, “I’ve been working really hard this past year, and I really want to rise up to senior manager. What do you think I should be doing starting now to make that happen?” Begin the conversation. Listen carefully to their advice. Feel them out.
Then, if you get the sense that they’re a champion of your promotion, you can work up to the request.
“I have a favor to ask, and please don’t be afraid to say no,” you might say, “but how would you feel about sharing your opinion of my work with the team? Would that be doable? Do you think it would give them a helpful perspective?”
Then be willing to hear yes or no, and don’t push harder if you meet resistance.
Most importantly, remember that a good word should push your promotion over the finish line, not carry it through the whole race. The last thing you want to do is use your relationships to compensate for a weak track record. That’s when networking becomes smarmy and political. This is also a great recipe for imposter syndrome.
The ideal scenario is that you create a bulletproof case for promotion, and a few of your fans confirm that you’re the person for the job. You tap into some social capital to get ahead, but you’ve organically built that capital on your talent, your contributions, and your reputation far in advance. Then, as you rise up, those relationships grow even stronger.
Keep performing at a high level.
Some people feel that once they’ve made the case for a promotion, they can take their foot off the gas. They assume that they’ll be rising up soon, in which case it won’t matter how hard they work in their current role, or they won’t get the promotion, in which case they don’t want to spend more energy in an organization that doesn’t value them.
Both approaches are misguided.
In fact, the period just after you ask for a promotion can be the most important. Continuing to crush it after you ask for a raise shows that you’re truly dedicated, you’re not resting on your laurels, and you’re committed to creating a seamless transition once you move up.
This is especially important in companies where a promotion request takes weeks or even months to approve. If you faff off for 10 weeks while HR gets around to processing your promotion, that could seriously hurt the business — and maybe even compromise your raise. Then, if you don’t end up getting the promotion, you’ll have to work that much harder to get back on track. And if you do end up getting the promotion, checking out early could undermine all the great work you’ve done to get to this point. It will also make it harder for you to lead the person who takes over for you.
So keep your nose to the grindstone even after you make your case. Don’t assume it’s a done deal. If anything, people who deserve their promotions work even harder while they wait.
At this point in the process, you’ve done everything you possibly can. Then you wait and see if your promotion goes through.
Negotiate your promotion.
If you land your promotion, congratulations! Your hard work paid off. The next step is to negotiate the specifics, if that’s on the table.
Now, I could write a whole series of articles about negotiation, so instead, I’ll just point you to the wisdom of some of the top negotiation experts in the world.
I recommend starting with my three-part interview with Alex Kouts, entrepreneur, technologist, and teacher, which is one of the best crash courses in negotiation out there.
Then you can build on Chris’ insights by mastering elicitation techniques from Jack Schafer, retired FBI special agent and co-author of The Truth Detector.
Finally, have a listen to my interview with Ramit Sethi, personal finance advisor, entrepreneur, and bestselling author of I Will Teach You to Be Rich. Ramit explains how to make a slam-dunk case for promotion, maximize your salary, and use what he calls “the negotiation power dynamics framework” to achieve better outcomes.
These interviews will be a great resource for you in negotiating the title, compensation, and responsibilities you want. This conversation might not be quite as adversarial as a new offer of employment, but it is a valuable opportunity to ask for what you need. So don’t be afraid to lean into that. If you’ve done the work up till now, you’ll be surprised what you’re able to secure.
Step into your new role and do it again.
Once you begin your new role, you’re off to the races. And if you’ve followed my approach, then this transition should be pretty smooth. (It might even be a little anticlimactic!) You’ve already been performing at a high level for months. Now you just have the title to reflect it.
From there, the cycle begins anew. The beauty of this system is that you can keep working it over and over again.
So if you want to keep rising up in your organization, spend the next year crushing it in your new role. Then slowly start performing above your new level again. Build the relationships you want and acquire the experience you need. Carve out responsibilities beyond your role, initiate new projects, and support the people above you.
Then, when you feel confident about your performance, ask for the next promotion, negotiate it, and step into your new role.
Everything we’ve talked about applies in every career at every level of an organization. And it’s a virtuous cycle. The more you punch above your weight, the more responsibility you’ll get, the more you’ll grow, the stronger your relationships will become, the more you’ll want to apply your assets to new opportunities, and the more you’ll rise up.
This is really a flywheel of self-advancement.
As you use this system, I encourage you to share it with your colleagues, too. In my experience, this model isn’t just a clever way for one person to get ahead. It’s a way to elevate your company as a whole.
Sure, it might feed some healthy competition among your coworkers. But in my experience, it usually creates a kinetic, collaborative culture of wanting to thrive. The more people want to get ahead, the more they support one another to stretch, the more it benefits everybody. Like the customer service manager whose rep improves their stats, or the law partner whose associate helps bring in new clients, you can add to your wins while you pull people up the ladder. Just because this approach helps people get ahead doesn’t make it a zero-sum game.
What to Do If You Don’t Get the Promotion
Every time someone I know has initiated their own promotion, it’s because they’ve used some version of this approach. But I also know talented people who have tried and failed to get a promotion, like Claire. Does that mean the system doesn’t work?
Not at all. On the contrary, the system works even when you don’t end up getting your promotion — if you use it the right way. It might take two or three rotations through the flywheel before it launches you into the next stage in your career. That’s part of how it works.
But you have to adopt a few mindsets and practices to get there.
Be humble, open, and patient.
If you get passed over, do your best to take it in stride. Rejection is never fun. But pushing back, getting resentful, or giving up won’t help matters. And it’ll make it harder to find the opportunity within the setback.
So as best as you can, accept the decision, invite whatever thoughts and feelings get stirred up — anger, disappointment, embarrassment — and take some time to process them. It’s okay to lick your wounds for a few weeks after you get turned down. That’s part of the process.
Once you move past that initial response, look for the next step. Be open to learning even more, taking on new projects, forming new relationships. Talk with your teammates and supervisors about how to approach the next round, and be willing to adapt. Trust that there’s a larger process at work here. Most importantly, be patient (up to a point). Not all promotions will arrive on your timeline. Sometimes you have to wait for all the variables to align.
When it’s appropriate, book some time with your manager(s), thank them for considering your promotion request, and tell them that you’re still eager to be the best possible colleague.
Then ask them where your case for promotion fell short. Invite them to tell you honestly where you need to improve. Challenge them to be precise. Don’t settle for advice like, “Just keep supporting the team” or “I need you to be more consistent with your deliverables.” Make sure their recommendations are practical and specific. Which new targets would they like you to hit? Which aspects of your deliverables need to be more consistent, and in what way? Which experiences, projects or courses do they recommend you take on to level up?
Use their responses to come up with a detailed action plan. You can even run it by them afterward and get their buy-in, so you’re all on the same page.
If you find that your manager isn’t willing to give you meaningful feedback, that could mean you’re not being taken seriously, and you have some more work to do to fix that first. This isn’t game over by any means. It just means that you’ll have to lay more groundwork before you make your next promotion request.
From here, you’re back to stage one of the flywheel. Your job is simply to crush it in your role. But this time, you’re armed with fresh feedback to perform in the way your managers expect.
Run with it, rebuild your case over the next cycle, and stay in touch with your managers to make sure you’re on track. Then, when the time is right, try again.
At that point, hopefully, you land the promotion you’ve been chasing. But if you don’t…
Consider making a change.
Sometimes, an organization just isn’t able or willing to reward your hard work. If you’re unquestionably killing it and your company turns down your promotion several times, then it’s totally fair (and smart) to start looking elsewhere. You have to work to get ahead, but I don’t recommend pushing on a closed door for long.
But here’s the cool part: Even if you find yourself at this juncture, the system still works. Because if you interview for a new job somewhere else, you’re now a much more compelling candidate than you would have been otherwise.
Now you don’t just get to speak to what you did in your last role; you get to speak to all those additional responsibilities, that entrepreneurial lens, that management ability. Who knows, you might even end up jumping to a more senior role at this new company. In effect, you’ve done that job already — even if your previous employer didn’t officially recognize you for it. If anything, that just makes you an even more attractive hire.
In fact, that’s what happened to Claire.
After landing one promotion at her lab, she hit a ceiling. She kept performing above her level, but her division — which was experiencing a ton of inefficiency and turnover — refused to keep promoting her. So she interviewed at other labs, ended up getting a great offer in a more senior position at a rival company, and found that the culture better suited her personality.
The best part? Six months later, her old company dissolved her division. The obstacles she was facing in her promotion were actually a reflection of a deeply dysfunctional culture. She’s continuing to use this same approach in her new job, and is up for a promotion to a management position this year. She knows she wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t challenged herself to rise up — and, ironically, if her last company hadn’t turned her down.
So as you embrace the flywheel, open your aperture a little bit. You might use this system to rise up in your company, as you should. But you’ll also find that it’s really an approach to your entire career. If this system leads you into a frustrating obstacle, an unexpected role, or a new opportunity, roll with it. Rising up is rarely as linear as we imagine. Sometimes it takes us sideways, backwards, or off the beaten path. But as long as you embrace the principles in this piece at every step, it cannot lead you astray. There’s always a way forward, a way up.
[Featured image by Dollar Gill]