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Q: I’ve been stuck at the same level for a few years now. What advice do you have for getting promoted?
Getting a promotion is like eating a huge burrito: it’s a lot of work, it’s unclear what’s on the inside, it feels great for a bit, but then you wonder why you did this to yourself.
Knowing all that, we keep wanting it.
Over the course of my 16-year career, I’ve been promoted roughly nine times. First as an engineer, from an intern all the way to head of engineering, and later as a product manager, from a junior PM to a manager of PMs. I was stuck at the same level for many years at times, and at other times I was promoted year after year.
Reflecting back on my experience and the experience of my colleagues, the most important ingredient has always been simply doing great work, over and over. But the process does often need a nudge, particularly if you’ve been stuck in the same role for a while. I’ve found seven strategies for significantly increasing your chances of getting a promotion, no matter your role:
Deliver more impact
Take on more scope
Demonstrate that you’ve addressed a gap
Find an influential champion
Pay attention to who gets promoted
Ask for it
Quit and go work somewhere else
Before we get into it, it’s important to note that even if you do all of these things, you may still not get promoted, for very practical reasons:
There’s a minimum amount of time you need to be in your current role before you can get promoted
There aren’t any available roles at the new level
The company isn’t doing well and doesn’t have the budget to promote people
You just aren’t ready for the next level
I also strongly encourage you not to over-fixate on promotions and levels. Be patient. Like preparing for a marathon, it takes time to get your mind and body ready for the next level. One of the most common ways to crash and burn at a company is to be put in a role you aren’t ready for.
With that in mind, let’s get into it.
1. Deliver more impact
Companies desperately want to give more responsibility to people who deliver results. If you aren’t getting promoted, it usually means you aren’t seen as someone who can consistently deliver significant impact. You can always make excuses, like people not seeing the impact you’re making, or not having the resources to deliver the impact, but that’s part of the job—fight for resources, take on work that’s most meaningful to the business, and highlight your wins.
There are many ways you can deliver more impact:
Contribute to hitting more ambitious goals that directly map to business growth
Lead and successfully launch an important project
Work on higher-visibility, more important, projects
Save the company a lot of money
Help the company run significantly more efficiently
Move to a team that’s working on more critical work
When you look at the people around you who got promoted, how much impact did they drive to help the business grow, or work more efficiently? If you consistently find a way to drive significant impact for the business, you’ll be prime promotion material.
2. Take on more scope
As Tara Jaye Frank so accurately puts it, “People don’t get promoted for doing their jobs really well. They get promoted by demonstrating their potential to do more.” At many companies, you get promoted only after you’ve demonstrated you can handle the next level. And there’s no better way to demonstrate that you can take on more responsibility than by taking on more responsibility. Like they say: do the job you want.
In my case, a year into becoming a senior PM, I proactively began mentoring a couple of junior PMs, and that became a big factor in my being promoted to a manager a year later. Similarly, I got promoted from a mid-level PM (L5) to a Senior PM (L6) after leading a mission-critical project (Instant Book) for a couple of years, which spanned multiple departments, reported up to the executive staff, and became a major part of the company strategy—going far beyond the scope of a traditional mid-level (L5) PM. I showed people that I could handle more, and they gave me more. This happened again when I got promoted from an M1 to an M2, only after I took on managing five sub-teams and showed that I could handle it.
What’s something you can take on that increases your scope or responsibility? Some suggestions:
Take on work that your manager is currently doing
Take on a project for someone while they’re out
Lead ambitious projects
Get ahead on next year’s strategy
Take the reins of an important visioning exercise
Architect or wireframe the next big product
But note that if you’re doing the job of someone at the next level for over a year, without being recognized for it, it’s time to have a hard conversation with your boss.
3. Demonstrate that you’ve addressed a gap
No matter your role or level, there’s a skill or behavior that is keeping you from the next level. Whether it’s your ability to execute reliably, communicate well, or lay out an inspiring five-year vision, it’s always something. To get promoted, you’ll need to demonstrate that you’ve addressed that gap, in the eyes of both your manager and other influential leaders involved in the promotion process.
Here’s my advice:
In your very next 1:1, push your manager to articulate which 2-3 skills/behaviors/attributes are most keeping you from the next level.
Put together 3-10 concrete actions you (and your manager) can take over the next six months to improve at these skills/behaviors/attributes.
Align on this list with your manager and put them into an action plan spreadsheet, like so:
Schedule a monthly “career coaching” session where you and your manager review each of these action items and review how they’re going—giving them each a status color.
Keep doing this every month, between performance review cycles, and continue to focus on concrete actions you can take to address your gaps.
Broadly, what you need to do is to get crystal clear about your gaps, keep both of you accountable to making progress on addressing these gaps, and stay aligned on how it’s going. Read more about how this can fit into your regular performance review process.
4. Find an influential champion
Promotions generally happen through a calibration process, where managers across the company come together to discuss the performance of every report. The most underappreciated, and often the most powerful, ingredient in getting promoted is to have someone with influence fight for you in the calibration process.
The fastest ramp up in my career happened when I moved to a new manager who was incredibly influential within the org. He not only helped me level up as a PM, which led to some of the best work of my career, but he also fought for me cycle after cycle, leading to one promotion after another.
But don’t let this become an excuse for why you aren’t being promoted. The best way to get a champion is to do a great job (e.g. deliver impact, address gaps, and the other items on this list). If you’re doing a great job, people will want to champion you. Give them ammo to fight for you: