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How You Get Promoted

November 15, 2013

Rodney, I think you should be a level 60 during this review period.

Okay. I’m a 59 currently so who am I to disagree with my manager?

I had never had a conversation quite like this one before. Not at Microsoft, nor at any job before that. Instead of the classic “Ask your boss for a promotion,” my boss was coming to me and telling me that she thought I should get a promotion. My manager was Staci Hartman, the very best manager I have ever had. It took me years to figure out why she did that, and realize that she was letting me in on a management secret:

You only get promoted when someone is willing to spend political capital to make it happen.

There were three important characteristics to me getting promoted.
Suppressing Manager Ego

Promotions depend a lot on timing. Staci was sitting down with me 6 months before the reviews had to be submitted. Many organizations only do promotions once per year. So, it’s important to both understand the schedule and start preparing well in advance.

I’ve also worked for organizations in a management role where they have a limited number of promotion slots. So, there might be 5 or 10 people who are ready to be promoted, but if the organization only has two slots, eight people are going to be disappointed. As a manager, you are going to put yourself out there to get your people promoted. Make sure you are picking a review period where you don’t have to compete with the resident hot shot coder being up for review.

After you’ve picked the time and started well in advance you need a plan. And that’s really what Staci was telling me. She was letting me know that we needed a plan for the coming 6 months that would justify my getting promoted. There may be organizations where if you show up to work everyday and do a good job, management will recognize that and give you a promotion. I’ve never actually seen any of those organizations. Navigating the management power maps can be frustrating at times. But, if you are sitting and waiting for someone to come along and recognize your work, you may have a long wait.

So, there are two important considerations when thinking about visibility. First you have to have the right projects. Ideally, these should be projects that aid your own team AND have an impact on other teams. The reason you need something that impacts other teams is guess who picks the promotion candidates? Yup. It’s the managers. You have to give your manager some ammunition to use when answering the question, “Why should we choose Rodney as one of our two promotion candidates?” If the other managers haven’t ever heard of you, they are going to shoot you down, because they all have people from their teams that they are also trying to get promoted.

Second, you have to actually get the visibility. No one likes a suck-up, including me. And I’ve only see that work once and it was a really clueless manager. However, you have to be seen. You have to be increasing your scope. I created a chart for my employees one time to show them the way to get promoted. Let’s use Microsoft’s level system and see how your performance rating changes depending on your level. And let’s make up a level of work 0-100. Stay with me, it will make sense in a minute.

Employee Level 58
Level of influence: Self
Available ratings and work needed to achive:
– (E)xceeds expectations: 50
– (M)eets expectations: 40
– (F)ails to meet expectation: Less than 40

Employee Level 59
Level of influence: Team
Work to get a specific rating:
– (E): 60
– (M): 50
– (F): less than 50

Employee Level 60
Level of influence: Department
Work to get a specific rating:
– (E): 70
– (M) 60
– (F) less than 60

Did you notice that as you move up to each new level, the level of expected performance also increases? In addition, if you are a level 60 and influencing your department, you are also expected to still be doing everything a 59 does in terms of influencing your team.

When picking projects, you need to show that you are already doing the work at a higher level. So, if you are trying to move from a 59 to a 60, it’s important to work on some department projects. This is part of the reason your promotion is so dependent on your manager. It’s typically the manager who will be making the assignments. She is going to choose who is the team representative to the Department steering committee and who is going to be working the night shift installing Linux kernel patches. Not that installing patches isn’t important, but it’s not going to give you visibility.

Manager Ego
The third important consideration when getting promoted is the manager’s ego. This probably sounds like a strange choice. But, good managers help you grow. Great managers get out the way and let you shine. Trust me, it’s a little humbling when a promotion plan starts to work. Because the employee is now having more influence outside of the team and getting recognition. Typically that’s the role the manager fills. If the manager isn’t ready for the emotions of getting upstaged a little it can be pretty disheartening. In Staci’s case, she had recently come to Microsoft from a large company where she ran an entire training department with dozens of people. Now she was a team manager with 6 of us. But, she told me later that during this period, she made the conscious decision to put her own goals on hold and focus on developing her team. She was more than willing to let me shine during this time.

After six months of focused planning, and execution, the promotion was almost anti-climatic. However, I understood a lot better the process of promoting people.

Paying It Forward
Fast forward ten years and this time I’m the manager. I went to work for a large non-profit and inherited an existing team. We managed the messaging and SharePoint services. We had our superstars and we had our rank-and-file guys. One of those rank-and-file guys was Mark. Mark was a good engineer. He came to me shortly after I took over as his manager.

Rodney, I’d like to get promoted.


I told Jacob, our previous manager but, it didn’t really go anywhere.

Did Jacob give you any advice? Anything to work on?

He said work harder.

Okay then. I remembered back to my conversation with Staci. And immediately we started working on a plan.

I’ll help you with this. We’ll come up with a plan for the next 8 months. I think I have to have promotion recommendations in by then. It’s simply a matter of timing and visibility.

I didn’t tell him that manager ego was an important piece. Mostly because he had no control over that. Over the next eight months Mark worked on expanding his visibility. Whenever possible I had him send team status messages to the department. He did struggle with spelling. Misspelled emails undermined our plan. So, I helped him turn on auto-spell check in Outlook. He also took on some more challenging projects that had department wide visibility.

At the end of eight months, Mark had done everything he could. Now it was my turn. I had already been laying the groundwork for a promotion for Mark. I had talked him up to the other managers and to my manager whenever I could. They’d been getting status messages from him. They knew he was working on some high profile projects.

We did a stack ranking exercise where we each rated our own teams from most valuable to least valuable employee. Then we combined the 4 teams into a department ranking. When the results were projected in our managers meeting, the top name was Mark. There were a few more questions, especially from my manager who didn’t really see Mark as promotion material. Ultimately he was moved to the second slot. But since we were promoting the top two, I didn’t really care. Especially since the top name was also one of my guys.

The point is that as a manager, it’s your responsibility to develop and promote your team. Don’t be like Jacob who kind of brushed Mark off with a “work hard” suggestion. Be willing to expend your political capital for your employees. That’s one of the most important reasons to amass political capital is to use it on behalf of your employees.

And employees, realize that while there is a process to getting promoted, none of it works unless you are getting work done. All the manager support in the world will do no good unless you deliver on your projects and commitments. But, if you can bring together a manager willing to spend capital and an employee willing to work on high visibility, sometimes challenging projects, there’s no telling where you might go.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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  1. Your non-profit stack ranked? Wow.

    • We did for both creating the promotions list and for annual merit increases. But, I was part of a 800 person IT department, so while we were a non profit, in many ways we were like a mid-sized company.

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