Fast Company

Get Promoted Without Promoting Yourself

How to climb the ladder when the rungs are missing: six lessons in the subtle art of getting ahead in the new world of business.

Higher. Bigger. More.

Not so long ago, that's what getting promoted was all about. The aim was the top. The way to get there was by climbing the ladder, accumulating the badges of power: a bigger title, a bigger office, more people reporting to you. Everybody knew how to win at this game. You got ahead by climbing over the backs of your coworkers. And by kissing the...hand of whoever was in charge.

The game has changed.

Try: down, sideways, and sometimes up. Try: smaller, less.

The career ladder's been hacked to just a few rungs. The new path is full of switchbacks. You've got to meander -- taking different jobs so you can learn more skills. The size of your office? Who cares? You're never there anyway!

The rewards are different, too. New assignments mean resources, freedom, choices. They mean access to better teams, better projects.

It used to be that a career was a career. You knew what you wanted and how to get it. Now the path is unclear. Sandy J. Wayne, a management professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently asked 570 employees and 289 managers at a large U.S. company to rank the most important factors influencing promotions. For the employees, having an MBA from a top school came first. Their bosses gave leadership skills first place. Employees also gave a high rank to having a mentor. Executives hardly mentioned this at all -- they looked for a strong work ethic.

How do you get past the discrepancies and catch up with the new thinking on getting promotions? Read this edition of Tool Box. It profiles people who've been there and identifies lessons to learn and actions to take.

Don't forget the one truth about promotions that hasn't changed: those who get results, get ahead. To move forward, create a new product or fix a problem.

And take satisfaction from this: no more puckering up.


There's a super job and you've got your eye on it. You're even sure you've got it locked: You've earned it. Your skills match the job. You've aced your performance appraisal. You've sized up the competition. You know what they're looking for. You're the best person for the job. So the job's yours, right?

Wrong.

In fact, according to Marian N. Ruderman, a research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina, most of what we know about promotions is wrong. Ruderman's findings, published in her report, "The Realities of Management Promotion," come from in-depth interviews with managers in large U.S. companies.

What follows are six myths about what it takes to get that super job -- and advice from Ruderman on what actually works.

Myth: A promotion is a reward for past performance.

Ruderman asked 66 managers in three large companies why they believed they had been promoted, and all 66 gave the same answer: they earned it. A much different picture emerged when Ruderman spoke with their bosses. Sure, the promoted managers were talented, dedicated people who had performed. But "circumstances other than accomplishments played a key role in choosing a particular person for a particular job at a particular time," she says.

A promotion's context, it turns out, is just as important as the job's content. Some people are promoted because they're available -- an operation is phased out, a job ends prematurely and the company creates another position. Others (perhaps with more talent) also have the skills but can't make an immediate move.

The Lesson: Opportunity plays a critical role in deciding who gets ahead.

Action to Take: Create opportunities. Volunteer to be on a cross-functional task force.

Myth: A promotion is all about matching your skills with a clearly defined position.

Conventional wisdom holds that the best candidate is the one who fits a set list of requirements for the job. In practice, however, often it's the job that's tailored to fit the candidate.

Promotions are extremely dynamic: new positions are created, existing positions are reinvented. Sometimes the position is so new that the hiring manager can't fully define it -- so he hires someone who seems to qualify and then lets the candidate define the job.

"When we started interviewing people, a lot of them would say something like, 'My situation isn't all that standard. They created a job for me,'" says Ruderman. "There's a tremendous amount of customization going on at the upper managerial level."

The Lesson: Jobs are flexible -- they're often adapted to match the candidate's skills.

Action to Take: Propose your own job. Study your company's needs and strategies. If you have a skill in that particular area, make the case for a job to be created that capitalizes on your talents.

Myth: Get a five-star rating on your performance appraisal and you'll get the promotion.

Most HR people will tell you that your skills can be measured and used to predict how you'll perform. So it figures that performance appraisals would be used extensively in the promotion process.

In fact when it comes to getting promoted, appraisals are largely ignored. Hiring bosses rely mostly on their own intuition and on other people's opinions. The reason? Knowledge work is hard to define. One manager complained to Ruderman that it's difficult to measure performance when so much of it involves team effort, extended time frames, and complex business decisions.

The Lesson: Decision makers use their gut instincts and past relationships -- with you and people who know you -- to predict your chances for success.

Action to Take: Change how you think about your performance appraisals. Consider them to be opportunities to talk with your boss about potential roadblocks and how to overcome them. Getting and responding to feedback helps build your relationship and demonstrates that you can learn from experience and change.

Myth: Promotions are all alike -- the boss finds the best person for the job.

The more managers Ruderman interviewed, the more she heard this claim: promotions are all alike, except for mine. By the end of the survey, she concluded that there's no such thing as a typical promotion.

Ruderman found that there are, in fact, many different types of promotions, such as "promotions in place," when a person expands a job and gets a title that acknowledges the increased responsibilities; "developmental promotions," which groom a rising star for a top position; and "promotions resulting from a reorganization," when a restructuring creates new positions and there are many candidates for each.

Memo to academics: most of the literature on staffing decisions, which views promotions as if they were all alike, needs revising.

The Lesson: Promotions differ in terms of how the vacancy develops, the number of candidates considered, corporate objectives for the person or position, and whether the chosen candidate has been groomed for the job.

Action to Take: Study the lay of the land. Check out how people get promoted in your organization, and think about how to make the scenarios work for you. For example, if your company's been through a downsizing and there are fewer upper-management positions available, you can still get promoted in place.

Myth: Most bosses look for the same qualities when promoting people.

Work ethic. Preparation. Potential. Getting results. They all figure prominently in promotion decisions. But they're not the whole story. Don't ignore the role that politics plays.

True, hiring managers emphasize accomplishments and intelligence. But they also place a big premium on their own personal comfort with the candidates for the job. They look for people they can trust. "Both merit and politics play key roles," says Ruderman. "Promoted managers are talented and politically capable."

The Lesson: Your style -- the way you present yourself, your communication skills, your business smarts -- is just as important as your performance.

Action to Take: It's not just who you know that counts. It's who knows you. If you've come up with a creative marketing plan, if you've invented a breakthrough quality-improvement program, tell people about it -- particularly those who do the promoting.

Myth: When you're gunning for a promotion, you're competing against many other candidates.

The whole purpose of the selection process is to pick the best person from a pool of applicants. But most of the time the job is wired. Many managers know exactly whom they want to promote -- and only that person gets real consideration.

The reasons are varied. Often the person who gets promoted has worked with the hiring manager. It's unlikely that bosses will feel compelled to look elsewhere if they already know someone who can do the job.

So when the higher-ups organize a cattle call for a promotion, they're just going through the motions, right? Not quite. "Companies need to convince themselves that they've found the right person," says Ruderman.

The Lesson: It's rare that a promotion is a true contest among candidates.

Action to Take: Increase your visibility. In 81% of the cases surveyed, the people who were promoted had a mentoring relationship with someone higher in the company who spread the news about them.

Coordinates: To order "The Realities of Management Promotion," call 910-545-2805. $20. Marian Ruderman, rudermanm-@leaders.ccl.org .

"The Team Player"

"The Standout"

"Do-It-Yourself Mentoring"

"The Zig-Zag Career Path"

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2 Comments

  • DL White

    Managers and decision-makers will never tell you the primary reasons for promotions:  who knows you and who likes you are at the very top of the list.  I was a corporate Vice President but early in my career I believed that hard work and strong results would get me promoted.  I was wrong.  Learn what it really takes to get promoted from a VP at http://www.secretstogetpromote...