How To Level The Promotion Playing Field

Playing the promotion game can seem unfair. Here’s how to be open about upward momentum.

How To Level The Promotion Playing Field
[Image: Flickr user Chris Clogg]

In an ideal world, managers would know exactly who was ready and willing to be promoted, and promotion decisions would be based on who was the best person for the job.


But real life doesn’t work like that. Some people are more vocal about their aspirations than others. A recent survey by Accenture on career capital found that more men had asked for a raise (60%) or a promotion (47%) than women (54% and 40%, respectively). Those differences aren’t huge, but if promotions rely solely on people raising their hands, corporate hierarchies will continue to look more male-centric than they might otherwise.

Of course, you don’t want to ignore hand-raising either. Says Nellie Borrero, Accenture’s managing director for Global Inclusion and Diversity, “You want to reward those who take the initiative and have the confidence to speak up.” So how can you reward initiative, but also level the playing field? Here are some ideas.

1. Encourage Everyone to talk about their goals.

Sometimes people assume that everyone knows their desired career trajectory. And maybe in some organizations you don’t have to talk about it. GM CEO Mary Barra recently said in a Fortune interview that she’d never asked for a promotion. But no one can read anyone else’s mind, and what worked for Barra isn’t necessarily going to work for everyone else.

At Accenture, says Borrero, “We talk about the need to position yourself, to brand yourself, to be able to demonstrate and share what your aspirations are.” She finds that with junior women, “They know their goals very well but they still have a challenge in sharing those with people who will influence them getting there.” This sort of coaching can be built into the on-boarding process, and if you do have a formal mentoring program, it’s one of the big things such a program should cover. Ambition isn’t a bad thing.

2. Make promotions transparent.

Does everyone know exactly what it takes to get promoted? In some organizations, promotions are a mysterious process. When things are mysterious, people rely on informal networks to figure them out. The people best able to tap informal networks are often the people who look most like those in charge.

A better approach? Make the guidelines clear. Smart universities, for instance, try to demystify the tenure process for new faculty. They tell them how many papers they need to publish in what caliber of journal. While tenure may not be guaranteed, at least people have a sense of their odds. Smart companies can do the same thing: here are the exact metrics we like to see from people we promote. Again, no guarantees, but transparent metrics are more equitable than when the process is a black box.


3. Build promotion preparation into reviews.

“We all like to hear how great we are,” says Borrero, but good feedback should also challenge people, and expose the gaps between their current performance and what they’d need to do to lead.

4. Ask leaders to share their stories.

Sometimes women–and men–don’t angle for promotions because they’re worried that the additional responsibilities will alter their work-life balance. “Sometimes we talk ourselves out of the next level. We’re concerned whether we’re going to be able to handle it,” says Borrero, who freely admits that every new role she’s taken on has “always terrified me.”

But the truth is, in many organizations, you gain more control of your time the higher you go. When I do time management workshops at companies, I ask high-ranking people to share their schedules with the group. Often, these schedules look more sustainable than others have assumed.

5. Hold managers accountable.

Yes, people who decide on promotions need autonomy to make these decisions. But if an executive only sees management potential in tall white men, he’s clearly not looking very hard.

“If your go-to people all look the same, you have to think about how to stretch yourself to give other people an opportunity,” says Borrero. Part of management evaluations can be about whether leaders are making use of all the talent in their landscape–or letting shortsightedness keep it bottled up.


About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at