What’s The Right Way To Ask For A Promotion?

By Brett Fox

Happy business man and woman“Move up to Oregon, prove you can recruit engineers, and then we can talk about promoting you,” the CEO told me.

This was not how it was supposed to go. “Promote me first, so you have skin in the game,” I responded. That seemed more equitable to me.

We had just acquired a large company, and I was being asked to run one of its two divisions.

Something just didn’t smell right. The company’s usual procedure when moving people and giving them more responsibility was to promote them, so why wasn’t I being promoted?

I didn’t end up moving to Oregon, and I was right that something smelled. The company always promoted from within, but this time they hired an outsider a couple months later to run the division.

Years later, when I was leaving the company, the CEO and I talked about that meeting. We both agreed we could have managed the situation better.

Asking for a promotion, especially as you get higher up in an organization is really tricky. There are good ways and bad ways of asking for a promotion.

The Three Bad to Mediocre Ways (and One Good Way) to Ask For a Promotion:

A.  You can do nothing and hope. Most employees hope their managers recognize their work and hope they are promoted. This works if you are in a growing organization and the company needs to promote their best people.

It’s the least confrontational way to go. However, prepare to be disappointed if you don’t get promoted because you have nowhere to go and no one to complain to.

B.  You can demand a promotion. I’ve had employees do this, and I’ve never liked it. I doubt very many managers do like it. Promotions are something you want to give.

Now, you can get away with this sometimes if you have leverage. However, it is a high risk strategy because what happens when your manager says, “No.”

The manager has now called your bluff. The manager owns you for the rest of your time with the company. This leads to the highly related strategy of:

C.  Quit and hope you get promoted. I’ve seen this strategy work. In fact, I worked for a company where the “I quit” strategy was one of the most common ways to get a promotion.

In fact, I used a variation of this strategy to garner a promotion. I asked for a leave of absence. Sure enough, the next day I was having lunch with the CEO, and I got promoted.

The “I quit” strategy does work. However, I have seen times when the I quit strategy doesn’t work. I always tell people, “You need to be prepared to pull the trigger.” In other words, you’d better be prepared to quit if the company accepts your resignation.

Or the one good way to ask for a promotion…

You can work with your boss to make it happen. The best way to go is working with your boss. Obviously, you need a good relationship with your boss to make this happen. (In fact, this is probably a prerequisite to all promotions.)

Let’s assume you have a good working relationship with your boss. Then I would tell your boss your goal in the next 12 months is to earn a promotion.  Ask your boss honestly where you stand (both good and bad).  Then ask your boss what you need to do to earn a promotion.

Then it's simple: kick ass and exceed expectations.  Regularly ask for feedback along the way, so you can course-correct if necessary.

I like this much better than ambushing your boss during your review and saying "promote me now".  You're being upfront, honest, and ambitious.  Plus, you're working with your boss to achieve your goal.

Speaking as a boss, I want to give promotions.  I don't want to be coerced into giving a promotion.

Working with your boss allows your boss to give you a promotion.  That's always a better way to go.

What if you don’t get promoted? Let’s take a step back first. You should be meeting with your boss on a regular basis during the year.

I like having weekly 1:1’s with my direct reports. Make sure you are taking the initiative if your boss isn’t.

Make sure you are reviewing your progress and, more importantly, getting constructive feedback on how you are progressing. Your promotion should be a foregone conclusion if you are on track.

Now, I wouldn’t ask my boss every week or month, “Am I on track to be promoted?” You are going to come across as needy and pushy in the wrong way.

Remember, bosses want to give promotions. You can’t let your boss give you a promotion if you are asking every week where you stand.

However, if you are communicating well and you are executing to plan, then I might ask, six to nine months in, where I stood. Again, take in the feedback you are getting and make any course corrections you need to make.

Let’s say I’ve done everything right, and I still didn’t get the promotion. Then what?

First, listen to the reason(s) your boss gives you for why you weren’t promoted. The reasons could be performance-based (you didn’t do a good job on X) or company-based (the company didn’t grow, so we can’t promote you).

Second, be brutally honest with yourself. I know it’s difficult, but ask yourself, “Did I really hold up my end of the bargain?”

Sometimes you have to test the market.

You’ve held up your end of the bargain and for whatever reason the promotion didn’t happen. Now you have a choice:

  1. Hang in there until the promotion happens, or…
  2. Test the market with the intention of leaving.

There’s nothing wrong with testing the market. You will find out your true value interviewing with other companies, and you may even get a job offer.

Now you have what I call a high-class problem: You have an offer (hopefully at a higher compensation and responsibility) and you can choose to accept the offer or stay at your company.

At some point, your career path and the company you work for will diverge. It is highly unusual today to work for the same company your whole career. People starting out today will make multiple career and company changes.

The trick is determining when (if ever) is the right time for you to move on.

Good luck!

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