Most can identify with the feeling of discontent when others seem to be getting promoted for less apparent reason than your promotion would justify. It’s natural – we want to win and a big piece of winning in organizations is getting promoted. It probably comes as no consolation to learn that there are many factors potentially influencing why you’re not getting promoted.

  1. You’re a master at your current job, but perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be "Not Ready" to assume a job at the next level.
  2. There are others more deserving of one of the limited number of promotions (again, rightly or wrongly).
  3. You haven’t “done your time” in your current level.

So how do you overcome these potentially career limiting factors?

There’s very little one can do in the short term if there is no open position above you. Organizations do NOT like to add more heads to higher levels simply because they are “ready and able.” CFOs in particular do not like to see a proliferation of senior-level jobs relative to the organization’s general growth at all levels.

Overcoming the tightly managed promotion “quota” is also highly difficult. The simple fact is that there typically aren’t enough promotions for all for whom a “truth measure” would indicate are ready. Organizations are always smaller at the top than at entry levels.

Lastly, you can’t do much about your time in position except wait. And the bad news is that spending a given amount of time at any level is no guarantee of promotion. Most will simply retire or leave the organization without making it to the coveted top positions.

There’s actually a fourth reason that you’re not being promoted: You’re not known by enough managers or executives above you. Simply impressing your boss is usually not enough unless they are truly a selfless advocate.

You’re not known by enough managers or executives above you.

But this is something you can do something about. You can improve your reputation at higher levels of the organization. Here are a few suggestions to enhance your reputation, and therefore, your promotability:

  1. Participate on as many cross-functional assignments as you can. The vast majority of promotions are not made by one’s boss alone. You need to be visible to your boss’ peers, and to some extent, your boss’ superiors. This second one can be very tricky -- you don’t want to hurt your chances by upsetting the political hierarchy, i.e., going around or above your boss.
  2. Create a career plan for yourself, or with your boss, and discuss it with them. Of particular importance: Clarify exactly what performance results and which competencies are critical to your promotability. This cannot be overstressed: Be as objective as possible about both the results and competencies associated with promotions. “Higher ups” can, and do, frequently hide behind nebulous developmental goals or achievements.
  3. Make sure you manage your “but.” I’ve sat through hundreds of “talk talent” meetings. One of the most common things I hear is, “They’re really good at {fill in this blank}, BUT… they haven’t overcome {fill in your ‘but’}."
  4. Be as likeable as possible. This may sound like a tall order, but there is a very strong correlation between liking and promoting. (Plus, I've never known someone universally unliked to get promoted.) Some of this sounds – and may well be – unfair. However, there is also a strong correlation between being liked and actually being good. One proven way to be more liked is to simply smile and laugh more. People who smile and laugh more are perceived to be more optimistic, confident and powerful in a non-threatening way.

In summary, you may be extremely good at what you’re doing now, but there are many factors potentially holding you back despite being a superstar in your current role. Don’t think about progression from the perspective of why you deserve a promotion. Instead, apply some of these tips to improve your promotability. This way when opportunity does arise, you’ve got a better chance than you’d have on your job record alone.

Get out there. Be seen working side by side with higher levels or at least the “up and coming”. Cover your “buts”. And possibly most important, be likeable.

It really makes a difference.

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Published by R. Chris Steilberg, PhD

Endlessly curious about why people do the things they do and the connections and differences among us. For every 'thing' I learn, I realize more that I haven't. I guess I'm on a full-out quest for relative ignorance.

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