Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Don’t Make the Wrong Case: 3 Worst Reasons Why You Should Be Promoted

Due to popular request, we continue with the 3rd part in the “Promotion” blog topic series.

A Not-So-Happy Birthday…
A few years ago, a Senior Manager who reported to me (I’ll call him “Rick”), with whom I had a very good relationship, greatly disappointed me when he asked for a promotion. It didn’t bother me at all that Rick asked. It was how he asked that troubled me, and it’s a good lesson in how not to justify a promotion.

We were having our weekly one-on-one meeting, and after getting through the fairly standard update on key projects and metrics, Rick said “Can I ask you about something?” with a tone that implied we were about to shift gears into a more serious conversation that he had clearly prepared for. He grabbed a small pad of post-it notes that was sitting on my desk, wrote on it for a moment, and passed me a post-it that said “Age 30: Director.” Rick proceeded to explain - “My thirtieth birthday is coming up next month. It’s been a goal of mine for years to be a Director by age 30, so I’m here to discuss my promotion and see how I can meet my goal.”

I was stunned and took a few moments gather my thoughts and remain composed. This “title X by age Y” reason for a promotion was an incredibly myopic way to plan one’s career, but more than that, the weak justification based on his birthday demonstrated that he had no understanding of the promotion process and hadn’t considered what actions I would need to take to promote him. Moreover, it showed that he didn’t respect the Director role for anything beyond being a nice title. It made me think that I had overestimated him because he clearly was not thinking at the next level. Put another way, asking for a promotion in this manner actually proved that he wasn’t ready for it.

Three Proven Paths to Promotion Failure
Rick isn’t the only colleague I’ve worked with who demonstrated weak reasoning to support a push for a promotion. Here are the three that I’ve seen most frequently in my years in high-tech:
  •  Comparative justification – using someone else  at the target promotion level as a comparison to prove that you’re deserving of the same level
  • “It’s about time” – using time-in-grade, performance ratings, or a combination as the primary justification for a promotion
  • Non-business justification – using something that’s completely extraneous to the business  to justify a promotion

Comparative Justification
We’ve all heard people say “I’m contributing a lot more than she is, and she’s a Director” or “I’ve been in the industry and the company longer than he has, and his department just made him a Director.” I’ve never seen this work. While those comments might be true, they set you up perfectly for an argument with your manager. Now, instead of focusing on what you bring to the company and how you could contribute even more at the next level, you’ve put your manager in a defensive posture, forcing him to justify why someone else got promoted. It’s more productive to spend time talking about you than getting side-tracked by talking about someone else. Worse yet, your manager might even feel compelled to lay out a case against you to explain why you really aren’t as deserving of a promotion as the person to whom you’ve compared yourself. An inexperienced manager might even agree with you, effectively undermining another manager by agreeing that the other employee was not deserving of the title. But every one of these outcomes is a distraction, a potential setback, and has nothing to do with your manager partnering with you to put together a promotion plan. Even a passing mention of a comparison jeapordizes any chance of a positive outcome for you.

“It’s About Time”
When you’re in low-level, individual contributor roles, promotions are fairly simple and easy. Your manager can probably promote you from Product Manager to Senior Product Manager without any other approvals, and can do it just to reward your hard work while sending a good message to the rest of the department. Time-in-grade and performance-based justification alone don’t work for promotions at the Director level and above. The primary justification for your promotion needs to be built on why it’s better for the business for you to move up. Your talent and initiative are great supporting arguments, but you want to engage your manager in a conversation to create a plan for you to move up, not to review your timesheet or your performance ratings.

Non-business Justification
I’ve also seen experienced, talented people completely undermine their manager’s willingness to promote them by using non business- related reasoning. There’s the example from the opening about the employee who tried to drive a promotion discussion based on his upcoming birthday. Others have mentioned that they just bought a house and need to make mortgage payments, that they’re getting married this summer, or that their Business school classmates were all recently promoted. I knew a manager back at Hyperion Solutions who told me that he was going to explain to his boss that he needed a raise because he recently purchased a new BMW and had not realized how much more he would have to pay for insurance. Again, much like the “comparative justification,” any mention of non-business justifications will kill your credibility with your manager.

Put Yourself in Your Manager’s Shoes
We’ll continue to discuss the key ingredients that go into successful ongoing promotions in future blog posts. Meanwhile, as you consider how to make a strong case for your promotion, simply put yourself in your manager’s shoes. Imagine your manager having a conversation with his manager, advocating for approval to promote you. What would you want him to say? Would you rather have your manager outlining how promoting you would help the department (and overall business), or lobbying for you based on your birthday or even explaining how there was a promotion mistake in another department?

Which brings us back to Rick. As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked him to “Put yourself in my shoes, and think about what Director-level skills you can demonstrate and what projects you can deliver successfully so that I’ll have a strong case for your promotion down the road.” Within a year after he successfully delivered against his plan, I was very happy to promote Rick. 

What lessons from the “school of hard knocks” have you learned from when pushing for a promotion or discussing with your direct reports? Please share any other insights you have.

For more information on leadership development, visit ExecCatalyst.


  1. Thanks for sharing these posts. They are interesting and insightful. -CL

  2. Love the candor! Great resource!! -SL

  3. Short and to the point - very insightful and makes good reading! Keep it up - Mick


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