By Rebecca Knight
Harvard Business Review, January 29, 2018 —
Asking for a promotion can be nerve-wracking. But when you think you’re ready for the next step, it’s important to say so. How do you prepare for that conversation with your boss? What information should you have at the ready? And how exactly do you make your case?
What the Experts Say
“Asking for a promotion makes you feel vulnerable,” says Sabina Nawaz, the global CEO coach, leadership keynote speaker, and writer. “You’re not in control; you’re putting yourself in the hands of your manager to be judged — and you might be judged not worthy.” You may fret that you’ll be “bugging your boss” or come across as greedy and “self-serving.” But, to advance in your career, you’ll need to learn to advocate for yourself, says Joseph Weintraub, the founder and faculty director of the Babson Coaching for Leadership and Teamwork Program. “You can’t assume that the organization will take care of you just because you do a good job,” he says. “There is a degree of self-promotion that’s needed.” Put simply: “if don’t you ask, you don’t get.” Here are some pointers on how to make the request.
The first step in the process, is to think through what you want, Weintraub says. “Do you want more power? More money? More managerial responsibility?” Is there already a position you covet, or do you wish to “create a new role”? Do you want to move up — or might a lateral move interest you? It’s also important to “think about your skill set and how it aligns with the objectives of the organization,” he says. This will help you position your promotion request in a way that connects to broader strategic goals.
Do some research
It’s smart to gather outside intelligence too, says Nawaz. “The more senior you get, the more likely it is that your promotion is not the sole decision of your manager,” she notes. “Your manager’s peers have input as well.” She recommends, “soliciting feedback from a personal board of directors” on your strengths and weaknesses, and speaking to peers to try to “gauge your institutional reputation.” The past is precedent. Find out how others successfully pressed their cases for promotion. This might help you uncover effective strategies. Also ask your colleagues how they perceive your promotion readiness. Remember: when it comes to granting your request, “it’s not just the business results [that matter.] You have to be someone that people are willing to follow.”
Build your case
Once you’ve clarified exactly what you’re looking for, build a compelling case for why you deserve to move up. This is particularly important if you’re asking to advance ahead of your organization’s promotion cycle. Be prepared for a “what-have-you done-for-me-lately mentality,” says Nawaz. She recommends preparing a one- or two-page memo that “clearly outlines your proven track record.” The memo’s bullet points ought to “provide concrete metrics of the impact you’ve had,” descriptions of “solutions you’ve delivered” and financial outcomes for which you’ve been responsible. It might also include “data from other divisions or consumer or employee surveys” that point to your success. “You’re trying to prove that you’re already working at the level you’re asking to be promoted to,” she says. Weintraub also recommends thinking about “who your successor might be” at this stage and figuring out how to champion that colleague. Show your manager that “you’re working hard to develop someone else,” he says. “This not only showcases your leadership capabilities; it will also relieve your boss to know that there is someone who can fill your shoes.”
There’s no perfect time to ask for a promotion, but you should be savvy about when you make the request, says Weintraub. Obviously, the week after a round of layoffs at the company or the day your team loses a key client aren’t ideal. Instead, ask “after something good has happened.” Perhaps you’ve just signed a major new deal or your company announced a solid earnings quarter. Nawaz agrees. “When there’s a lot of churn happening, it might be the best thing to jump in, roll up your sleeves, and simply do the work to stabilize the organization.” On the other hand, don’t be lulled into complacency. If your promotion will help the company achieve its objectives, you should press on.
Plant the seed
Asking for a promotion is not a one and done discussion; rather, it’s a series of continuing conversations, says Nawaz. Using your memo as a guide, she recommends that “your early words should be something along the lines of: ‘I am excited to be here and to make an impact. Here is the impact I’ve already made. I would like to have ongoing discussions with you about what it would take for me to get to the next level.’” Weintraub recommends “framing the conversation around excellence,” while making your reasons for wanting a promotion clear. “There’s that old adage that managers do things right and leaders do the right things,” he says. “Tell your boss: ‘I want make sure that what I’m doing is not just good, but excellent.’” Then ask: What can I do to make you confident that I’m ready for the next step? “Demonstrate your willingness to grow and learn,” he says.
Nurture the seed
Once you’ve planted the seed, “nurture it over time,” says Nawaz. She recommends asking your manager for feedback “not so often that it becomes an irritant, but, say, every month or every quarter.” Be specific. If, for instance, your promotion involves more client-facing responsibilities, she suggests saying something like: “I’ve spent the past month talking with our key enterprise clients and here’s what I’ve learned. What feedback do you have for me?” Another smart strategy, according to Weintraub, is to present your boss “with ideas of how you would spend your first 90 days on the job.” “Show you’ve done your homework and that you’re serious about” earning a promotion.
Don’t be reckless
Using an outside offer to get a promotion can work—and often does. If nothing more, an outside job offer builds your confidence and gives you more information about your market worth. (This is particularly pertinent if your primary reason for wanting a promotion is financial.) But as a strategy to get your boss on your side, it comes with many risks. “Promotion by hostage is not a good way to win friends and influence people,” says Weintraub. “People generally don’t respond well to ultimatums.” Nawaz echoes the sentiment. This tactic often has a “negative impact on relationships” and “artificially promotes people who are not ready to be promoted” in the first place, she says. “Be very careful about playing this card.”
Be patient (to a point)
It would be great if your boss agreed to promote you on the spot, “but don’t count on it happening,” says Nawaz. Promotions rarely happen overnight, and you mustn’t get discouraged if you don’t immediately succeed. “Be realistic,” she says. While you’re waiting, “continue to do good work, sincerely look for ways to increase your impact, and elevate the level at which you operate.” That said, do not ignore signs that things may not be going your way. “If you look around and see others getting promotions that you’re not getting, talk to your boss,” says Weintraub. “Say: ‘Will you recommend me for a promotion when one becomes available?’” If you learn that you’re “not on your manager’s short list,” then “think about whether you want to stay in your organization or look for a job elsewhere.” The bright side: “At least you know.”
Principles to Remember
- Think about the position you want and how it aligns with the objectives of your organization and manager.
- Prepare a memo that clearly outlines your proven track record and provides concrete metrics on the impact you’ve had.
- Ask your boss for regular feedback and advice on how you can get to the next level.
- Assume that asking for a promotion is a one-and-done discussion. It is usually a series of ongoing conversations.
- Play the “other offer” card recklessly. That tactic often has a negative impact on professional relationships.
- Get discouraged if you don’t get what you want right away. Be patient.
Case Study #1: Create a “resume of accomplishments” to bolster your argument
Earlier in her career, Gretchen Van Vlymen — who was then an HR manager at a company in Chicago — decided she was ready to ask her boss for a promotion.
Her first step was determining the role she wanted: “I looked at where there were gaps in the company that need to be filled,” says Gretchen. “I knew that if I could connect my own career path to the company’s overarching goals, it would make my promotion more compelling for upper management.”
After a period of reflection, she zeroed in on a new role: VP of HR. The job would involve managing the HR team, and also recruiting and hiring for the company itself.
Before talking to her boss, Gretchen created a “resume of accomplishments,” which included numerous examples that demonstrated how she’d mastered the responsibilities associated with her role and was ready for the next move. For example, she described how she revised the company’s internal handbook by using skills she honed as a consultant and crowd-sourcing HR ideas from the team she already managed. (The handbook was rolled out company-wide.)
“I [wanted to showcase] ways in which I had added to the organization by going above and beyond what was required of my current job,” she says. “I also wanted to show how those efforts affected the productivity of my team and department — and consequently the [company’s] bottom line.”
Gretchen also devised a “game plan” for how her team would manage should her promotion be granted. “I made a list of duties that I could easily transition to the team members I had trained,” she says.
She then set up a meeting to talk to her boss. “I was clear and concise while outlining the prep from my ‘resume,’” she says.
Gretchen made sure to say she was “realistic about timing” for the move. And, indeed, her boss didn’t say yes right away. In fact, he had some specific concerns. “He posed tough questions about how I could make time for new responsibilities when my plate was already full,” she says.
She left the meeting with a promise from that he would revisit the issue over the coming months. “In the meantime, he challenged me with several short-term goals.”
Gretchen was successful. She received her promotion and today she is the VP of HR at Stratex, an HR services company.
Case Study #2: Ask at the right time and request specific feedback
Tom Gimbel, the founder & CEO of LaSalle Network, a staffing and recruiting firm headquartered in Chicago, has requested — and granted — many promotions over the course of his career. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that no one is going to hold your hand,” he says. “You have to own your career.”
Years ago, when he was a salesperson at a David Green Associates, he decided to ask his manager for a promotion. The timing was right: He had just finished a stellar year of sales. “I was not only hitting but exceeding my metrics and what was expected of me,” he recalls.
But before talking to his boss, Tom did some homework on the role that he wanted: national sales manager. “I spent a lot of time understanding what this job entailed and how the people who had those titles accomplished their goals.”
When it came time to make his request, Tom was blunt. “I had already built a relationship with my boss because I knew that a strong relationship would lead to more opportunities,” he says. “I told him I was ready for more. I asked where I stood, and where I could improve.”
His boss agreed to think about granting the promotion. And Tom made sure to follow up regularly. “I asked what I could do to make him even more happy with my performance. I wanted the feedback,” he says. “I also offered to help. Any chance I got, I raised my hand.”
Three months after he initially asked for it, Tom got the position he wanted.
His advice for others seeking advancement? “Ask for what you want and work hard to get yourself there. But remember, the moment you ask for a promotion, be prepared to do more work.”