On Getting Promoted — Push vs. Pull
Sunday, February 21, 2021
I vividly recall a particular one-on-one conversation. Several years ago, I was getting ready for a one-on-one with my manager. I rehearsed my key talking points. It was about whether I was up for a promotion or not, and if not, why not. I had just built and launched a new project. The project got a lot of kudos, and I got moderate recognition. I led a small team to build it, and I designed and wrote critical parts of the code. I was super-pumped about how good I was. I thought I had “arrived.” The question that bothered me most at that time was how to get to the next level.
My one-on-one with my manager came and went. All I got was what I felt to be a general-purpose pep talk. He talked about “pushing yourself up” vs. “others pulling you up” and indicated that at the level I was at then, I needed to work on creating the pull. At that time, it felt unfair and outright wrong to be pulled up. It became clear to me much later.
I didn’t get promoted that cycle and not even the next. When I eventually got promoted a couple of years later, it didn’t start with a one-on-one meeting. My manager called me for my inputs into the case the manager was making for my promotion.
Promotions and growing to the next level are sensitive topics. For the people wanting to get promoted, anxieties increase as they approach the promotion cycle. Like my case above, people ruminate about this topic a lot and bring it up with their managers to get some vague sounding reasons and inputs. You may end up feeling entitled with a reaction like, “I’m doing great, why are you not promoting me.” Or you feel rejected that “this manager/organization/company is not valuing my work”. Alternatively, you may feel dejected, that you’re not worthy of a promotion and that you’re stuck. Unfortunately, these feelings are just saboteurs and may contribute to nothing but lowering your chance of getting promoted.
This topic is tricky for most managers too. Not every manager takes the time to identify and candidly share growth areas for their employees. Shit-sandwiching is not uncommon. Fearing conflict, managers may obfuscate critical growth areas behind vague platitudes and hints. I’ve had a chance to read some managers’ reviews that gloss over essential development areas so gently that you wouldn’t even notice what the manager is trying to imply. Consequently, you may keep building unrealistic expectations of your readiness. When that promotion does not happen, you may also harm team performance by feeling disengaged, rebellious, or hostile.
Many factors go into promotions. Besides being determined as ready, other factors include scope and budget. The scope can be vague, but it is usually determined by whether the person has a role ready and big enough at the next level to fill. In this post, I will focus on readiness and the types of problems you should be solving to get ready.
There are some great articles on this topic — google for “how to get promoted at work.” Most of those are right and can provide some useful guidance. But of all the tips and suggestions you will hear on this subject, the most crucial technique to develop yourself to grow into the next level is to solve ambiguous problems and not settle for well-defined problems with clear expectations and accountability.
Career ladders are not linear. Each progression from one level to the next requires acquiring a different set of skills. Earlier parts of your career depend mostly on improving the so-called hard skills. As this Wikipedia entry describes, these are technical and administrative “skills relating to a specific task or situation” and involve “understanding and proficiency” of “methods, processes, procedures, or techniques.”
You can acquire such skills by solving hard problems by yourself. Through learning and practice, you can polish your hard skills to produce outcomes faster and better with little or no supervision, and thus you can increase your impact on the team. This approach can help you get promoted a few times, perhaps relatively quickly. During this time, you will likely become comfortable pushing yourself to acquire hard skills, and people recognize you and will continue to lean on you to solve similar problems.
As you enter your comfort zone, the linear career progression through the acquisition of hard skills will stall. That’s when you will start to hear about “soft skills” like “influencing,” “conflict resolution,” “teamwork,” “empathy,” “communication,” and such vaguely described leadership traits when asked about getting promoted.
But how do you acquire soft skills?
Just like you acquire hard skills by solving increasingly tricky hard problems, you can develop soft skills by solving increasingly complex ambiguous problems.
Every company has plenty of ambiguous problems with the potential to transform and create significant opportunities. The problems are often messy (read my post on The Value is in Dealing with the Messy Stuff), and not everyone wants to touch those. Ambiguous problems have unclear, or several paths forward, and every direction appears to have its and pitfalls. Your opportunity is to create a path forward when no path seems plausible, for which you will need to be uncomfortable and demonstrate courage to take steps without knowing all the facts. You’re not guaranteed to succeed, and your approach and decisions could lead to failure. Such problems often fall in between multiple teams, and you will need to navigate teams, know and align people, and influence and persuade them to do certain things. People may not agree to the approach or trade-offs, and you will need to learn to deal with conflict and convince others. Since you won’t have all the information, you won’t make all the decisions. Thus you will learn to facilitate decision making thereby enabling others to make decisions. As Tanya Reilly describes in her Being Glue, you will learn how to do glue work. Such glue work may require you to focus on invisible decisions — these are meta-decisions you make to make others make decisions.
In other words, ambiguous problems are gold mines to acquire soft skills. If you want to get promoted, first learn to raise your hand to solve ambiguous problems. Look around at work, and you will find those quickly. When you find such problems, try to persuade others about why those are significant problems, and be open-minded about what they say. If such problems are not apparent, ask your manager or the manager’s manager to learn what’s holding back their organization and their key priorities for the team. Above all, don’t shy away from such problems. Don’t ask, “tell me what I should do.” The opportunity is for you to figure out.
As you succeed in solving such problems, others will notice. Someone or some group will want to pull you up to the next level so that you can help solve even more significant, more complex ambiguous problems. You will get promoted as people need you at the next level. They will pull you up because they need you at the next level. That’s what my manager was trying to explain years ago.
Here is my advice. Instead of letting the promotion anxiety distract you, focus on building and improving your hard and soft skills and be ready for that knock on the door. Raise your hand to solve problems before raising your hand for that next level.
You might argue that all this sounds ideal, that your organization is political, that promotions don’t work like that, and that you need to impress your manager and that manager’s manager, and so on. I can’t speak for every company culture, but I ask you to examine if your opinions about your organization are your saboteurs.