Career Advice: How to Get Promoted

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Last Updated Jul 25, 2011 11:02 AM EDT

Forget merit raises and bonuses: The only way you're likely to get a substantial boost in pay these days is to get promoted. According to the latest jobs report, wage increases are averaging a mere 2 percent a year, while promotions typically result in about an 8 percent bump in pay.

And although the job market is still relatively tight, you may have some leverage internally if you can make a good case for yourself. “Smart organizations won’t want to lose the good players who have helped them over the past couple of years, so now is a good time to take advantage of the situation,” says John M. McKee, CEO and founder of the Los Angeles-based BusinessSuccessCoach.Net.

But as anyone who’s ever lobbied for a promotion knows, getting one is easier said than done. Often, there are multiple reasons you’re getting passed over — and if you’re not careful, the perceptions that you’re not promotion-worthy can calcify and become long-term obstacles. With this in mind, we identify the five most common barriers to getting a promotion, and suggest solutions for overcoming them.

1. Your Skills Are Perfect — for the Job You Have

You’re the best mid-level manager at your company, great at building team morale, and your CEO recently told you you’re the only employee senior management can count on to implement their strategy. But that was a few years ago, and you’ve since watched several of your peers get promoted over you. The problem? You’re really, really good at the job you have — but that’s it. Doing a great job is just the “table stakes” required to get in the promotion conversation.

“Almost by definition, the skills required to succeed at higher levels in an organization are different from those needed at lower levels,” says John Beeson, principal of Beeson Consulting and author of The Unwritten Rules: The Six Skills You Need to Get Promoted to the Executive Level. So if you’re hoping to upgrade to an executive level spot, for instance, you’ll need to show that you can strategize, delegate to underlings, and think big, not simply implement someone else’s ideas.

Solution: Spend time identifying which skills are critical for the position you want, and be systematic about acquiring them. “If you can get a mentor who is well positioned to give you the straight scoop, that’s terrific,” advises Beeson. And if you have a good rapport with your boss, you can ask her directly which skills she feels you need to develop to get to the next level. But be careful: “There is a reason most companies don’t give this feedback — it’s an aversion to giving people difficult messages,” Beeson says. Assuming your boss is candid and encouraging, however, ask to be assigned to projects that will help you gain the experience you need.

2. You’re Doing Great — but Nobody Knows It

“You know the philosophical question, ‘If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?’ The same sort of question can be posed regarding your accomplishments at work,” says Meryl Weinsaft Cooper, co-author of Be Your Own Best Publicist: How to Use PR Techniques to Get Hired, Noticed & Rewarded at Work. “If you are doing a good job, but that goes unnoticed, is it a missed opportunity? The answer is yes.”

In other words, keeping your head down and doing a great job may help you keep your job, but it probably won’t get you promoted.

Solution: Make some noise. “In this challenging market, where there’s stiff competition for every dollar and every position, it’s more important than ever to ... make sure the good work you do gets noticed in the workplace,” says Weinsaft Cooper. But exercise caution, lest you come off as a mere self-promoter lacking in true substance, she says: “Instead of screaming from the rooftops each time you accomplish the tiniest thing, consider ways to subtly demonstrate value.”

That might mean occasionally CC’ing your boss on successful email exchanges with a client, or raising your hand for projects where you’ll get to present in front of the bigwigs. Thinking more about your visibility may also mean delegating lower-profile tasks to those below you.

3. You’ll Always Be Junior Joe

You started at your company as an assistant. Three years went by, and you got promoted one level. But you’re eager to jump another peg up the ladder, and people are still asking you for the code to the fax machine and how to work the coffeemaker. How do you get your bosses to see you in a new light?

Solution: John Beeson says he once had a client in this predicament — a mid-level manager who was never perceived as a senior-level person. So Beeson worked on changing perceptions of him within the company. A fashion intervention was the first step.”He was in his late 30s, but dressed like he was a 20-something, not like the executives around him,” says Beeson. “This inadvertently reinforced perceptions that he was a junior player.”

Beeson also suggested a behavioral change, having his client use his humor in a more mature way. “Executives use humor sparingly and strategically: to break the ice in a meeting or defuse a tense or contentious situation. Then they quickly get back into work mode,” Beeson says. Over the next few months, the senior executives began to see Beeson’s client differently and ultimately promoted him to the level he wanted.

4. You Don’t Act the Part

It’s not just about the wardrobe, although a more mature look is a good place to start. Remember the movie Office Space? When it came time for firing and hiring, the guy who was walking around like he owned the place caught the consultants’ attention, while the dweebs who were sweating their mid-level positions got swept aside. Even in real life, acting like you belong to a club even before you’ve officially been invited can often help to get you there.

Solution: Whether it’s in a promotion discussion or simply in everyday conversations with colleagues, you need to carry yourself and speak in a way that commands respect. “Have an executive presence, which is projecting the self-confidence that you can be successful at a higher level position. This is a ‘preview of coming attractions,’” says Beeson.

According to Beeson, there are ways of developing this presence even if you’re not formally managing people yet. You might volunteer to manage the intern program, for example, or lead a fundraising drive for a charity at your company.

Other behavior Beeson recommends: maintaining your composure as much as possible, sticking to the problem at hand and not personalizing issues, and avoiding gossip.

5. Your Timing Is Terrible

You hear about dream jobs at your company, but not until they’re filled. Or you’ve asked for a promotion, but always hear “Sure, let’s talk about it at another time.” The problem is you’re not finding out about the right opportunities at the right time. “Timing is everything in life,” says Weinsaft Cooper.

Solution: Network regularly with peers to know what’s happening at your company in terms of hiring as well as budgets. Don’t ask for a promotion when layoffs are approaching, for example, unless you’re willing to settle for a promotion in title only (or with other non-monetary benefits).

If your company does have the ability to promote, however, schedule a meeting around the time those decisions are made, rather than simply waiting for your annual review. “It’s important to know your audience, including when and how to reach out,” says Weinsaft Cooper. “You don’t want to ask to discuss a possible promotion at 5 p.m. on a Friday when your boss is headed out for the weekend.”

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Follow Amy Levin-Epstein on Twitter at @MWontheJob.


  • Amy Levin-Epstein - feature On Twitter»

    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MWOnTheJob.

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