Big lies, little lies, and the cheat code to a promotion

I talk with a lot of people about their careers. Maybe you’re one of them. Sometimes you work for a team that I run, but more often you don’t. You’ve been introduced to me one way or another, probably by someone I trust, so I try to be helpful.

The majority of the time, people who say they want to talk about their career really want permission. Permission to quit their job. Permission to change the direction of their career, or the way they tell their story. They know that things aren’t working for them, and have a vision of what better feels like.

I don’t have any permission to give over their lives, but I try to listen. I validate where I can. I challenge where I feel like I should.

Mostly those people need me to be their tiny potato.

via Emily’s Diary

Is this is you? When you’re thinking about a change like this, it helps to know that other people are in your corner. I can’t give you permission, but I can agree with your analysis, and support you. If this is you, you don’t need to read the rest of this post.

I believe in you. You can do the thing.

The other conversation

The other way those conversations go is that you don’t want to move out, you want to move up. Usually, this conversation happens when you’re pretty early in your career, but not always. I’ve had this conversation with people older than me, too.

I wish someone had had it with me earlier in my own career.

It often starts with frustration. You deserve a promotion you’re not getting. You’re due. Or maybe it’s not quite that you’re due, it’s that you don’t really know how to get there. You’re confused as much as anything. Everyone seems to be playing the same game but no one will tell you the rules.

This can be true even if your company isn’t totally broken. Having a good manager and clear role definitions help, sure. But humans are funny people. We make a lot of our decisions without really knowing why. Your manager, especially if they’re new, might not actually be able to articulate this stuff either.

So you hunt. You read terrible Medium posts. You get advice from your family and friends in other fields. And yet here we find ourselves, with you frustrated, and me taking a breath and saying that’s unlikely to work out the way you want it to.

Here’s where the conversation goes next.

The big lie: time in role or time at company leads to growth

A lot of people I meet who haven’t managed before think seniority, or time in role, is a big part of the promotion calculation. It makes sense from their perspective. They’ve invested a lot of time and energy in the company, and they deserve recognition for that investment.

Promotions should happen with thought and consideration, not as a default outcome.

It’s a lie. And worse: some shops reinforce it. During my time at IBM, for example, it was very hard for managers to promote someone who hadn’t been in their current role for at least two to three years. I’ve even seen some particularly weak managers make this choice deliberately. They use the fact that someone’s stuck around for three to four years as the main argument for a promotion. I have never seen that scenario end well.

Generally, it’s a dangerous lie to believe, because it violates the cardinal rule of promotions. A promotion should happen when the organization has:

  • a need for a more senior role
  • confidence that the employee will succeed in it. This rule doesn’t say anything about “when the employee has hung around long enough” because promotions are not participation ribbons.

Promotions bring new responsibilities and scope, and more authority over the work of others. They should happen with thought and consideration, not as a default outcome. And if you do get in through sheer longevity, I doubt very much that the new role will fulfill or stretch you.

Even in teams where this is a realistic path to climbing, it’s the slowest, crappiest path around. You might linger long enough to pick up a new title, but the opportunity costs you pay for this approach are immense. If you can afford to, my advice is to get out. Don’t waste another five years on hold for the next round.

The little lie: keep your head down and crank out work

As a baseline strategy, this sucks less. When you’re early in your career, or junior within your current function, working hard on whatever comes your way is a good start. Even with bad managers and unclear roles, the opportunity to practice your craft is helpful.

Moving up might not be your aim. There are infinite ways to move forward or sideways that might fit you better.

The problem with this approach was nicely illustrated by Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. When asked what women seeking advancement should do, he gave some awful-and-quickly-retracted advice. He suggested women should work hard and wait for karma to catch up. I want it to work that way, but it doesn’t. Hard work is correlated with success, but the system sure does value some people’s hard work over others.

By all means, work hard. Deep skill in a few functional areas gives you a foundation you can build a rich and rewarding career on. And attentive managers do sometimes say, “We need to give Kim a bigger role, she’s tearing through the stuff we put in front of her.” But unless you’re coming from a privileged place to begin with, hard work alone is rarely enough.

The cheat code: understand the business

I wish there was a way, Matrix-style, to upload this next bit into people’s brains. I haven’t found the words to do it yet, though I’ll try again here. I hope you’ll tell me if it connects.

The number one best predictor I’ve seen for a person’s future career success is that they understand the business they’re in.

Understand the business. Not your team’s goals; the business as a whole. Develop a genuine curiosity about how it all works, and keep going until you get it. Ask executives and people in other teams. Look up your competitors and go through their signup flows. Talk to customers if you can, or at least to the people who do. Do Google searches for the stuff your team does and see who owns the adwords and the top 10 hits. Don’t tune out during all-hands meetings. If you’re at a startup, ask to see pitch decks. If you’re a public megacorp, dial in to earnings calls.

Go Full Unikitty.

There are a couple reasons why this cheat code often works.

  • Visibility. You can’t understand a business from within a single department. In order to get your head around it, you’ll inevitably talk to people from all over. In addition to context, this develops a network of colleagues who believe that you get them, and value their work. This cycle feeds on itself, as those people are likely to give you more context as they learn new things.
  • Relevance. The problem with junior people is rarely that they lack energy and ideas. It’s that their ideas are often shallow or misaligned with the strategy of the company. As you understand the business and context around your work, your questions and ideas start to cut to the important bits. You won’t take distracting goals. You’ll be drawn towards the critical path. The stuff you’re excited to work on will be the stuff with highest business impact. This doesn’t work every time, but it’s a pattern I’ve seen repeated.
  • Self-direction. As you get more senior, the onus for future advancement falls less on your manager and more and more on you. When you understand the direction of the business, you’re able to identify gaps. Your plan to address those gaps is probably the best one anyone’s heard. Assuming you’ve identified a problem that matters, you’re in a better position than most to get asked to tackle it.

While the other folks in your org can do these things, most people won’t. The result is that you have the opportunity for outsized impact. When your manager makes the case for a promotion, you’re more likely to have a chorus of support from other teams. That helps.

Playing on hard mode

None of this is a guarantee. All other things being equal, it works better than other strategies I’ve seen. But all other things aren’t equal. Like every other career strategy in tech, this stuff works much better if you’re white and male. And that’s shitty. Because most of you aren’t.

It would be stupid for me to pretend that I know what that feels like. To get patronizing answers to smart questions because your English is accented. To be a woman told to be less “outspoken” and “shrill” when no man would get that feedback. I haven’t lived that, and I don’t have any quick cheat codes for you to unbreak that busted-ass system.

But I know there are managers reading this, too, and you folks can change it. Check yourselves. Learn how bias messes with the way you hear your team and recognize their growth. Figure out how much privilege helped get you where you are. Engage with the syllabus. Every day you have people in your company who are either going to move up or move out and you’re burning them with this ignorance. Be better. That’s the job.

No path but what you make

This might not be your path. And moving up might not be your aim. There are infinite ways to move forward or sideways that might fit you better. My main goal here is to keep you away from the lies, not steer you towards a solitary truth. But whatever your path, my hope is that you find your way to impact, not just longevity.

And if it helps at all: I believe in you. You can do the thing.

Syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour

Johnathan Nightingale

Johnathan Nightingale

Johnathan Nightingale is the Chief Product Officer at Hubba, and co-editor of The Co-Pour. He is the former VP of Firefox for Mozilla, and knows what scale feels like for products and for organizations. He has screwed up plenty as a leader, and is trying to write it all down as fast as he can to stop you from making the same mistakes.