Are you on track for a promotion?

Early on in my career, I wasn’t taking an active role in planning my promotion and instead, I trusted the process and would let it happen naturally. I always assumed my managers and team would be watching me closely and will award me a title when I deserve it. Now with a few years of experience under my belt, I realize that simply isn’t the best way to go about it. 

Two phrases come to mind for this situation: “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” and “if you don’t ask, the answer is no.” It is up to you to remind your manager about your career goals and learn about what control you have over the promotion process.


Here is how I plan and prepare for my promotion:

1. Understand your firm’s protocol

Typically, the process isn’t as transparent as it should be so it helps to have a conversation with a member of the HR team to ask if there’s criteria for promotion including number of years at the firm, education requirements, senior approval etc. This will help you set reasonable expectations. A firm may say they have a rule about not giving back to back promotions in consecutive years yet you might see that happen - there are always exceptions to the rule. Determine what are the hard and soft rules to the process.

2. Speak to your peers, especially those that have been recently promoted 

Ask them how they made their case and how long it took from the first conversation until the title was given. It is best to learn from someone who shares a manager with you and has gone through the process recently so you can get the latest “roadmap.” 

3. Determine who is the decision maker and who is your champion

You need to determine who has the final say on the promotion. Often times, it is the most senior member of your team who might report to a divisional head. Your manager has to make a case for why you deserve it. In order to make that case, someone has to be fighting for you them. That might be your immediate supervisor. 

Note: that a mentor is different from a champion. A champion has influence within your team and you feel confident that they know your goals and are helping you achieve them. Your mentor is often off the team to avoid conflict of interest and is more so someone you can vent to. 

4. Assess the structure of your team

Look around and see how many people there are in each position. Often times, a team cannot promote everyone that deserves a new title if it’s going to create a weird imbalance on the team. They might purposely hold someone back from a promotion if they think that person will accept it and wait to get it next year. 

5. Talk about it

After taking an honest look at your performance, your team, and your position, if you feel you should be awarded a promotion, you should plan a discussion with your manager during the first half of the year.

You can make it an informal or formal catch-up but come in prepared with your achievements and your understanding of the promotion protocol. I always phrase my question as “am I on track to be promoted next year? If not, may I ask what I can do to get there?” If your boss tells you that you are simply ineligible because you don’t have enough years at the firm - don’t fight it. They now get the hint that this is important to you and you are actively thinking about it. There’s also probably some political reason why it’s not time. The odds are your boss will tell you are on track and you should continue to take on more challenging projects, expand your knowledge, and broaden your network… you know the drill.

I believe that mangers try really hard to be fair about giving recognition but of course they are going to get distracted and may not understand what matters to you and what motivates you at the firm. In my experience, they always welcome a friendly and polite conversation about your goals. If anything, it shows them you want to grow at their firm and employee retention is probably a top priority for them too. They may assume that if you aren’t asking questions about a promotion, it’s because you are content where you are. Like I said, squeaky wheel gets the oil!

Another way to approach situation is to look at someone who has the title you want and see how they work and what projects they do. If you somewhat mimic their role and take on projects of a more senior person, it helps demonstrate to your boss that you can handle the next level.

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