We recently concluded our performance review season. Several folks on my team got promoted, and many others got raises. There were many questions about how to get promoted and what it takes to move up in the organization. I've experienced the joy of being promoted and the disappointment of not being promoted at various junctures in my career. This post guides any marketer to take control of their career and figure out a way to get promoted. It's not that complicated, but it takes consistency, thoughtful planning, and hard work.
Before we get to the heart of the discussion, let's clarify a couple of things.
First, if you're not asking this question, you should be. Every quarter. Every year. I firmly believe that no one else will if you don't advocate for yourself. You are the CEO of your career, and you should always be trying to figure out how to get to where you want to go. Now, a promotion is not always the end goal. It might be a switch to another new function. It might be acquiring a new skill that'll help you with what you want to do next. It might be moving to a new location.
Second, I think there's something more important than the discussion of getting promoted. That something is the discussion about a career plan. What's a career plan, you ask? Well, think of it as a strategy and plan for your career. It's a living/breathing document that should change often. Think of it as a blueprint for your career pursuits. Here are questions I typically answer in my career plan. I recommend you write down your answers in a Google doc and share them with your boss. Figure out what your boss can do to make some of this happen — e.g., projects in the short term that help you get closer to your long-term career aspirations.
An important point to note here is that if you're working at a company or for a boss that doesn't care about having this discussion, that's a sign that you need to change things. No amount of asking for a promotion will work if they're not even having a productive conversation about your career plan first.
Long term questions
Next six months
Next one year
Beyond one year
Once you've developed a career plan, the formula for getting promoted is very straightforward.
Increase in responsibility (promotion) = Positive and consistent impact on the business X clear communication of that impact.
It boils down to impact and communication. Nothing else matters. It's important to understand these terms deeply, so let's break them down.
There are three reasons great businesses get started. The first is to solve a critical problem for customers. The second is to generate a return on investment for its shareholders. The third, less prevalent, is to create an environment where employees can do their best work. It's implied that doing the first two enables the third.
As an employee, your impact has to be directly related to the first two reasons. Are you able to better solve customer problems? Are you able to generate a higher return for shareholders? There are multiple ways in which you can achieve these things. As a marketer, I recommend reading my previous post to understand the jobs that marketing gets hired to do in pursuit of these two goals.
So, how exactly do you do this? Let's make it super practical. Every quarter, when you sit down to set your goals/OKRs, think about these two reasons.
Be mindful of picking goals and initiatives that you have complete control over. Make them specific. Make them measurable. Without those ingredients, it's just a wishlist and not a real strategy. You might depend on other individuals and teams — that's always the case. Discuss and socialize your goals to ensure others commit to eliminating those dependencies or delivering on their end of the bargain.
I've seen many talented people mistake the idea of goal setting. People will set goals and often forget about them until the last few weeks in the quarter or year. Like it was just productivity and goal-setting theater. Don't do that.
If you're doing this right, you should focus only on your goals. Other "urgent" and "important" things will always come up, but if they don't contribute meaningfully to your business and personal goals, you're just doing busy work. Maybe you should have moved some of those urgent and essential tasks to your goals. So adjust your priorities for the next period. But, if this keeps happening, you're not being strategic enough in your career and are unlikely to demonstrate consistent/strategic impact.
Once you've identified how you will positively and consistently impact the business, the second part of the equation comes in. Communicate often and effectively.
Did it even happen if you're driving a lot of impact, but nobody knows about it? :)
Here's my recommended recipe for effective communication
First, get better at writing. Writing improves thinking. There's a ton of scientific evidence about this. You'll notice your idea generation and reasoning skills will improve as you develop the habit of writing.
Second, inform your boss about your progress every week. You're not writing an essay here but a simple email with highlights, lowlights, and blockers. Not only does this force you to focus on your goals, but it also impresses the heck out of your boss. Most people don't do this.
Third, report on your OKRs every month with your boss/stakeholders. Create and share a simple document that lays out your goals and red/yellow/green grading on them. Add an executive summary. Add some color commentary on why you graded yourself the way you did. Add a 3 min video to walk people through it — especially important in our distributed / hybrid world. Seek feedback on what you can do to drive more impact for your business, department, and boss.
Finally, communicate honestly with yourself every week. Are you working on things that will have an impact on the business? If not, change something. Don't keep doing things you've been doing when they are not impacting your business.
There are a few other things I think you can't ignore. You could be having a profound impact and communicating effectively but still have a blind spot around these four things, which might prevent you from getting promoted.
Be likable. This is baked into human psychology. We all react to individuals differently based on their likeability. You have to work on that. Unfortunately, there's no formula for this. :)
Give more than you take. This is also a critical way to elicit positive engagement from others. Adam Grant even wrote a whole book on it, which I highly recommend.
Keep a beginner's mind. This is incredibly hard to practice. We love our ideas. We get tied to solutions we recommend. Break free. Here's a great book on it. The related idea is to invest in learning and teaching — it makes you better.
Ignore politics and drama. This also takes a lot of restraint. The best way to avoid this is to assume the best intent on others' part. We never know the whole story. Control what you can control. Ignore the rest.
Some additional reading that I'd recommend to all marketers on this topic:
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