Not getting promoted might be the best thing to ever happen to your career
This time last year I was distraught about what to do next in my career.
I had just pinged my HR contact to figure out when the business cases needed to be submitted for people wanting to get promoted to director.
When he told me the deadline was a week ago, it was like he punched me with every ounce of force had in his body.
Panic. Embarrassment. Frustration. Anger at the system. Anger at myself. I was feeling all of it at the same time, to the point of physical paralysis.
He told me my relationship partner (kind of like a career representative at the firm) had let him know I wasn’t going up for promotion. This was totally different than the conversation I had around mid-year reviews. Based on the mid-year conversation, I thought I had two relatively minor things left to strengthen my case. So in addition to the other feelings I mentioned, I was also totally confused as to what happened.
I already knew from past experience in other firms that doing a good job wasn’t enough to get recognized and rewarded but failed to act accordingly. I was so “busy” on my project I didn’t take the time to fully understand the process.
The draft business case I had been working on and nearly completed would just have to wait another year to see daylight.
You know that they say about when you assume?
I made it easy to find myself in this predicament I made a huge assumption – without talking to a single person – that promotions at my current firm worked like they did at my old firm… As it turns out that wasn’t the case. At my old firm, the input of the leadership on the accounts where you worked during the year carried the most weight.
The concept of promotion sponsors certainly existed informally but was not the hard prerequisite that I know it to be in my present situation.
As it turns out that wasn’t the case. At my old firm, the input of the leadership on the accounts where you worked during the year carried the most weight. You also didn’t have the coach AND relationship partner the way I do now, so that probably should have been a clue to me to ask a few more questions.
But I didn’t.
I found out the hard way that the concept of promotion sponsors isn’t really optional…
Know When To Live To Fight Another Day
In my state of panic, I called one of the other partners to get some direction and he told me when he was going up for promotion to director his case was DONE AT THE BEGINNING OF THE YEAR. I don’t know if he heard my jaw hit the floor or not, but it took me a few seconds to process that comment. My first thought was it sounded like he got promoted a year late. Who would want that?!
“You’ll be much stronger in a year” sounded like fluff to me when I first heard the feedback from my relationship partner. I mean if you’re doing your career – or life – right, you should be more skilled than you were the previous year. It just didn’t give me much to work with, at least not then. But instead of trying to rock the boat and potentially compromise future years, I did some self-reflecting, and came to some valuable conclusions.
Give people the opportunity to help you
While the paths to promotion were different in the two global consulting firms I’ve worked at, one important thing I know from both places is you have to put people in a position to help you help yourself.
What do I mean by that?
I mean when you’re respected at your firm, people can and will put you in positions to demonstrate what you know you’re capable of doing a.k.a. perform at the next level. At least, that’s what you think you know you’re capable of doing.
If you’re not sure you want to get promoted in that year, don’t let it show. Tell people your goal is to get promoted in the next year. If you have good relationships, they’ll help make sure you focus on the right things to get there. Imagine scaling a mountain by yourself and imagine the same scenario with a team of people at the top helping to pull you up and making sure you don’t fall. Which sounds easier to you?
Imagine scaling a mountain by yourself and imagine the same scenario with a team of people at the top helping to pull you up and making sure you don’t fall. Which sounds easier to you?
Operating at next level isn’t just something people say, at least not always
Going back to what I said about “stronger in a year not giving me much to work with”, I see the world a little differently. Looking back on the time since the Director Debacle of 2015, I think this is the most personal growth I’ve had since my first year in consulting. I wouldn’t say it was from hearing this message but I recognize there are some intangible things that are simply too hard – if not impossible – to capture in a checklist.
Did I think could fill director shoes last year? No question.
Are there things I would have struggled with still had I been promoted last year?
Absolutely, but figured I would learn those things on the job.
Now I feel like I can hit the ground running as a director with much more confidence than before.
This is where knowing the rules of the game you’re playing becomes important. If you’re in a firm where you’re expected to perform at the same level as all others at your staff level with little to no consideration of years of experience at level (think first year barely made it director being compared against director up for promotion to partner), then that extra year serves as training wheels. It makes sure you get that last bit of polish before releasing you on your own into the world with the full expectations of your new role.
Make sure you’re playing to win the war, not the short-term battle
Here’s another reminder for you. Put your career first. I promise if you don’t make time for it, you will not be happy with the results. The client work and the internal projects and everything else will always be waiting for you.
Your calendar is your friend.
Have you had any setbacks in your career where you ended up better off in the long-term? Share your story in the comments.
Want more resources on getting promoted?
I’ve put together a quick PDF on the 3 steps you need to follow to get promoted in any job, which you can download by clicking the button below.