No promotion? No problem.

I mean, of course you want a promotion. "Senior", "Principal", or "Staff" would look great in front of your title. It'll signal your heightened level of experience and proficiency to your peers and it would look great on the resume. And you'd probably get a fat pay bump!

Promotions have obvious benefits and we all want them. But if your manager says no to a promotion, don't worry – there might be other ways you can work together to get you what you want.

Promotions aren't rewards

A meme featuring Philip J. Fry from Futurama, skeptically thinking: "Promotion... or more work?"

I think we tend to instinctively think of promotions in terms of the rewards they confer. We zero in on the increased prestige and pay, and we take for granted the increased responsibility that comes with the new level. But once you're promoted the increased level of scrutiny becomes very real, and if your performance falls short of expectations then you'll have some very uncomfortable conversations with your manager.

Because of this, I try to set expectations appropriately when discussing promotions with members of my team. Yes, I want to promote folks. But not before they're ready. I'll work closely with folks and coach them towards promotion. In the meantime, I wonder, is there anything else I can do to help this individual feel more satisfied and motivated?

What do you really want?

Sometimes a promotion is exactly what a person wants and needs. They might be ready for the next level of responsibility, and the time could be right to recognize that. However, there's also a chance that the promotion you have in mind is standing in as a proxy for a more fundamental desire. You could also be thinking...

  • I want more money. You might feel like you're not being compensated fairly, and you could see a promotion as the most direct way to increase your comp.
  • I want to grow more quickly or in a different direction. Maybe you want more responsibility, authority, or visibility to help you accomplish your goals, and you think a promotion will provide those things.
  • I want more prestige. You could feel like you're not being recognized for your contributions and promotions are the most visible way for an organization to recognize an individual's capability.

Alternatives to promotion

Promotion cycles typically come once or twice a year and some organizations make it very difficult to promote folks, so if at all possible I'd prefer to help someone get what they want without being held up by the promotion process. If a desire for more money, growth, or prestige is at the root of your desire for promotion, then here's how I would steer the conversation so we can figure out how to get you what you really want.

💰 Increasing compensation

Like most people, you probably want more money. Good news: in a healthy organization you can expect your compensation to track upwards as you contribute more effectively. Bad news: like most people, you might find the idea of discussing pay with your manager to be uncomfortable and even stressful. This is a broad topic so I can't go into exhaustive detail, but hopefully I can share a few insights into how compensation works so you can discuss it with your manager in a meaningful way.

An individual's comp is increased through merit-based pay raises, stock grants, and occasionally salary adjustments. Every organization is different, so the cadence at which your company awards salary raises and stock grants might vary. In my experience, these are typically more frequent than salary adjustments, which represent a larger change to the salary and are fairly rare. I've seen adjustments awarded as part of a promotion, an industry-wide change in a role's market value, or to bring someone's salary in line with those of their peers.

You should know what you want to be paid and share this information with your manager. If they're aware of your target then they can tell you how you realistic it is and help you work towards it. This will also give you a data point for comparison if you're job-hunting and considering offers. When discussing a pay raise with your manager, keep in mind that if you're near the maximum end of your level's salary band then raises will become smaller or might not even be possible. In that case, a promotion might be the only way for you to unlock future pay raises.

See Julia Evans's "Questions you can ask about compensation" article for more ways to learn how compensation works at your company.

💪 Supporting growth

If your main gripe is that you're not growing quickly enough or in the right areas, then a promotion might not be what you need. Promotions do act as formal recognition of growth but they come after growth has been assessed to reach a specific level. The act of growing should be continuous and requires continuous support.

I've found sponsorship to be my most potent tool for helping members of my team grow. Your manager can sponsor you by connecting you with opportunities that allow you to develop your skills and experience, a topic I cover in my "How sponsorship can supercharge your career" post. Aside from developing your abilities, these opportunities also generate the track record you'll take with you throughout your career, to justify greater responsibilities inside your organization or new roles elsewhere as your journey brings you to different employers.

Your managers can also provide coaching and mentoring. For more insights into the distinctions between sponsorship, coaching, and sponsoring and how your manager might use each tool to help your grow, check out this LeadDev article: "Do you really know the difference between mentoring, coaching, and sponsoring?"  

🏆 Improving recognition

Ever made what you considered to be a big contribution at work, and then instead of the resounding applause you expected you just heard... crickets? The unfortunate truth is that everyone else at work is busy too, even your manager, and sometimes this means your contributions can go unnoticed.

As a manager, I consider it one my responsibilities to ensure the accomplishments of my team are seen and heard by the rest of the organization. This can take many forms. At Elastic, my team sends out regular email updates about what the team's working on, and I use this medium as an opportunity to call out the great work each individual does. When a team member has a great idea or solves a tough problem, I also like to mention it specifically to my manager and other stakeholders, to enhance that person's reputation.

If you feel like you're not getting the recognition you deserve, mention it to your manager. They're in the best position to help. And maybe the biggest difference they can make is simply being more mindful of your contributions and giving you specific appreciative feedback for them.

Know what you want

Before you ask your manager for a promotion, think about what's driving your request. Do you want more money? Growth and responsibility? Recognition? Or maybe you really just do feel like you're ready for the next level. These are the things your manager will be thinking about, and knowing what you want will help you work with your manager to get them.

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