The Art of Getting Promoted

The days of automatically getting moved up every couple of years are gone, says Gary Burnison. Six tactics that can help.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry. His latest book, Lose the Resume, Land the Job, is available now. 

The world is no longer linear.

Gone are the days of relying on annual performance reviews that, after a couple of cycles, will automatically move you a space like a pawn on a chessboard.

The game is changing—thanks to younger people who will work for some 30 companies over the course of their careers. Ambitious and eager to move up, they jump employers on average every 2 to 3 years.

Yet, the once-a-year world of performance reviews persists. This makes it all the more important that you lead your career—don’t follow it. How it develops will be a function of choices you make and energy you apply, especially in pursuit of your next promotion. Your actions will attract investment by your employer the same way a startup draws venture capital. You want your employer to be your partner so show them how their investment can pay off.

Here’s the real way to get promoted to the next level:

Break out of comfortable numbness. The truth is most people are complacent. They walk around in a state of comfortable numbness, thinking that time in a chair and doing a “decent job” will eventually earn them a promotion. They don’t want to do anything extra to get noticed, so they wait--as if one of these days they’ll be plucked out of the ocean. To get promoted in today’s world, you need to make it happen for yourself. Set milestones with your boss—not annual performance goals, which become meaningless as time goes on. What will you deliver next month, in the next 60 days? Lay out specific targets and hold yourself accountable to them. Ask for feedback, but don’t seek constant approval.

If you don’t ask, you won’t receive. There is nothing wrong with asking your boss about how you can get promoted. The subtleties, though, are important here because you can’t demand a promotion. Demanding will put you in a corner--what will you do if you don’t move up right way? Move out? A far better approach is commanding your boss’s respect through the contribution you’re making. This requires a shift in your thinking, from what you want to “get” to what you’re willing to “give,” especially to help others (starting with your boss).

Become indispensable, especially to your boss. Your boss has the biggest influence on your current job and your career trajectory -- the gateway to stretch assignments, new experiences, and promotions. It only makes sense that your real job (regardless of title or level) is to become indispensable to your boss. That means your boss must be confident that you say what you mean and do what you say – on time, all the time. Have a say/do ratio of 1:1; anything less and you have a problem. And while your boss is your most important internal customer, don’t lose sight of others who depend on you and can make or break your reputation.

Not “me, me, me. “You, you, us.” Performance leads to promotion. If you want to get ahead, you need to take on more responsibilities to prove yourself first. But don’t think “me, me, me” by asking to do more only to get promoted. Focus genuinely on “you, you, us” to increase your contribution to your boss, team, department, and company. It’s all about what you deliver.

There’s no substitute for hunger. You need hunger to rise above the rest and get promoted. Hunger is engagement, motivation, and drive. It moves you to the head of the pack and well ahead of the complacent majority. When you’re hungry to advance to the next title and salary level, you have the “fire in your belly” to do what it takes. You’re the first one in the office and the last one to leave – sometimes literally, other times figuratively, thanks to an attitude that you’ll go the proverbial distance to get it done.

Be insatiably curious. What distinguishes the most sought-after group of people known as “high potentials” whom employers want to hire? They are known for being insatiably curious--asking questions, being open to new experiences (music, food, culture), and becoming more engaged in the world around them. You might not think curiosity will get your promoted, but it will “stretch your brain.” You’ll be known for your ability to tackle problems in novel ways and find creative solutions. And that will get you noticed!

Getting promoted is a process that you must initiate and manage. Don’t expect the once-a-year world to deliver your promotion like a package from Amazon.

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