Asking for a promotion sounds straightforward, but the reality can be stressful and sometimes emotional. Unprecedented access to the successes and life milestones achieved by our peers thanks to social media, and the blurring of professional and personal lives means the status of our careers seems increasingly important.
The fear of a promotion conversation going badly - nobody wants to hear that their boss is less convinced of their progress than they are - can be enough to put you off talking about it altogether. Or might make your responses less calm and collected than you’d ideally wish.
So how to plan for the discussion and, crucially, get the response you want? HuffPostUK spoke to experts Harriet Minter, Charlie Taylor, and Otegha Uwagba about what to focus on when getting a promotion.
You’re probably ready for a promotion before you think you are, advises Harriet Minter, journalist, broadcaster and career coach.“You think you need to do everything on a job description and be greatest employee of all time, but you don’t,” she says.
Instead you should be having career conversations regularly with your manager to identify possible opportunities and make sure you are making the right steps towards that goal. “The general view is that by about six months into a new job you should be getting up to speed. Then you need to start thinking about what to do next,” she adds. “If you get to a point where you think you deserve a promotion - you’ve waited too long.”
Charlie Taylor, founder & CEO of Debut, a careers app for students, agrees that you should be proactive about your own career development, rather than waiting for a promotion to magically land in your lap.
Taylor joined a competitive graduate scheme in the finance sector after university – his first attempt at getting a promotion didn’t go so well. Recalling the ill-fated performance review, he says: “Naively, I thought that I would walk into a room, they would tell me how I’d performed and then whether I’d got a promotion or not and I would react professionally. That was not the way that it worked at all.”
Instead when he told his line manager he wanted a promotion, the response he received was: “So does everyone else.” Understandably thrown by the remark, Taylor retreated back to the drawing board.
His main takeaway from the experience was that promotions are driven by the individual. “I had to be proactive and design the career path. I explained where I felt I should be heading and why, and then we mapped out how we could get there together.”
Promotions are undoubtedly personal, but Minter believes you also have to start thinking about how you fit in to the wider landscape. “We spend too much time thinking about ourselves as individuals and not about what is going on around us,” she says.
Instead, consider your promotion as a business case. Ask yourself what can you offer your employer that is unique or will help the business or organisation achieve its goals. This not only involves analysing your performance honestly, but also learning about the company’s needs.
Some of the most successful discussions about promotion come when people are imaginative about future moves, notes Minter. Consider if you could take on a new role. “Don’t assume a promotion is for a job that already exists,” she says. “If an area is growing or investment is going into a department, they might need a certain skill set. Pitch the role and get a promotion that way. You can create a perfect job and also demonstrate your initiative and understanding of the wider business.”
Whatever your strategy - creating your own role or setting yourself up as natural successor to your boss - networking is key, says Taylor. “Historically, and particularly in hierarchical organisations, people think there is one person totally responsible for your promotion. But that is not the case.”
Often, companies make career decisions more collectively, so Taylor advises identifying who key influencers might be: potential sponsors (those who would support your promotion); and potential blockers (those who might object or simply not be aware of you). Try to meet them individually for coffee or lunch to get to know them, or see if you might be able to work with them in some capacity to prove your abilities. But be focused. “Don’t network for the sake of networking!” he warns.
When it comes to having the conversation with your manager, you want to make sure you’re well prepared. Otegha Uwagba, author of best-selling modern career guide Little Black Book, recommends scripting your conversation and practising beforehand.
“You will usually have time at the beginning of your meeting to deliver your argument for promotion,” she says. “Everyone has their own definition of planning, so do what works for you. Personally, I bullet point what I want to say.”
Planning your conversation in advance will help you avoid waffling on for too long, filling awkward silences and getting overly emotional - all of which are terrible tactics when it comes to negotiation, Uwagba says.
A lot of people assume the conversation is going to go in their favour. Think about why your employer might say no, she advises. “You not only have to anticipate that but have a counter argument.” Prepare concrete examples of where you have taken on more responsibility and stepped up.
While it’s important to have an idea of an ideal outcome, you should also be prepared to negotiate. That may mean being flexible on timings, for example - your pitch may have been a promotion in two months, but your manager suggests six months. Minter says: “Seeing the conversation as a discussion gives your boss a chance to get involved and negotiate between what you want and what the business can give you.”
Whatever the outcome of the conversation, put it in writing in an email to your boss. Recap the key points discussed in your meeting, highlighting any follow-up discussions you had planned and action points for the pair of you. This eliminates any risk of misunderstanding.
If it’s an outright no, don’t be disheartened just yet. “Promotions are not always possible and that’s understandable,” says Uwagba. “Maybe it’s a structural or due to budget freezing; maybe you’re not ready or don’t deserve it.”
Get a clear sense of what you need to do more or less of so the next time you ask it’s a ‘yes’. Get a concrete day to revisit the matter. But also read your boss’s signals, warns Uwagba: “If your employer is shying away, it shows they might not ever want to have that conversation. That’s a bit of an alarm.”
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