Start from the Premise: You want a Promotion
I read everything Jocelyn Goldfein posts because her writing is so good, so clear. After reading her post “How to ask for a Promotion” on Medium, I’ve been thinking about writing on this topic from my perspective. Of course, like many career-oriented topics, all you have is your own perspective and experience, combined with what you’ve learned or observed in others. There’s no right answer, but there are lots of different answers, and more than one will work well for you. The best part is, you’ll never know for sure what a different choice would have done for you so you might as well embrace the answers you choose.
Jocelyn’s post starts with the premise that you want to get promoted, and works from there. And no doubt, she gives great advice for how to get that promotion. As she writes:
[…] You can’t command those opportunities to appear, but you can make the most of the opportunities you have.
Be prepared to work hard, grow new skills, improve weak spots, and take on more responsibilities. Otherwise, what you want is a raise, not a promotion.
True words. A promotion is about responsibilities and scope, not just about money and title. Too often you see people get these conflated.
Another interesting note from her post immediately follows:
Switching into management is often regarded as a promotion, but it’s really a change in job function (and beyond the scope of this post.) If that’s your aim, the rest of this post will be interesting but insufficient.
Amen. Management is a different job function, not a promotion. Just as switching from software development to consulting might be a different job function, switching from a development or consulting role into management is a change in function. And for many people, management is a tar pit because it doesn’t align with their natural skills and interests, but it does align with their ego.
I strongly agree with her advice to work for a sane company and leader. To not ask for a promotion, to assess yourself, and to ask for projects and expanding experiences if they aren’t coming your way without asking. Heck, the whole article is great advice.
There’s a section about “understanding the leveling system.” It is targeted at software development but you can pretty easily translate this to consulting.
- New Grad / Entry-level — View with caution. Give bite sized tasks until they knock it out of the park and make you fear for your job.
- Engineer—Fire and forget. You give them a job, they get it done.
- Senior Engineer—You give them a project and a small team, they get it done.
- Staff Engineer — The engineer you’d build a startup or a new initiative around.
- Senior Staff Engineer — Invents new products and technologies, affects company strategy. Senior engineers travel to the mountain-top to receive wisdom from this guru.
- Principal—Luminary expert with profound impact on the company and the industry. Top employees join your company to breathe in the rarefied air of their exhalations.
Jocelyn says that SV tech companies “have astonishing homogeneity in their HR practices” and I don’t have any reason to doubt her. In large companies there is a prevailing wisdom that the right way to run the org is to lay out a leveling system. I recall when I graduated that one big valley tech firm had 40+ levels. Levels often have requirements and achievements and attributes required to achieve them. If you want to run your career like a role playing game, this works great. Startups seem to emulate these systems rather than rejecting them – especially in the Valley. People worry about taking that title that is one step down from the previous title, or even the same as the previous title. Who wants to be a Systems Analyst III when they’re accustomed to being a Systems Analyst IV? What will their friends and future employers think? It feels antithetical to the whole Silicon Valley ethos of meritocracy and deliverance from previous failures. But if you work inside one of these organizations, Jocelyn’s advice will take you far.
Flipping the Script
Taking a step back, there is another option: opt out of the whole system (or at least caring about it). Your career doesn’t have to be a lightly modified game of Dungeons & Dragons. Through your great work, your network, LinkedIn, and social media you can shape your career and your trajectory. And if your career isn’t about what level someone else wants to assign you – if it is about the quality of the opportunities and impact you can have – then you can stop worrying about how someone else judges your worthiness for promotion and set yourself free to achieve.
I’ve lived my own life and career this way, ignoring or even declining “promotions” that were just changes in job function, in exchange for experiences that would expand my capabilities or my perspective. I certainly missed out on opportunities to be promoted while I was at my first job – at Trilogy. And the only thing I found difficult when it was time to find Job #2 was to communicate or translate into other frames of reference that the impact I had on the company was far greater than my externally perceived title or job role. My potential impact for my next employer would similarly be greater than the nominal job title they would assign to me.
I took what I learned at Trilogy and applied it to my opportunity at Lombardi, turning a “come do some consulting for us” opportunity into running the technical services team as we built it up to a crack team of 40 consultants before I left in 2007.
At BP3 the shoe is on the other foot for me. What kind of leveling system do we want? How do we communicate what we care about to our team? Does this work for our team? Perhaps how this works at BP3 will be a good topic for a future post.