6 tips to get a promotion, from successful people

Hint: waiting until your boss notices how brilliant you are is unlikely to work.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 29 Nov 2016

Close your eyes and picture your next school or university reunion. It’s 2026. The years have added a few pounds here, taken away a few hairs there, but otherwise everyone’s much the same. You’re enjoying catching up about old times, when the dreaded question comes up. ‘What are you up to these days? Last time I remember you were working for [insert details of your current company and role here].’

‘I’m actually still there,’ you mumble into your glass. Same company. Same role. Same salary.

‘Oh.’

It’s enough to drive anyone to a late night LinkedIn binge. Your career rut doesn’t have to turn into a career grave, however. Instead of watching your colleagues and friends get promoted time and again, you could join them.

If you want to learn how to get a promotion, it helps to look at the top of the corporate ladder. The people there are, by definition, the ones who pulled it off. We asked several of them to share their secrets.

1. Have ambition

This should be pretty obvious, but if you’re not really interested in climbing the greasy pole, you will never reach the top. Senior executives don’t just hand you promotions because you’re amazing. If you value getting ahead enough – and this is not for everyone, mind - you have to make a few sacrifices.

EE’s digital director Jackie Ronson says a little self-doubt goes a long way in spurring you onwards, particularly when you know there are legions of talented, ambitious rivals competing for recruiters’ attention.

‘I can trace it back to my first role. I’d just got my first job in Australia and I decided I wanted to work in London. I thought how’s a girl from Perth going to make it in this great global city?  I had to push myself harder and stand out, so I decided to do my MBA while working full time. It absolutely killed me. I lost friends and relationships for a few years, but when I got here it did make a difference.’

2. Take some risks

Wanting it does not necessarily translate to getting it. If you want to get ahead, you’re going to need to take some risks.

Myriam Madden, immediate past president of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), points to a recent example in her own career, leading a move to form an association with an American professional body to take the CIMA brand global.

‘While I was excited, it did feel like I was going to be out there personally and professionally, being the public face of that initiative. There’s always a chance it won’t work and it’s way out of my comfort zone, but you have to put your hand up and leap before you look. You can spend a lot of time in your own head,’ Madden says.

3. Ask and you shall receive

Asking for a promotion is not an easy thing to do. Aside from any awkwardness there might be with your line manager, there’s also the fear they will say no.

The way you approach it is essential, says Heather McGregor, director of executive search firm Taylor Bennett and alter ego of FT columnist Mrs Moneypenny. ‘I wouldn’t keep it quiet and I wouldn’t drop hints, I’d just tell them outright. I am looking for a pay rise or a promotion – and I wouldn’t link the two – in x months, please tell me what I have to do to get it.’

4. And if not, keep asking

So you asked and your boss said no. What do you do next?

‘Rather than thinking about it as one conversation you’ll be really anxious about, it’s more a case of every time I have a conversation with the chief executive it’s this is what I’ve achieved, I’m interested in xyz, how am I going to get there?’ Says Madden.

‘Equally be persistent. Someone will send you away as a no, but I only see that as a point on the roadmap.’

5. Pitch yourself at the right level

‘A few years ago I was going for a pretty big role. They said let’s do a three month contract. At that point they asked what’s your day rate. That was quite challenging – you pitch too high, you’re out of a job; pitch too low and you’re not perceived as adding enough value,’ says Ronson.

Her advice is to research carefully, and don’t sell yourself short. She made an offer, and the employer came back with a counter offer: two thirds of what Ronson had pitched, with the other third as a bonus if she delivered against her objectives. She accepted – and got the bonus after two months, with a permanent contract.

‘Be confident in the value you can add,’ Ronson says. ‘There’s that fear of being rejected, but the reality here was they didn’t walk, they came back with a counter.’

6. Find a sponsor

Mentors are so last year. Try finding a sponsor instead. The key difference is that a sponsor is expected to act in your interests, rather than just offering advice.

‘A sponsor can help you navigate the organisation. When I’ve wanted to negotiate [a promotion], there’s someone senior to me for whom it’s in his or her interest that I’m successful,’ says Karen Ward, director of Aditi Unlimited. ‘If you haven’t currently got a sponsor, go and find yourself one – someone you’re going to make look good if you’ve done well.’

Jackie Ronson, Myriam Madden and Karen Ward spoke at MT’s Inspiring Women in Business London conference in November 2016. Next up is Inspiring Women in Business Edinburgh, on March 9th 2017: save the date.

Image credit: Mykl Roventine/Flickr

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